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Updated: 20th November 2018 08:45

FOOD AND THE CITY

How to make sourdough bread using homemade yeast starter

If you’ve been pondering playing around with a sourdough starter — creating a natural leavening agent by cultivating wild yeast using a paste of flour and water — it’s a good time of year to start.

Julie Van Rosendaal shares her secret for making a delicious loaf

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      If you've been pondering playing around with a sourdough starter — creating a natural leavening agent by cultivating wild yeast using a paste of flour and water — it's a good time of year to start.

      Having a jar of something alive in the kitchen is oddly satisfying, a little like gardening in the bleak midwinter.

      You don't need to find someone to share their starter with you, although it does give you a kick-start. To make a starter from scratch, all you need is some flour, water and time to lure those wild yeasts into action.

      To make a sourdough starter from scratch, all you need is some flour, water and time. (Julie Van Rosendaal)

      Some start with rye or whole wheat flour, thinking there is more yeast potential on the surface of the whole grains, but I've always had success with all-purpose flour, which is ideal for starting white loaves as well as adding to grainy ones. I like to use organic flour from Highwood Crossing out in Aldersyde, but use what you have.

      Although there are as many sourdough starter instructions as there are people making them, a pretty basic formula is 4 oz each of flour and water, by weight — if you don't have a scale, this is a scant cup of flour (stir it up to aerate it first, so it isn't packed down, and aim for about a cup minus a tablespoon or two) and a half cup of water.

      Stir the two together to make a paste and stick it in a jar or other non-reactive container, lightly covered, on your countertop. After a day it should begin to bubble but if not, don't sweat it — just start feeding it and wait to see some action. (Cold will slow it down a bit, so keep it away from chilly windows.)

      To make your sponge, stir the starter, flour and water in a small bowl and leave it on the countertop for a few hours, or overnight. (Julie Van Rosendaal)

      The first week, you'll need to split and feed it every day for four to five days. Each day, discard half, leaving about 1/2 cup (4 oz) starter, and feed it with the same formula: 4 oz flour and 4 oz water (or 1 scant cup and 1/2 cup.)

      You divide it first to keep it from taking over your kitchen, and keep the ratio of starter to new flour-water paste the same so that the existing yeasts have enough, but not too much, to eat. Stir and let it sit. After a few days it should start to bubble and even look foamy, and smell clean and yeasty, even vinegary. If you like, give it a week to get good and strong before making your first loaf.

      Once your starter is alive and well, you'll need to keep on feeding it. If you keep it out on your countertop, it will need to be fed regularly — once or even twice a day, if you're using it regularly. To slow it down, put it in the fridge where it will only need to be fed once a week.

      If you neglect your starter, don't sweat it too much, if looks inactive and has a layer of liquid sitting on top don't worry, either pour it off or stir it in (I stir it in) and feed it as usual to bring it back to life.

      Every half hour, uncover the dough and fold it over itself once or twice. (Julie Van Rosendaal)

      If it smells foul or starts growing mould, toss it and start again. If it develops a thick skin on top, peel it off and toss it, and feed the rest, making sure you aren't adding too much flour (it can dry out a bit, especially in Calgary, if the starter is too thick.)

      If you have a good, strong starter and want to ensure it stays alive, you can tuck away a small jar in the freezer, or spread some out as thin as you can on a foil or parchment-lined baking sheet and leave it out to dry completely, then break it apart and store it in a ziplock bag as dried starter keeps indefinitely and can be rehydrated later.

      Once you have a living, breathing sourdough starter (have you named it yet?) you'll need to know what to do with it.

      Fortunately there are plenty of sourdough recipes and resources out there, but this is how I make a basic loaf.

      Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. When the oven is hot, invert the dough and cut a few slashes with a sharp knife. (Julie Van Rosendaal)

      It's a couple day process, but bear with me — once you have a starter and you've made it once to get the hang of it, it isn't a whole lot of actual work to have a batch of dough sitting on the countertop, getting more complex and improving in texture, until you're ready for it.

      The longer yeast dough is alive, the better it tastes. I'm no sourdough expert but I've tried plenty of versions, and this is the one I settled on, after trying an easy ratio by British food writer Izy Hossack.

      One thing I've learned is that although it's technically baking, you don't really have to adhere to strict timing instructions — yeast doughs are pretty resilient. If you think you've left it too long, it will probably be even better. 

      Sourdough Boule (a Round Loaf)

      The sponge just kind of gets things going ahead of time before you start the loaf. Although it looks very time-consuming, when I have a batch of dough going I just kind of give it a pull whenever I wander into the kitchen, and stick it in the fridge if it's going to be left longer than an hour or so. Baking it in the pot traps steam, developing an irresistibly crackly crust. 

      Sponge:

      • 2-4 Tbsp starter.
      • 1/4 cup all-purpose flour (about 50 g).
      • 2 Tbsp water (about 50 g).

      Dough:

      • 500 g all-purpose flour (it's about 4 cups, but weigh it if you can)
      • 375 g water (about 1 1/2 cups)
      • 10 g salt (about 2 tsp)

      To make your sponge, stir the starter, flour and water in a small bowl and leave it on the countertop for a few hours, or preferably overnight. Or do it in the morning and leave it over the course of the day, until it gets nice and bubbly. Even 24 hours is fine.

      To make your dough, scrape that sponge into a bowl and stir in the flour, water and salt. It will look shaggy and wet, and you couldn't really knead it if you wanted to. It will seem not quite right, but cover the bowl with a tea towel and leave it on the countertop for at least a few hours, or even longer.

      It's important to pre-heat your oven and your heavy cooking pot — like a 4L round enamel-coated cast iron pot with a lid. (Julie Van Rosendaal)

      Every once in awhile, roughly every half an hour but it could be shorter or longer, uncover it and fold the dough over itself once or twice. It will get nice and smooth on its own, and develop blisters on the surface. I usually take it out of the bowl and pull it a few times, folding it over itself, then plop it back in the bowl and let it rest some more. Often I'll stir up a sponge on Friday night, leave it overnight, stir up the dough on Saturday morning and leave it on the counter to pull and turn over the course of the day, then bake in the evening or refrigerate overnight and bake on Sunday morning.

      I have a proofing bowl called a banneton that I like to use because it makes me feel baker-ish and leaves rings on the surface of the loaf. (If you're in Calgary, they sell them at the Cookbook Company on 11th Ave SW for about $25.)

      Take your smooth, very satisfying dough out of the bowl and shape it into a ball. Cup it in your hands and turn it on the countertop, pulling at the sides to sort of tighten the ball, if that makes sense.

      Upend it into a floured banneton or put it into a floured bowl, smooth side down. Cover it with the tea towel again and put it in the fridge overnight, if you want to bake it in the morning, or leave it for an hour or so, if you made the dough over the course of the day.

      When you're ready to bake it, take the dough out of the fridge (I like to leave it on the countertop long enough to warm up), and preheat the oven to 450˚F with a heavy pot inside — I use an round enamel-coated cast iron pot with a lid that's about 4 L.

      In a pot with a lid, bake your loaf for 30 minutes. Then remove the lid and bake for another 10-15 minutes. (Julie Van Rosendaal)

      When the oven is hot, invert the dough onto a piece of parchment paper and cut a few slashes on the surface with an X-acto knife or other sharp blade. Carefully drop the dough on the parchment into the pot and cover with a lid. Bake for 30 minutes, then remove the lid and bake for another 10-15 minutes, until golden and crackling like a fire.

      Let it cool before slicing to keep it from getting gummy inside.  Makes one loaf.

      About the Author

      Julie Van Rosendaal

      Calgary Eyeopener's food guide

      Julie Van Rosendaal talks about food trends, recipes and cooking tips on the Calgary Eyeopener every Tuesday at 8:20 a.m. MT. The best-selling cookbook author is a contributing food editor for the Globe and Mail, and writes for other publications across Canada.

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