I started a new sourdough tonight. My last sourdough did not survived the long, hot drive from Vegas to Wisconsin in August. For me , sourdough is like a pet, albeit, a productive, delicious one. You feed it, it grows, and feeds you in return. Best pet ever, honestly.
I caught my first sourdough back in 2007, when my New Year’s resolution was to bake all of my own bread for a year. Michael Pollan’s description of catching wild yeasts in a bowl of flour and water in the Omnivore’s dilemma really captured my imagination, and I caught my own, with a mixture of unbleached flour and water sitting on my counter. In addition to catching many yeasts out of the air, they also wait on the surface of the flour, for me to provide the perfect environment for them to grow and flourish.
Sourdough bread, just like all leven bread, is made from yeast and flour. Yeast are single celled organisms from the fungus family, and they eat starches, breaking them down into simple sugars. During this process, they create the carbon dioxide that makes the thick starter bubble and bread dough rise.
Unlike bread baked with dried yeast, the sourdough starter is a continually growing community of yeasts, it supports other microorganisms as well. Special bacteria, Lactobacilli, eat the simple sugars created when the yeasts break down the starch, and they produce the lactic acid that gives sourdough it’s distinctive taste.
These bacteria are the secret weapon to sourdough’s staying power. The lactobacilli defend their territory from any other bacteria that could spoil the food, so that as long as the yeasts are fed fresh flour and water every day, they will continue to grow, healthy and happy. There are sourdough cultures that have been alive for nearly a century, handed down from generation to generation.
Want to try it at home? Mix two cups of unbleached flour with 2 cups of water in a glass or pottery bowl. Sourdough does not like metal, so avoid metal bowls and spoons. Leave it out, at room temperature, lightly covered with a cheesecloth. Every day, scoop out a cup of the starter, toss it out, and feed it another 1/2 cup of flour and 1/2 cup of water. It should begin to bubble and grow. Once it can double in size after a feeding, you are ready to bake bread.
I love this simple bread recipe, 1 cup of strong, thick starter, 1 cup of warm water, and enough bread flour to make a thick dough. Knead, let rise until doubled. Punch it down, shape it into a football-esque shape, and let it rise again.Slice the top of the dough a few times or it will explode through it’s own crispy crust while baking. I bake it on a pizza stone, so you set your oven hot, like 500, and slide the loaf onto the hot stone. Toss in a couple of ice cubes to make steam in the oven, which will give your bread a crispy crust. In 20-25 minutes, you’ll have a lovely loaf of bread.
If you want to bake a lot, your sourdough can just live on the counter with regular feedings and regular use. If you only want to bake on occasion, it can live in the fridge and the yeasts will just hibernate in the cold temperatures until you warm it up and feed it again, but it may take a day or two to regain strength, so you have to plan ahead. Prepping for this post, I found a lot of interesting reading on the microorganisms that make the sourdough happen, so I’m going to do some more research, and I’ll be back with a follow up when my new starter is strong enough to bake a loaf of bread. Happy baking!