This has been written to teach you how to use sourdough to bake breads and biscuits, make pancakes, and even an excellent pizza crust. Why sourdough? First let me tell you what sourdough is and what some of the advantages of working with sourdough are.
The word sourdough refers to a mixture of flour and water that is the home to a natural yeast culture. When you bake a loaf of bread, you use a little of this sourdough starter just as you would a package of yeast. By replacing the starter used with a like amount of flour and water, you feed the remaining yeasts and keep them alive until the next use. The sour part of sourdough refers to the slightly acidic nature of the starter. This is a natural part of the sourdough yeasts' food cycle and gives a loaf of sourdough bread its subtle tangy flavor. It also makes the lightest, airiest pancakes and biscuits imaginable.
Bread is the staple of life. In its simplest forms, a loaf of whole grain bread can be made for only pennies a loaf. Sourdough bread doesn't even require the purchase of yeast. In fact, unlike commercial yeast, sourdough requires no refrigeration and has no shelf life. Because of this, one sourdough starter can produce a lifetime's supply of bread.
And maybe best of all, the results will reward you with every bite. The satisfaction of being skilled enough to turn the raw materials of flour, liquid, and sourdough into delicious bread is only enhanced by the good taste and good nutrition from every loaf.
To begin, let's make a sourdough starter. As I stated above, a starter is a mixture of roughly equal parts of flour and water and a little sourdough starter (and never anything else) that is used to keep the sourdough yeasts alive from use to use. First, get a container to store your starter. Traditionally, starters are kept in small porcelain crocks but any glass or plastic container with a lid and big enough to hold at least 2 1/2 cups of starter can be used.
Need a starter? E-mail me email@example.com and I can snail mail you a packet of dried starter. Or, you can try to make your own. Here's how. Mix 2 cups of unbleached flour with 2 cups of water in a bowl. Put this someplace out of the way, uncovered, but check on it every day. Add more water, if the batter gets too dried out. You are trying to capture some of the natural yeasts in the air, so this works best in a kitchen that's been used for a while. In a couple of days, you should see bubbles forming in the batter, a sure sign that some yeast cells have landed in the bowl, and finding the environment to be good, begin eating and multiplying. The bubbles are carbon dioxide, one of the by-products of yeast converting the starches in the flour to sugars, then eating the sugars.
When you start to see bubbles, mix together another cup of flour with another cup of water, and feed your new starter. Let the yeasts eat and multiply! Repeat as needed until you have a good, strong starter that starts making bubbles in just a couple of hours after you feed it.
Now, to make sure it will be a good, strong starter, mix together 2 cups of white flour and 2 cups of lukewarm water. Add your new starter, cover loosely, and let set out overnight. The next morning, you'll have enough starter to store in your container and 1 cup of sourdough batter for your first sourdough experience.
Unless you use your starter on a daily basis, it should be kept in the refrigerator, where it can wait for at least a week without harm. If you anticipate a longer time between uses, the starter can be frozen with no damage done to the yeasts.
The night before you're going to use sourdough in a recipe, you must make sure that you feed your starter. Get the starter from the refrigerator and look inside the crock. If it's been sitting dormant in the refrigerator for a couple of days, you'll probably find the top of the starter covered by a clear liquid. Just stir the liquid back in and you're ready to go.
Make a fresh starter by mixing together 1 1/4 cups of while flour and 1 cup of lukewarm water in a medium sized bowl. Add about 1/2 cup of the starter from the crock and mix together. Cover the bowl with aluminum foil and set out in a warm place overnight. This will yield 1 cup of sourdough for use, so if you're making sourdough pancakes and baking a loaf of bread, feel free to double, triple or whatever the proportions.
The next morning this batter will be frothy on top and have a slightly tangy odor. Remove what you need and put the rest back in the storage crock. This insures that the starter kept in the refrigerator is replenished with fresh flour, which is absolutely necessary to keep the yeasts alive and to keep the level of the starter sufficient for further use.
If the level of the refrigerator starter gets a little low, it's fine to mix a little flour and water directly into the crock. Don't fill the crock too high doing this, though. Even in the refrigerator the yeasts will metabolize the new flour, and as they do the starter might expand enough to overflow.
Starter can also be frozen without problems. In fact, to make absolutely sure you never lose your starter completely, it's a good idea to freeze a small amount, just in case.
Ingredients for the sponge:
1 tablespoon sugar
1/2 cup scalded milk
1 cup sourdough
about 3/4 cups flour
1 1/2 teaspoon oil
1 teaspoon salt
Scald the milk and pour it into a largish bowl. Bread needs room to double, so think big. While the milk is still hot, add the sugar. When it's cooled enough that you can stick a finger in without discomfort, add the egg. Use a whisk to blend everything together. Add the sourdough and whisk into the rest. Begin adding flour, about 1/4 cup at a time, until you've got a thick mud like consistency. Beat with a wooden spoon 200 times. Scrape the batter down off the sides of the bowl, cover with aluminum foil, and set in a warm place to rest.
During this rest, the sourdough yeasts will work on the flour and make gluten. Gluten is necessary for good texture and rising in bread, and if the sourdough doesn't make it here, you'll have to make it later by kneading twice as long later. Any rest is good here, but I usually let it rest for at least two hours. As a general rule, the longer you let it rest, the 'sourer' the final result will be. I've let it go overnight with good results.
When you are ready to proceed, sprinkle the salt over the batter and add the oil. Add flour, about a 1/4 cup at a time, beating in with a spoon. When you can't stir any more flour in, turn the dough out onto a floured bowl and begin kneading, adding more flour as necessary.
A few words about kneading are in order here. The idea behind kneading is to pull and stretch the dough without tearing it. This is easier than it sounds. When you've turned the dough out onto the board, it will probably not have much shape to it at all. Gather it up into the semblance of a ball and begin kneading by placing the heel of your hand in the center of the dough and pushing it away from you. The dough will stretch into an oblong shape with the long side away from you. Fold the long edge over so the dough is back into a ball shape. Turn the dough one quarter turn and start the process over. After a little while it's automatic--stretch, fold, turn, stretch fold turn.
At first, you'll need to sprinkle flour on the dough and the board almost every time to keep it from sticking to the board, but as the kneading progresses, and you work more flour in, you'll do this less often.
It will take about 5 minutes of steady kneading to finish, but don't feel like you have to do it all at once. Stop if you feel like your hands are about to fall off. Just cover the dough and take a break. When you are almost done, the dough will start to push back, and will try to spring back into a ball. The outer surface of the dough will be smooth and have a satiny feel. It isn't possible to knead too much at this point, but it is possible to add too much flour. Don't be deceived by the moistness of the dough just under the surface of the ball, since it is a characteristic of sourdough bread to be moist. Add just enough flour to keep the dough from sticking to the board.
When you are satisfied with the dough, wash and dry the bowl and coat the bottom with a little oil. Put the dough in, turn back and forth to cover the bottom of the dough with oil, then turn the dough over so that the oiled bottom becomes the oiled top.. Press the dough down into the bowl, cover with the aluminum foil, and set back in the warm place to rise.
The traditional method of determining rising time is to allow the dough to double in volume. The time this takes will vary from one time to the next, with everything from the humidity in the air to the liveliness of the starter helping vary the time needed. When it has doubled, turn the dough back out onto the board and knead lightly for a half minute or so. You shouldn't have to add much flour at this point.
Let the dough rest while you oil a bread pan. I use a standard 9 x 5 x 3 bread pan for this amount of dough. Make the dough into an oblong cylinder shape and put it in the pan. Press it into the pan, stretching the dough as necessary to completely cover the bottom of the pan. Lift the dough out, turn it over, and gently place it back in the pan. Cover the top of the loaf with a dish towel and put into a warm place to rise.
When the top of the loaf is above the top of the pan by a half inch or so, preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Put the loaf in the middle of the oven and bake for 45 minutes. When the loaf is done, it will have shrunk slightly in the pan, and when removed from the pan and tapped on the bottom, will sound hollow. Place on a wire rack and cover with a towel to cool. Butter the top, if you wish.
Let the loaf cool completely before storing in a plastic sack. If you can't stand the wait, (and few can!) you'll find it easier to slice if you lay the still warm loaf on its side.
It is possible to make an almost completely whole wheat bread by using whole wheat flour in both the sponge and when kneading. Use a good quality whole wheat flour. For best results, grind your own from high protein hard red wheat or buy freshly ground flour from a health food store. You will be able to tell the difference.
If you live in a high altitude area, add one teaspoon of wheat gluten per loaf. Wheat gluten is found with the flour in most grocery stores, and can also be found in health food stores.
Any sweetener may be used in the sponge, in fact, it is quite possible to bake with sourdough without using any sweetener at all. The purpose of the sugar is not to make the dough sweet, but to provide the sourdough yeast with some quick food to start the flour conversion process. Molasses or brown sugar will color the end result only slightly.
Always preheat the oven. The last bit of a loaf's final rising comes from the water and carbon dioxide in the loaf expanding as they heat and being trapped by the gluten in the dough. For even better crusts, preheat the oven to 400 degrees and bake for 15 minutes, then reduce the heat to 350 degrees and finish baking for about another 20 to 25 minutes.
Any bread recipe can be converted to sourdough. Use one cup of starter for each package of yeast, and use a little less fluid. And any sourdough bread recipe can be used to make dinner rolls. Just pinch off the dough into small chunks, roll around in your hand to make balls, and place in an oiled or non-stick pan to let rise. Bake at 350 degrees for about 25 minutes, or until the tops are nicely browned.
Most of my bread recipes are variations on the Almost Never Fail recipe given above. Here are two of my favorites.
Ingredients for the sponge:
1/2 c warm water
2 tbsp nonfat dry milk
1 egg white
1 tbsp honey
1/2 c ground flax seed
1 tsp wheat gluten
1/2 c whole wheat flour
1 tsp olive or canola oil
1 tsp salt
whole wheat flour
Follow the same basic directions as before. Measured on a per slice basis, this bread is virtually fat free and tastes great. Flax seed is available in most health food stores in bulk, or if it's pre-ground, in a refrigerator case. Flax can also be ground at home by whizzing it around in a blender or a food processor.
This bread is also a favorite of mine for garlic bread. Brush both sides with olive oil and crushed garlic, and broil for five minutes on each side.
Pumpernickel is a coarser grind of rye. Rye doesn't have as much protein as wheat, so a loaf made from all rye will hardly rise at all. Mixing the rye with unbleached wheat flour, and adding a teaspoon of wheat gluten will lighten the loaf without hiding that good sourdough rye flavor.
For the sponge:
1/2 c buttermilk
1 tbsp molasses
1 cup sourdough
1/4 cup caraway seeds
1 tsp wheat gluten
3/4 c pumpernickel flour
1 tsp oil
1 tsp salt
Unbleached wheat flour
To call these delights 'pancakes' is to do them the great disservice of association with those thick, doughy horrors found in pancake houses everywhere. Once you've been treated to a stack of sourdoughs, you'll probably never be able to go back to those other things again.
This recipe will make about 9 to 10 sourdoughs that are roughly 6 to 7 inches in diameter. Double as needed to make more, or halve to make less. When I halve the recipe, I still use 1 egg.
On the night before make up a starter as usual, but use 2 1/2 cups of flour and 2 cups of water to make sure you have 2 cups of sourdough for the recipe.
2 cups starter
2 tbsp plain yogurt or dry milk
1 tbsp oil
1 tbsp honey
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp baking soda
In a largish bowl or 4 cup measuring cup, whisk together the egg, yogurt, honey and oil. Add the sourdough and blend in. In a separate cup, mix the salt and baking soda together, making sure to get all the lumps out of the soda. Sprinkle this dry mixture over the batter and fold in, stirring just enough to mix thoroughly. The baking soda will react with the acid in the sourdough and in a matter of seconds (really!) the batter will nearly double in volume. Make sure your container is large enough!
Let the batter sit for the couple of minutes it takes to heat a skillet on the stove. When it's hot enough, a drop of water flicked into the pan will dance around as it boils almost on contact. Pour some batter into the pan. It will spread out a little. As it starts to cook, tiny bubbles will form in the surface. As cooking continues, these first bubbles will grow in size and burst, and new bubbles will appear. When about half of the first bubbles have burst, flip the sourdough and cook the other side. There isn't any good way to know when the second side is cooked, so until you've made enough sourdoughs for it to be second nature, you'll have to lift an edge and peek. Avoid flipping the sourdough back and forth from one side to the other to make sure it's done. You'll just end up with a heavy pancake that won't due justice to its sourdough heritage.
When it's done, lift it out of the skillet and either serve immediately or keep warm by putting it under a cover . I use a styrofoam tortilla keeper and it works great.
Cook all the sourdoughs you'll need right away. The longer the batter sits the thinner and more sour it becomes. After a while, you'll end up with batter that makes something more like a crepe than a sourdough and can be quite delicious.
For berry or nut sourdoughs, start cooking the sourdough as usual and sprinkle the berries or nuts onto the top just after the first bubbles appear. Doing it this way will keep the berries from sticking to the pan and making a sourdough mess when you try to flip it.
Just like sourdough pancakes bear only a passing resemblance to normal pancakes, sourdough biscuits share only a name with their baking powder cousins.
1 c scalded milk
1 c flour
1 tablespoon sugar
1/2 c starter
1 tsp baking powder (I like Rumfords.)
3/4 tsp salt
1/2 tsp baking soda
Whisk the milk, flour, sugar and starter together in a bowl, cover and let set out until ready to use. Make this batter up in the morning for biscuits in the evening, or the night before for biscuits for breakfast. Note that this is one time where you won't be returning any of this batter back to your refrigerator starter, so make sure you have enough starter left for the next time.
Blend the baking powder, salt, and soda in a cup, getting all the lumps out of the soda. Sprinkle this over the batter and stir in. Start adding flour, about 1 1/2 cups total. The dough should be slightly sticky, but it will hold together and form a ball in the bowl. Turn out onto a floured board and knead just long enough for everything to smooth out, about one minute, adding a little more flour if necessary. Use a rolling pin or just pat out until the dough is about 1/2 inch thick.
Oil a 9 inch square or round cake pan. I use olive oil, brushing it on the bottom and a little up the sides. Cut out the biscuits rounds with a floured glass and put in the pan fairly tightly together. This helps them raise up instead of spread out. Brush a little more olive oil over the tops, cover and let rest for 30 minutes. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees and bake for 30 to 35 minutes. The tops will be a nice golden brown when done.
Sourdough biscuits generally won't rise as much as plain baking powder biscuits, but the flavor is more than enough to make up for the difference.
Not only does this crust taste fabulous, it elegantly demonstrates just how simple working with sourdough can be.
1 to 1 1/2 cups sourdough (depending on thin or thick crust)
1 tbsp olive oil
1 tsp salt
In the morning, mix the olive oil and salt into the sourdough. Add enough flour to make a kneadable dough. Knead for about 5 minutes, adding flour as necessary. Cover and set aside for the day.
About an hour before pizza time, knead the dough for a few minutes and then roll out into whatever size and shape you want. Brush the top with olive oil, and crushed garlic. Let rise for about a half an hour, or more for a thick chewy crust and pre-bake in a preheated 400 degree oven for 5 minutes. Remove, add the toppings, and bake until done.
I’ve had and used my starter for over 40 years now. The following recipe is the culmination (to this point!) of that time.
There are milestones in the course of learning the art of bread making. Mine are, in chronological order,
This updated version takes almost 24 hours to complete, but that's "bread time" and not "my time"! This bread will be baked inside a dutch oven -- I have 2 Cuisinart 5.0 Quart Enamaled Dutch Ovens for bread baking. Other companies making enamaled dutch ovens are Lodge and Le Creuset. The Cusinart Dutch Ovens come with stock plastic handles on the lid that will not hold up to 500 degree heat--I replaced mine with a set of steel handles, one from Lodge and one from Le Creuset.
Grind another cup and a half of wheat berries or have ready 2 cups of Bronze Chief
Add the egg, salt, butter, honey and flax if you choose to the sponge and with your big wooden spoon, begin mixing it all together
Begin stirring in more flour until the dough begins to get stiff, then turn it out onto the counter and begin kneading, adding more flour as necessary. Do not forget that sourdough makes a very moist dough so do not add too much flour. You want the dough to be slick and shiny but still slightly sticky.
Put the kneaded dough back in the bowl, cover, place in a warm spot and let rise for about 2 hours
Make the loaf and let riseTurn the dough out of the bowl onto the counter and knead for about another minute until the dough is again making a compact ball
Get a sheet of parchment paper large enough to fit inside your bowl with some hanging over the edge. I use a second dutch oven for this bowl.
Place the parchment paper over the bowl, put the dough ball in the center and drop into the bowl. Smooth the creases out of the parchment paper, cover with the lid, and let rise for about 2 hours
Get ready to bakePre-heat your oven with your empty dutch oven in place--you want both at 500 degrees.
When the dough has risen, remove the now VERY HOT dutch oven from the oven and set it on the stove top. Set the lid aside. Transfer the dough from the bowl by lifting the parchement paper. Replace the lid and return the dutch over to the oven.
Bake at 500 degrees for 15 minutes, then remove the lid from the dutch oven and drop the oven temperature to 350 degrees.
Bake for 30 minutes, then remove the dutch oven and remove the gorgeous loaf of bread and place it onto a cooling rack, covering it with a linen cloth.
Best Yet Pizza Crust
This recipe appeared in the Washington Post on July 20, 2020.
1 3/4 cups all-purpose flour or bread flour, plus more for your hands and counter
1/4 cup whole-wheat flour (may substitute with equivalent amount of all-purpose or bread flour)
2 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
about 2/3 cup lukewarm water
2 teaspoons honey
2 teaspoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for drizzling the pizza
about 1/3 cup sourdough discard (unfed or fed)
In a large bowl, whisk together the flours and salt and make a well in the center. In a medium bowl, whisk together the water, honey and olive oil, then add the starter and combine thoroughly. Add the wet ingredients into the well of the dry ones, and start to mix with your hands, squishing the mixture through your fingers to combine until a sticky, wet dough forms, about 3 minutes. Set the dough aside and let it rest, uncovered, for 15 to 20 minutes.
Flour a clean, dry counter and your hands. Gently but firmly knead the mixture on the counter for 3 minutes. As you are kneading, reflour your hands and surface as necessary. The dough will start out moist and sticky, but will come together into a smooth, elastic ball. Divide the dough in half, shape into balls, and wrap tightly in plastic wrap. Transfer the dough balls to the refrigerator for at least 24 hours and up to 5 days before using. (The dough will rise slightly in the fridge, causing the plastic wrap to tighten.)
At least 30 minutes and up to 1 hour before baking, position an oven rack 6 inches from the broiler element and place a pizza stone, an inverted large rimmed baking sheet or a large cast iron skillet in the oven. Preheat to 500 degrees.
Generously flour your work surface, as well as a wooden pizza peel or an inverted large rimmed baking sheet. Sprinkle the peel or baking sheet with a little semolina flour (if using).
Working with one dough ball at a time, dust the dough with more flour. Starting in the center, push out the dough using your fingertips, leaving the edges untouched. As you dimple and push the dough out, move it around the floured area, so it doesn’t stick to the counter. When you have pushed the dough out to about 8 inches, pick it up. Use the weight of the dough as you turn it around with your hands to shape the disk to about 12 inches in diameter; you can also gently stretch the dough out using your knuckles as it drapes your lightly fisted hands. (It’s okay if the dough shape isn’t a perfect circle.)
Place your shaped pizza dough onto the floured peel or baking sheet. Spread half the tomato sauce over the dough, leaving a 1-inch border. Scatter half of the mozzarella and the Parmesan on top.
Pull out the baking rack from the oven (with the preheated pizza stone, baking sheet or skillet on it) halfway. Position the peel/baking sheet parallel to and in the center of the stone/sheet/skillet and carefully but decisively slide the pizza onto the heated surface. Lightly drizzle the pie with olive oil, then slide the rack back into the oven.
Bake for 3 to 4 minutes; the pizza should look fairly baked but pale around the perimeter. Turn on the broiler and broil the pizza for 3 to 4 additional minutes, watching it carefully, until the pizza edges are puffed and burnished but not burned. (While your first pie is baking, prepare the second pie to go into the oven when you remove the first. If you have a particularly powerful oven/broiler, start checking on your pizza 2 minutes after you start to broil it.)
Using tongs held in one hand and a cutting board in another, transfer the pizza to the cutting board, add half the basil (it will slump onto the hot pizza) and cut into slices.