more yeast-y goodness
Someone’s celebrating a big day today…a big, first birthday!
His name is Herbert, and he is all mine. I made him.
Inspired by Michael Pollan’s Netflix series, Cooked, I decided last winter to make my own sourdough starter. I had already gotten into making bread by then, working on seeded carraway rye bread, whole wheat sandwich loaves, ciabatta, baguette, and more. (None of those aforementioned are anywhere near ready for publishing yet…) I worked and I worked and early on the morning of March 14, out popped a bouncing baby fermented yeast and lactic acid porridge…and I named him Herbert.
For an in-depth article dedicated to sourdough starters, take a look at the Sourdough Starters 101 I wrote for New York Spirit!
For more science-y stuff about starters, scooch your tooch on over to Don’t Waste the Crumbs and read her Sourdough Crash Course!
I read the original book Cooked: A Natural History of Transformation years ago when it first came out, but I don’t recall it mentioning sourdough starters (or if it did I just wasn’t in the right place to feel the ecstasy yet.)
The Netflix series, however, came at the perfect time: I was already all in on cooking and getting my hands dirty. That spring, I was even considering teaching myself to make jam (that has been postponed to this summer. I already have the jars, the canning rack, the lid lifter, and the jar lifter, and my eye on the perfect jam recipe book.) I was right at the point where I wanted to learn to make everything from scratch and was ready to do so at all costs (well…at all financial costs within $50.) I’ve even begun daydreaming of building a smoking box (when I have my own house), grill, and barbecue. So, yeah. I’m deeply entrenched in that place.
The documentary, which was designed in four sections based on the Aristotelean elements, showed people making bread all over the world. Michael himself even created a starter and tried making bread with it. So of course I also had to do this.
Making a starter is much simpler and less daunting than one thinks, and your yeast doesn’t need to be an octogenarian for your bread to taste good.
A sourdough starter is literally two ingredients: flour and water. Once you get the yeast going, then you can even make bread with only two ingredients: flour and water (one part of each from the starter.) The recipe for a starter is universal, too: one part flour, one part water. The type of flour differs from person to person.
For step-by-step instructions, read either the Sourdough 101 and/or Sourdough Crash Course linked above.
Most things that can be made with a starter can easily be made with baker’s yeast (the posts linked above explain why you would choose one over the other), and the substitution is simple: 7 grams of baker’s yeast is the average amount for a recipe (one packet is 7 grams), and a starter is half water, half flour. In the recipe below, I call for 300 g starter (150 g flour, 150 water), 145 g water, and 570 g flour (plus 145 g buttermilk or yogurt), so if I wanted to make a faster version with baker’s yeast, I would instead do 7 grams yeast, 295 g water, 145 g buttermilk/yogurt, and 720 g flour. Likewise, if you want to do the reverse and use a starter instead of baker’s yeast, take away the yeast, subtract equal quantities from the flour and the water, and use twice that amount of starter.
Sourdough proofs far more slowly than baker’s yeast, too, but it proofs more thoroughly. The first and most important rule of thumb for proofing time is that the time doesn’t matter, as long as the dough doubles in size. I find it usually takes 2-3 times as long for sourdough to proof than baker’s yeast (so 12 hours instead of 4.) Additionally, yeasts work more slowly in the refrigerator. If you want to make and bake the dough in one day, let it proof at room temperature or in a slightly warm oven (80 – 100 F). If you can make the dough in advance, do it the evening before and let it proof in the refrigerator.
buttermilk rosemary sourdough loaf
makes 2 loaf-sized loaves, about a foot long each
These can easily be made vegan without sacrificing quality. In fact, bread is vegan by default. The dairy in this recipe adds flavor (the acid and the milk), and the fat makes the final product softer.
300 g sourdough starter
145 g water
145 g yogurt, buttermilk, or water (for vegan, a total of 290 g of water)
570 g all-purpose flour
14 g granulated sugar
a hefty dash of salt
3 sprigs of fresh rosemary, plus extra rosemary leaves for topping
In a large bowl or the bowl of a stand mixer, add sourdough starter, milk/yogurt, water, all-purpose flour, sugar, salt, and the leaves stripped off the rosemary sprigs.
Combine the ingredients with a wooden spoon, your hands, or the dough hook of an electric mixer (stand or handheld), until it starts to come together. If using a mixer, beat the dough with the dough hook for another 5 minutes or so, until it forms a smooth, soft ball that doesn’t stick to your fingers when you touch it.
If you’re making the dough manually, dump it out onto a clean, lightly-floured surface (a pastry board, the countertop, a canvas bread mat), and knead for about 5 minutes, until it forms a smooth, soft ball that doesn’t stick to anything.
Grease a large bowl with vegetable oil and lightly rub the dough with some oil. Place the dough into the bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and let the dough proof for 12+ hours, on the counter or in the refrigerator.
Once the dough is at least doubled in size, line two baking sheets with parchment paper and lightly dust the sheets with flour. Dump the dough out, divide in half, and place one half on each baking sheet. Lightly flour the dough, and form either logs or discs, then lightly spray (or brush) with water, cover with a dishtowel, and let proof about 45 minutes.
In the meantime, preheat the oven to 350 F*.
*Normally, I would bake yeasted breads at 400+ degrees, but I bake these lower so they form thinner, lighter crusts, rather than thick, crispy, dark crusts.
Once the oven is fully heated, use a sharp knife to make incisions in the dough (I do three diagonal lines across each loaf, spaced about four inches apart, but you can do one long line down the length of the dough, or an X in the middle, or more diagonal lines, whatever you feel like doing.)
Spray the dough with water again, sprinkle with the extra rosemary leaves, and place in the oven. Bake the bread for 40 – 50 minutes, until notably tanned. You can bake one loaf at a time and let the other continue proofing, too.
Remove the loaves from the oven and transfer them to a wire rack to cool.
Store by wrapping in plastic (when completely cooled down) and keeping the leftover bread on the counter.