basic sourdough: a forgiving food

Bread is the most forgiving of foods.

It is infinitely complex—10,000 years of preparing this staff of life and bakers are still discovering new ways to evoke different flavors out of grain.

And yet it is also so very simple. Flour, water, salt, and yeast.

It is nearly impossible to hurt your starter or your dough beyond repair, outside of killing your yeast from starvation or heat. But as long as you feed it regularly and don’t get it too hot (yeast dies at 115°F), then almost any issue can be resolved.

Too dry? Just add a bit more water.
Too wet? Add some flour.
Tearing as you knead? Let it rest for a few minutes.
Rising too quickly? Add some salt or toss it in the fridge.

The resulting loaf might not have a perfect crackly crust or soft, open crumb every time, but at the very least it will almost always taste good.

 

Last Friday I shared the importance of mise en place, of preparing our selves and our space for the work we are about to do. Mise en place is always the most difficult step of baking for me. I’ve always been one to rush from one thing to the next; I grow anxious when staying still. One friend commented on Friday that she’d hurried her first mix and feared it might not turn out. I’ll admit that I too rushed into this round of mixing sourdough, and really into this entire season of Lent. And I’ve spent the past seven days in fear that my starter, and this whole bread series, will bubble up then flop.

But sure enough, my starter sprung to life and you all continue to come and read. I am so grateful for the gracious, forgiving nature of both God and bread. That even the mistakes made in our failure to prepare can always be rectified.

 

Some of you have mentioned that your starters are very dry. I’ve opted to use volume measurements instead of weight in order to minimize the tools necessary to follow along, however because volume is less precise there is far more room for variation. This starter is intended to be somewhat stiff, but a cool, dry, or breezy kitchen could cause the top of the starter to form a dry crust. If this is the case, go ahead and add an extra teaspoon or so of water and cover with plastic wrap instead of a towel.

 

Today, we will begin our baking by making a very small, simple loaf of sourdough. This recipe is quick and easy to pull together, most of the work happens as it sits. This is the time when mise en place is really important—you must time out when you are able to feed your starter, mix your dough, shape it, and bake it.

Thankfully, again, this dough is very forgiving. Don’t let the timing worry you too much—if you are off by an hour or two at any step, your bread will still be okay.

As I continue to share more about the science of bread, I will explain further what occurs in every step, and as you practice baking bread, you will also get to know more about how your own starter behaves in your kitchen. This will help you learn to troubleshoot any issues you might encounter.

Please continue to share your questions in the comments below, as others are likely to have the same ones too!

basic sourdough

1/2 cup sourdough starter
3/4 cup room temperature water
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon kosher salt

1. 6-8 hours after feeding the starter, it is ready for baking a loaf of bread. If you have followed along with the amounts I directed on Friday, you should have about 1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon of starter. You will use 1/2 cup of starter in this recipe today. Reserve the remaining starter to feed tomorrow.
2. Mix together 1/2 cup of sourdough starter with the water, flour, and salt until its forms a shaggy dough. Let sit for 10 minutes.
3. Gently knead the dough until it comes together into a smooth ball, about 2-3 minutes.
4. Place the dough in a clean bowl covered with plastic wrap and let sit in a warm area, ideally 70-75°F, for 3-4 hours.
5. Gently shape the dough into a smooth round.
6. Generously dust a clean kitchen towel with flour and place the round on the towel so that the smooth top is upside down.
7. Place the towel in a bowl or colander that is about double the size of the dough. Alternatively, you can place the dough directly into a floured banneton or brotform basket.
8. Cover the top loosely with plastic wrap and let sit in a warm area for another 6-8 hours.
9. Place a baking sheet, cast iron pan, or Dutch oven in the oven and preheat to 450°F.
10. When the oven is fully heated, pull the sheet, pan, or Dutch oven out. Turn the dough out of the bowl and onto the hot pan so that the smooth, floured side is again the top. Be careful—the pan is extremely hot!
11. Cut a slice 1/2-inch deep in the top of the bread. Mist or brush the top of the dough with water and place the pan back into the oven. If using a Dutch oven, first place the lid back on. Lower the heat to 425°F.
12. Bake for 30-35 minutes until the bread is golden brown. The dough should make a hollow noise when tapped. If using a Dutch oven, take the lid off after 25 minutes of baking.
13. Let cool for at least 10 minutes before eating!

A note on feeding the remaining starter: You should have about 1 tablespoon of starter remaining after baking this bread. Tomorrow (Thursday), feed it 2 tablespoons of water and 1/4-cup of flour. The next day (Friday), feed it 1/2 cup of water and 1 cup of flour. By the third day (Saturday), you should have enough to double this recipe for a full-size loaf of bread.

As you mix, knead, and bake today, pray for the ability to slow down. Examine what areas in your life might benefit from mise en place, from setting aside time to step back and question how better to prepare before moving forward.

Thank God for grace and forgiveness, that even as we rush from task to task, God still meets us and meets our needs. Examine where you might need to extend more grace and forgiveness to yourself or to others for mistakes made as a result of lack of preparation.

Pray and meditate on the simple and yet so challenging prayer that Jesus taught us, drawn from Matthew 6:9-13.

Our Father who art in heaven,
hallowed be your name.
Your kingdom come, your will be done,
on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread
and forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.
Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.
Amen