I can now cross off “learn to make perfect sourdough bread” off my bucket list. These crusty loaves don’t last long in my family and I love to take them to potluck where they have a big wow factor. Sometimes I even tweet along when I make them, using the hashtag #LiveTweetBread (my Twitter handle is @Rebecca_Cusey).
I’ll try to tell you in perfect detail what I do. But a few notes before I begin.
1) This technique USES the bread machine, but not only the bread machine. In other words, if you want to put some ingredients in and come back in a few hours for a perfect loaf, this isn’t it. It’s not hard. The machine does the hard stuff for you, but it does take some effort outside the machine. This makes artisan style loaves that you would pay big money for at a bakery.
2) It takes about five hours. You have to start it in the morning to have bread at night. It’s mostly just waiting, so it’s not a working five hours. Your effort takes about 20 minutes. But the waiting takes a while. The times are flexible, which is nice. I often leave and come home before doing the next step.
Here are the instructions:
Part One – Making the Starter
I came across this starter by happy accident. It’s basically the Two Week Biga from the wonderful book The Bread Lover’s Bread Machine Cookbook by Beth Hensperger.
But one day I started to make the biga and went downstairs to watch TV. I fell asleep. Sometimes that happens, you know?
I staggered up to bed without remembering to refrigerate the biga. When I finally went to clean it out a few days later, it had such a wonderful, sour aroma that I just let it sit. And that’s how my starter was born.
Here’s the recipe: Put 1 2/3 cup warm water, 1/2 teaspoon yeast, and 3 3/4 unbleached all purpose flour in your bread machine. Set it on the dough cycle, push start. Immediately set a timer for 10 minutes. When the time beeps, turn off the bread machine, unplug it, and let it sit. Let it sit for three to five days at room temperature. It will bubble and ferment. When it has developed enough of a sour smell for you, put it in a plastic container and store in the refrigerator.
It will have developed a watery substance on the top. This is called the “hooch” and you just mix it right back in.
This starter will last for two weeks or so in the refrigerator and make three or so batches of bread. They say you can freeze it but I’ve never tried. Bring it to room temperature before using.
Here’s the key: On your last batch of bread, save whatever starter is left over. For me, it usually ends up being a half a cup or so. Make the starter recipe again, but throw in the left over starter. It will give the new starter batch that sour flavor. No need to let it sit for days. I usually let it sit for 12 hours or so and then it’s ready to use.
Part Two: Making the Bread
I developed this by trial and error, but it works wonderfully for me.
1 cup starter (see above)
1 1/2 cup warm water
51/2 cups bread flour, divided
1 tablespoon sugar
2 1/4 teaspoons salt
Step 1 – Making a Sponge
Mix for 10 minutes, stop the mixer, and let rise for 2 hours.
Notice that we only use 3 cups flour here, not the entire amount. It will be very wet, like the picture at left. As it rises, it will bubble and smell amazing. Let it do that work.
Step 2 – Mixing and Kneading
When the time is up, add the sugar, salt, and 2 1/2 cups flour to the bread machine pan. Set the machine to “dough” and turn on.
You’ll need to watch it a little at this point. Sometimes, depending on your starter and the conditions of your house, you might need to add just a little flour or water. If it’s too dry and having a hard time mixing, add water, just a tablespoon at a time. If it’s too wet and really sticking to the walls, add a few tablespoons of flour.
Once it gets to the kneading process, it should form a nice, smooth dough ball that feels sticky when you touch it but doesn’t leave any dough on your finger when you pull it away.
Let it go through the kneading. When it’s done kneading (about 30 minutes on most machines), turn off the bread machine.
Step 3 – First Rise
Let it rise until doubled, about two hours.
This is what I do. I put a measuring cup with about three to four cups of water in the microwave and heat for five minutes or so. I then put the bowl with the dough in the microwave next to the cup with the hot water. Do NOT turn the microwave on. Just let it sit in there for two hours. The hot water gives enough heat to really get the dough rising. Plus, it’s out of the way and protected from drafts.
Step 4 – Shaping
In addition, usually, my dough has a bit of a thicker, dryer crust on top.
It’s time to shape the dough.
Put a light layer of flour on a hard, smooth surface. I use my granite countertops.
Turn the dough onto the flour, top down. That thicker, drier crust should be down and the wetter stuff that was on the bottom should be up. Sometimes I have to use my fingers to ease the dough out of the bowl. It sticks. This is fine.
That thicker, drier, crustier part? It will be the surface of the loaves you make and when you slice it, it will make lovely brown crisp crusty parts. So keep it down and as you cut the dough into pieces, remember where that crusty part is.
Next, make sure you have flour on your hands. Take something with an edge, I use a metal spatula, but there are tools made just for separating bread. Dust it with flour. Then press down, almost like a knife, dividing the dough into two.
Next you want to shape the dough into rounds.
Remember that crusty part? Keep that down so it will be the top of your round loaf. Just pull the edges toward the center and pinch them together until it’s shaped like a round. No need to pick it up or shape it like a ball. Just pull the edges in over the top and pinch.
The pinched part will be the bottom of your crust.
Have a piece of parchment paper ready for each loaf. I always use parchment paper. It’s like magic.
Place on the parchment paper. Put the parchment paper on a cookie sheet for support.
Let rise another hour.
I heat up more water, and put the two loaves back in the microwave. I use cups with hot water to stack the cookie sheets so two loaves can fit in there. It’s very hodgepodge, but it works.
When you put the dough in to rise, turn the oven on to 425 to preheat. Make sure your baking stone is in there, on a rack set in the middle. The baking stone needs a long time to heat up, so an hour during the rise is perfect. Obviously, this works better in the winter than in the summer.
Honestly, the rounds don’t usually rise that much for me. Maybe just a little bit. They might increase by half. They don’t double. But they will when they bake.
Step 6 – Baking
Now you’re ready to bake.
Using the cookie sheets, slide the parchment paper with the dough directly onto the preheated baking stone. Do not put the cookie sheet in the oven. It’s just to help you get the dough on the stone.
I can fit both loaves on my stone, but if yours is smaller, you can do one at a time.
Now, these breads need humidity to really develop a good crust. What I do is throw five or so ice cubes in, right onto the bottom of the oven, immediately after I put the dough on the stone. They sizzle on the metal bottom of the oven and create steam. I shut the door and let it bake. Obviously, don’t do this if you have a heating element exposed on the bottom of your oven. It might break. Alternately, you could have a cookie sheet on a lower rack in the oven that is preheated. You could just thrown ice cubes onto it.
Bake for 20-25 minutes until the crust looks amazing and brown.