Who wouldn’t be seduced by these beauties? The aroma, texture and taste tantalize your senses. This is the pinnacle of bread baking for me–a 100 percent sourdough loaf. It was a journey to get there but with the help of a friend, I arrived. For those considering the ascent, let me know and my friend Fran and I might host a seminar–this is not a one day quest.
Several years ago, when I was not yet a resident in the Hammock, I met a friendly lady while out on a walk from the motel that I was staying at on the A1A. I guess she liked the way that I greeted two large dogs that bounded up to me. Within literally just a couple of minutes of speaking, I was offered her home for the summer. As I was a teacher at the time, with 2 months break each summer, I jumped at the invitation. You may be asking what that invitation had to do with bread. Teachers usually spend their summers doing research, volunteering or benefiting from scholarships. I had done all of those many times but was ready to try out living in the Hammock in a semblance of full time and figure out what I would do each day once we built our home. Enter my decision to devote that first summer at the beach to mastering the art of baking bread. I tried, but still didn’t quite have it down by summer’s end.
Bread takes more than practice. It takes patience. Not just patience to let it rise, but patience to keep trying, keep researching, keep talking to others who share your passion and the willingness to try techniques that weren’t the ones your mother always used. I have been fortunate to have lived and traveled in many countries. I first experienced breads in their homelands: Pita and Indian Naan bread in Dubai, Khobz Kesra in Morocco, Farmhouse loaves in England, Rye bread in Germany, Pão de queijo in Brazil, and of course Pain de Campagne in France. What they all had in common is that they were not factory produced–and they were delicious. I don’t purport to be adept at making all of those beautiful breads, but I have tried, and I have found my favorites.
Before you get bored with all the history, I am going to share my “go to recipe”. It is a great one to start with as it can be used for french bread, pita bread, savory breads and pizza. It combines an active sourdough starter and instant yeast. It is also convenient, once you acquire a little patience. First, you need a good sourdough starter. You can make your own or get some from someone you know. Call me if you are in the area and I will give you some of mine–given to me originally by my friend Fran when I was struggling to keep mine happy.
The recipe comes from “Baking” edited by Carole Clements. The tips are mine that I have collected in my research.
Here are some results to get you inspired: Pita bread and Olive Jalapeno French Bread
Sourdough French Loaves
Makes 2 Loaves I recommend starting it the day before you want to eat it.
2 teaspoons instant dry yeast if you use instant rather than active you don’t have to let it dissolve
1 1/2 cups lukewarm water
1 teaspoon sugar
1 Cup sourdough starter activate it by removing half and into each half stir in 1/4 Cup water to blend then add 2 Tablespoons Bread Flour and 2 Tablespoons Whole Wheat Flour to each half and stir until mixed, then leave it about 3 hours until it has expanded. Put one portion in the refrigerator–this is your starter that you will continue to feed regularly for other recipes.
4 to 6 Cups flour I recommend King Arthur Unbleached Bread Flour
1 Tablespoon salt use non-iodized and stir it in after the yeast is incorporated as salt and especially iodized salt retards the fermentation.
Cornmeal for sprinkling on baker’s peel, if using
There are a couple of extra ingredients for glazing, but honestly, I don’t use them so I am not including them here.
I make all of my breads by hand so no fancy equipment needed here. In a large bowl, combine the yeast, sugar and warm water. Pour in your active sourdough starter. Add 4 Cups of flour and the salt and stir until smooth. I use a wooden spoon. Cover the bowl with a linen dish towel or a plastic bag and leave it to rise until doubled. This may take an hour and a half. It depends on how warm the area is that you leave it.
After doubled, stir in just enough flour to obtain a rough dough. Transfer to a floured surface and knead until smooth. This particular dough doesn’t require much kneading.
This is the point where you must practice patience. You could continue the rising and baking at this point. However, you will be rewarded with much tastier loaves if you just put the dough back in the bowl, cover it with plastic and pop it into the refrigerator until the next day.
The next day, take the bowl out of the refrigerator and allow it to warm up on the counter for about an hour. Tip the dough out onto a floured board and cut into 2 pieces if you are making french loaves. Roll them into cylinders, place on a cornbread dusted peel or into a french loaf pan and allow to rise about 2 hours. Preheat your oven to 425 degrees.
I always use a baking stone in my oven. It lives there. I bake some breads directly on the stone and for others, I set the bread pan on the stone.
Now slash the loaves diagonally with a lame or sharp knife once risen or before rising if you plan to stuff the slashes with another ingredient, like my olive jalapeno bread above. When risen, carefully slide into your oven and toss in a half cup of water–either onto a preheated pan placed on a lower rack or onto the oven floor if you want to live dangerously. I have that been told that direct water can damage your oven. Close the oven quickly.
Bake for 25 minutes. Remove to a rack to cool for at least 20 minutes before cutting.
The same recipe is used for the pita bread except for rolling them out, only 5 minutes on the last rise and the oven is hotter. Preheat the oven with a pizza stone to 475 degrees. After the hour of dough warming up on the counter cut the dough into 12 to 16 pieces. Pull each into a ball, then smash with the palm of your hand. Roll each out to about 5 inches and set aside to rise while you continue to roll out all of the remaining pieces. I set mine aside on cookie sheets and when the sheet is full, I cover it with a linen dish towel. If the oven is hot by the time that I finish rolling, I start throwing the first batch onto the hot pizza stone. I set the oven timer to 6 minutes and wait to be amazed. It happens every time–just you wait and see. Remove them from the oven, eat hot or allow to cool. These freeze well. Just put them into plastic bags when completely cooled.
Sourdough is good for you as it is a fermented product (good for your gut). Wild yeast and lactobacillus in the leaven neutralize the phytic acid that makes it uncomfortable for some people to eat commercial bread.
Sourdough bread will taste different in different areas due to the unique wild yeasts in the air.