Many of us during these times of confinement, have dusted off our recipe books, or more likely, Googled recipes online, as we get our minds around the comforting idea of cooking meals at home. Another possibility is that our favorite local restaurant isn’t doing takeout. Folks turn to baking - banana bread apparently is a favourite, and some of the more adventurous to making regular, yeast leavened bread.
The latter has caused a run on commercial yeast - the kind you buy at the supermarket - shelved next to bottles of cake sprinkles, stacks of paper cupcake cups and 5 lb bags of all purpose flour. The problem is, you can’t find it anymore because demand has outstripped supply.
Which brings us to sourdough. Sourdough bread, that is bread made with a natural yeast and bacteria combination, is remarkably easy to make and once you’ve mastered it, you’ll unlikely want to go back to store bought loaves. This ease has been promoted by using the “no knead” method and baking the loaf in a dutch oven. You can get insanely good bread this way, with a nice open crumb (the bubbles inside the bread) and a gorgeous, crispy, chewy golden brown crust.
First, a little background. We’ve been baking bread using naturally occurring yeast for a couple of thousand years - archeologists have found remnants of loaves with traces of natural yeast dating back that far in Egyptian tombs. And, using various forms of fermentation and bacteria driven decomposition is common in food preparation: wine, beer, cheese, chocolate, yogurt, and coffee are all subject to these processes.
The development of commercial yeast, larger ovens and an industrial food supply chain after WW2 brought us to racks of plastic wrapped white sandwich bread in the supermarket. Sourdough is labor and time intensive and so does not scale well.
Sourdough bread is created through the activities of yeast and bacteria, which both work on sugars in the dough, creating both gas - hence the bubbles - and acidic flavor. The bacteria - Lactobacillus - consume sugars that the yeast - Kazachstania exigua, Saccharomyces cerevisiae, Candida milleri, and Candida humilis - cannot.
Kneading the dough helps organize its gluten (a combination of gliadin and glutenin proteins), becoming supple and elastic and thus capturing gas generated by the yeast, giving the resulting loaf a light, bubbly texture. When your grandmother was making bread she would have kneaded the dough heavily - however, you can actually get the required gluten development by stretching and folding the dough 3 - 5 times while it proofs.
There are loads of solid sourdough recipes on the web and so there is no need to repeat them here. This one, from Tartine Bakery and posted in the New York Times, is clear about process, timing and technique. The Perfect Loaf, a site for home baking fanatics, has lots of good tips and tricks.
I will flag a couple of items that may help you if you want to bake sourdough bread but are new to the process.
Why, might you ask, do I know so much about this? I am a self-confessed sourdough bread baker. I run a microbakery as a side gig because I am crazed about baking good bread so have had a fair bit of experience with the product. It is a labour of love and thus, I am happy to impart my knowledge to you, the masses of Canadian expats, all about bread making. Now back to it….
Using high quality ingredients always helps make a better product but, particularly when you are starting out (and resources are scarce because of a pandemic), there is no need to use super expensive flour. Plain, unbleached all purpose white flour should work just fine. No need to use bread flour - it has a higher percentage of gluten and can result in loaves that are rubbery.
Once you get your technique figured out, you can try different brands and types of flour (e.g. Spelt, whole wheat) - each will handle a little differently.
If you live in an urban water district, your tap water likely has Chlorine or Chloramines in it which will kill the naturally occurring yeast and bacteria. You’ll need to filter this with an activated charcoal filter
Better to measure by weight that volume as this enables you to be more accurate with flour, water and salt quantities. Dough texture is quite sensitive to small amounts of additional water - when I am mixing 20 loaves, even an additional 50 grams of water will change the dough considerably.
You should be able to get your starter going within a week by mixing equal parts flour and water and leaving it loosely covered at room temperature. You can also ask a local bakery if they’ll give you a small sample.
You can leave your starter in the fridge for several weeks when not using it and take a few days to feed it when needed.
Once you’ve made a few loaves, you’ll develop a feel for how the stretch and folds develop its texture and when it is ready to shape. And you’ll get a good sense for when the dough is ready to shape, proof and bake. It is worth looking at a few videos on Youtube to see how folks stretch and fold the dough.
The Dutch Oven
Using a dutch oven is a minor miracle - you lower the loaf on baking parchment into the preheated dutch oven, cover it and slip it back into your hot oven. After about 20 minutes, you take the oven top off and bake for another 10 minutes, ensuring that the crust becomes golden brown. The dutch oven with top on captures moisture from the dough so that it steams as it bakes (Commercial bread ovens create steam).
So good luck with your bread making ambitions. As challenging as staying at home has been for many these past weeks, maybe some good, like learning to make a great loaf of bread, can come out of it.