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Tips for (nearly) perfect sourdough bread

Posted in Baking, and Food & Entertaining

Let’s make one thing clear: I excel at baking and pastries but I am not a bread guru. In fact, the two techniques stand quite apart, requiring different skills and different mindsets. I make loaves, focaccia and quick breads on a semi-regular basis but I am not entirely sure you should follow my bread-making advice. There are much more qualified people.

Having said that, as Leonor of Felt Buddies asked for  help in trying to reach a better end result than she has been getting with her own sourdough, I investigated the matter. And because I am a science freak when it comes to anything to do with cooking, and baking in particular, I waded through pages and pages on the subject written by reputable sources.

A few years ago, after reading a twelve page sourdough recipe by Chad Robertson of San Francisco’s Tartine, possibly the best sourdough in the country, I was tempted to initiate the process and keep a starter. But who was I kidding? Did I really want one more mouth to feed everyday, one more regular chore, and find someone who could do it for me every time I was gone? Also – the twelve page process seemed a bit daunting.

But I am here to tell you there is no quick shortcut to a good sourdough. The basic components, besides having a reliable starter, with a good balance of sour and sweet, are temperature and patience.

Assuming you already have a starter tucked away somewhere, that you feed daily with loving care (it takes about two weeks to get a starter sour enough to make reliable bread – any longer will probably make the dough too sour), it’s another two days to get a loaf of bread that approximates the one you buy from your favorite bakery. Home results are more varied because of two major differences: it is a lot easier to control the temperature of a room and an oven in a professional kitchen . And the end structure of the bread – wide holes inside and a crunchy crust on the outside – depends on proper heat and humidity throughout the entire process.

But there is hope. And sometimes, it takes a while to get it perfect. Right Leonor? But with that starter tucked away, the more reasons to try over and over.

The inside should be both dense and full of holes

My guide of choice to extrapolate some useful suggestions is Nancy Silverton, the Los Angeleno chef who, more than anyone else, put good bread on the map in the United States, with her iconic La Brea Bakery that she founded and grew into a behemoth. Not many people know more about bread than Nancy does. Her recipe – from starter to finished sourdough loaf – runs to more than twelve pages but here are some steps that are fundamental for whatever recipe you are using – if you choose only two suggestions from the list, pick the one I highlighted.

  • Try and work in a room that is between 70 to 75F (21 to 24C).
  • When adding water to the flour and starter, the water should be around 70F/21C (assuming your room is 73 or so. Any colder, increase the heat of the water and vice versa)
  • When you are kneading the dough, whether by hand (easier to control) or machine, if you are unsure, err on the side of keeping the dough more on the wet side than too dry
  • Knead the dough for about 5 to 7 minutes, to give the gluten time to develop. You will see that the dough will become harder to handle and will take on a rounded shape.
  • Let the dough rest under a cloth for 20 minutes. Water keeps on being absorbed (that is why it is better to have a wetter than drier dough). After 20 minutes, start kneading again and add the salt – ideally, your dough will be at 78F/25C and at this point and will feel elastic after 5 minutes
  • First rise/fermentation: do not use a metal bowl. Cover tightly with plastic wrap and let rise at 70/75F away from drafts for 31/2 to 4 hours
  • Shape the dough in whatever desired from you wish
  • Second rise: use a proofing basket if you have it. If not, sprinkle some flour on a cloth and wrap it around the bread and let rise for one hour.
  • Now your bread is ready to go into…the fridge. Trust me on this – retarding the proofing allows for a long, slow rise that will deepen the flavor and make for a better texture. Leave in the fridge between 8 and 12 hours – no more than 24
  • When you are getting ready to bake the bread, take it out of the fridge, remove the plastic wrap and cover with a cloth and let sit for 3 hours – make sure you are not overproofing.
  • An hour before sliding the bread in, turn the oven on to 500F/260C and, if you have it, put a pizza stone or ceramic tiles on the bottom. This is crucial to texturing
  • Make a few cuts on the crust, such an X. Dust with flour
  • A minute before placing the bread in the oven, spritz water over the pizza stone and around the sides of the oven. Then quickly close the door. After a moment, slide your bread in. The heat will create the crust and the steam will keep the inside moist.
  • Turn the temperature down to 450F/230C and do not open the door for at least 20 minutes. After 25 you can check your loaf and rotate it if necessary.

If it all sounds daunting, it is. Sourdough bread requires dedication, study and the willingness to try over and over. The reward is a loaf bread that will be hard to match with anything store-bought.

And Leonor, we want pictures of your next try.

Two helpfull books on the matter are: Nancy Silverton’s Breads from La Brea Bakery and Chad Robertson’s Tartine Bread

 

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12 Comments

  1. Thanks for posting about this! I will definitely give it a try. Right now my bread is pitiful, and my three attempts at making my starter have failed miserably. However, I’m nothing if not a stubborn woman, so I will give this another go, take pictures and let you know. Wish me luck, as I’m sure I’ll need it. Lots.

    May 19, 2017
    |Reply
    • Do you need tips for a starter?? Don’t you know anybody who could give you some?

      May 21, 2017
      |Reply
      • I know the theory, but mine seems to die after a few days 😞 If you know any tips, do pass them along! Thanks 😬

        May 21, 2017
        |Reply
        • Swings in temperature and humidity, I am sure you know, are deadly to a starter. Just try and keep it warm at a consistent temperature. London weather is just not the best for this kind of endeavor. Also adding grape juice (from real grapes) might help.

          May 23, 2017
          |Reply
          • I’m going to try it one last time (I’ll ask for a starter from someone if I fail)… I might have to knit my starter a little cozy to keep it warm!

            May 23, 2017
  2. Not sure if I’ll ever attempt this, but I now have a newfound appreciation for sourdough. I never knew the process was so intensive!

    May 18, 2017
    |Reply
  3. I do keep a starter and have been having mixed results. Part of this is because I’ve been eating less bread and so are getting less practice. I already incorporate some of your tips, but there are some I’m going to try. The Modernist Cuisine folks will be releasing their 5 volume Modernist Bread book soon, that ought to become the bible of bread making.

    May 18, 2017
    |Reply
    • Oh Lord! Modernist bread – that will be interesting. Probably 50 pages of instructions for sourdough!

      May 21, 2017
      |Reply
  4. As a certified bread lover, I intend to devour these instructions. Nothing better than a good dense rustic loaf of bread in my books!

    May 18, 2017
    |Reply
    • Let me know how you do. Everyone else here is having difficulties…I am actually not a great lover of sourdough. I prefer my bread to be sour-free.

      May 21, 2017
      |Reply

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