Several years ago, when I was still working in a restaurant where I occasionally had a shift baking, I did pretty well at maintaining a sourdough starter. Then, and it’s tough to remember the exact sequence of events, but I think that breaking my leg was somehow involved, I killed the yeast. Found it one day submerged in a pool of pink slime. I can’t say I was really devastated, or even surprised. I’d gotten off track with my starter, hadn’t even glanced at it in well nigh a month at that point.
Still, it was nice to be able to whip up bread with nothing but flour, water, and salt.
I’ve been maintaining a new starter for about a month now. It was a gift from Brett (of the chocolate sourdough fame) and it has been pretty easy to maintain. So far, at least. And I’ve made some fantastic bread and an amazing pizza crust from the resulting dough.
It’s often been said that baking is a science and one must rigorously follow formulae to get the desired result. I disagree. If I were to have rigorously followed the formula for pain au levain that I used as a starting point for my dough making, I’d have come up with a ‘dough’ that more closely resembled a puddle. “Resist the temptation to add more flour,” the recipe said, “this dough should be quite soft.” I’m quite content to have ignored that bit of advice.
A couple of batches of bread feeling out the consistency under my belt, I decided to take more careful stock of the measurements. Perhaps get a formula of my own that is somewhat replicable. No idea if this will work for you, but it seems to do the trick for me.
Basic Sourdough Formula
- 38 ounces (by weight) fed starter
- 3 lb unbleached all purpose flour
- 25 oz water
- 2 Tbl kosher salt
- 4 oz additional flour
- Your starter should have been fed within the last 2-6 hours. You should have measured out about 12 oz of it and returned it to its home in a glass canning jar in the fridge. The 38 remaining ounces are enough to make about 3 loaves of bread and 2 pizzas. If that’s more bread than you want, give some of it away, or discard some of the starter and reduce proportionately the remaining ingredients.
- Use cold water, preferably water that has had several hours to sit since having come from the tap, so that the chlorine included in most tap water will have had a chance to dissipate. Or use bottled water if you must, but from a waste reduction standpoint, I would highly encourage against that. Heat the water to 100 degrees F.
- Combine the water and the starter. Add the flour and mix. Cover with a clean dishcloth and let sit about 30 minutes.
- Mix the salt into the dough by kneading it on a heavily floured surface (that’s what the additional 4 oz of flour are for). Don’t put all 4 oz down at once. Start with about 1/3 of it and add more as needed. When you have a dough that is smooth, elastic, and only a little bit sticky, return it to the bowl, cover it with the dish cloth, and let it rise for an hour or two.
- Gently deflate the dough by separating it from the side of the bowl and pushing down on it gently. Cover with plastic wrap and put in the refrigerator overnight, or up to 3 days.
- Remove from the fridge. Divide into portions and let sit at room temperature to warm back up.
- For pizza:
- Grease the bottoms of two standard half sheet trays. Stretch the dough by hand to cover most of the area.
- Spread with sauce, sprinkle with cheese, and add the toppings of your choice.
- Bake in a preheated 450 degree F oven for about 30 minutes or until done.
- For bread:
- Shape loaves. Let proof for about 30 minutes to an hour.
- Heat cast iron pans flipped upside down in a 400 degree F oven, plus a small cast iron pan rightside up at the very bottom.
- When the bread has proofed, transfer it to the hot cast iron pan bottoms. If doing two loaves on the same pan, allow adequate space so that they don’t grow together in the oven. Should that happen, the parts that are ‘kissing’ will still be doughy when everything else is done.
- Pour some water into the rightside up pan and also scatter some on the floor of the oven. A huge cloud of steam will result. Close the oven door quickly to keep it contained. Watch out for steam burns!
- Set the timer for 20 minutes. When it rings, remove the pan of water from the oven. Steam for the first 20 minutes will help to produce a beautiful crust, but you need dry heat to finish it. Set the timer for another 20 minutes.
- The bread is done when golden brown with a crackling crust and it sounds hollow when thumped from beneath. Remove it to a rack to cool.
If you want to know how to start a sourdough starter, there are plenty of great resources that you can find to guide you. Strange but true culinary school tidbit… when I was in the baking rotation of culinary school, the sourdough recipe they taught involved no starter. Instead, they added pickle juice to the dough to give it tang. I was incensed. “That’s not a real sourdough!” I protested. The chef instructor said, “wait til you taste the bread. That dough really is sour!”