This is the third in a series of posts about making the best-ever loaf of bread.
For the intro, click here.
For the post on how to catch free wild yeast, click here.
Now that you have successfully and triumphantly indentured some wild-caught yeast to do your bidding, it is time to train it into usefulness. As I said in the last post, it is important to remember that your starter is a living thing, needing to be fed and maintained in order to be healthy. If you bake bread every day or every other day, keeping up its strength is as simple as reducing the start by half every day (to around a cup) and feeding it 1 cup of flour and 1 cup of water (though I have reduced it by half and fed it as little as 1/2 a cup of flour/1/2 a cup of water and it also worked). This will froth up your little buddies into a frenzy and get them primed for raising your bread. (If you’re worried about wasting all the extra start every time you reduce it, stay tuned! I’ll have extra starter recipes in my next post.)
If you are not baking daily, then it may be prudent to refrigerate your start to slow down its activity to a manageable level. It will still need to be reduced and fed the same 1:1:1 ratio as the active start mentioned above, but you will only need to do this every three days rather than daily. As you work with your start, you’ll get to know it better and understand its needs. You'll eventually find yourself naming it, going to coffee, having DTR talks...it's a slippery slope. You've been warned.
Using a starter requires patience and planning if you want to end up with bread, so baking becomes a multi-day adventure. A refrigerated start will need to be activated to be used best. The one time I did refrigerate my start, I took it out the night before I planned to bake, poured half the amount I would need into a mason jar, and fed it the same 1:1:1 ratio. The next morning, I fed it again, and was set to bake. The more times you feed it before baking, the more mild the sour flavor will be.
So! Assuming you’ve got some active starter and are raring to begin, let’s get some bread going.
--3/4 cup sourdough start
--warm (not hot) filtered water (roughly 1.5 cups)
--Whole wheat flour (roughly 3.5 cups)
YEP. That’s it! You can find much more complicated bread recipes, but this is the one that I love for its clarity and simplicity. The water and flour ratios will vary given the season and humidity, so I can’t give an exact measurement for them. You’ll have to look and feel to see when your dough seems right, and again—experience will be your best teacher for what that is.
In a large mixing bowl, dump your start and mix it with 11oz-aka-1 and1/3 cup of the warm, filtered water. Use your clean hand to mix it into a milky smoothness (Go on, GET YOUR HANDS DIRTY. It's cheaper than therapy, and you end up with tasty bread at the end, rather than a bill!). With your other hand, add the first cup of flour and the 1.5 teaspoons of sea salt. Keep mixing with your hand as you add two more cups of flour. It will be a sticky mess at first, but as the flour soaks up the water, you’ll start seeing dough forming. Once you have mixed in the last half cup of flour (or as much of it as seems right, given the day's humidity), wash off your hands, pour the rest of the warm filtered water into a second bowl, and put it beside your mixing bowl. Wet your clean hands and start kneading in the bowl. Any time the dough starts feeling too sticky, dampen your hands in the warm water (not dripping, just glistening!) and keep going. Knead for 5 minutes until the dough feels like a solid, round, smooth mass.
Right now, you are doing the most important process of bread making—you are hydrating the whole-wheat dough (which takes a lot longer to soak up water than white flour) and you are developing the crumb and texture of your finished loaf by nurturing the formation of strands of gluten. Don't skimp on this part!
Cover the bowl with a clean towel and let it rest for 5 minutes.
Still using water to keep your hands from sticking, knead for another 5 minutes.
Cover and let rest 5 minutes.
Knead for 5 more minutes. By now, the dough should be much more firm than before, and the sides of the bowl should be relatively clean.
Cover the bowl and let your dough rise in a warm place for at least 3 hours. I usually do this in my oven after letting it pre-heat for 30 seconds, just to warm it up slightly.
After 3 hours, flour a clean countertop and dump your dough onto it. Use as little dry flour as you can, because unhydrated flour has a tendency to make holes in your finished bread. Shape into a loaf and place into oiled bread tin. (If you are unfamiliar with shaping whole-wheat dough, here are some great links to get you started.) Cover again and let rise in a warm place for 3 more hours.
During the last 30 minutes of the final rise, put 1.5 cups of water in a cast-iron pan or metal baking pan, then preheat your oven to 475°F. (If you’re doing this on a hot summer day, open the windows, too!) Place the pan of water in the bottom of the hot oven to start creating steam (this is what is going to give your bread a wonderfully snappy crust). It is really important to make sure that water is always in this container—heating a dry container will cause it to warp or shatter!
Just before you slip it in the oven, make some fancy-pants slits in the top of your loaf with a serrated knife. This will allow the bread to expand evenly as it cooks (and make it look nifty as a bonus!)
Bake the bread in the middle of the oven for 15 minutes at 475°F. Then, reduce the temperature to 425°F and bake for 20 more minutes. Finally, remove the bread from the pan and bake for 5 more minutes on the rack to ensure evenly cooked, crispy crust.
Now, at this point I’m supposed to tell you to remove the bread and let cool completely on a wire rack before you cut it. I’m supposed to say something about the completion of the internal steaming process that will make your bread perfect. This is what a responsible breadsmith does. However, by this point, both Andrew and I are in a house full of breadsmell, and we’ve been smelling it for hours, and we are not in the mood to be responsible breadsmiths.
This is the point where one of us gingerly yet pointedly cuts through the searing hot loaf to produce two crusty, steamy slices. We slather on butter (which melts immediately) and sometimes some homemade jam, and then eat the very best slice of bread at the moment it is best.
It will be tasty later, too, but this first slice, still oven-hot, simultaneously crusty and soft, is always the best, and worth the tender fingers and burnt tongue.
(Oh, and while you’re chewing, make sure to feed your remaining starter!)
In the search for enjoyable things, many people spend hundreds of thousands on cruises, spa visits, and exotic excursions. I contest that this moment of simple pleasure, sharing delicious homemade food from your own hands with someone that you love, is something that may be even more rewarding and delightful than swimming with dolphins of the coast of Cozumel. Its real, its authentic, and it is accessible by anyone with a bit of time, patience, and a really big bowl.
Now...what do you do with all that extra starter when you're NOT baking? Come back next post for more startery goodness!
We are a husband and wife who are trying to live simply. We are learning much as we transition from life in the city to life in the country. Come along with us, and maybe you can also learn a thing or two as well.
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Simple Life Homestead