Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Sourdough Bread Baking


I love baking bread. It is therapy for my mind. I get strong urges to make bread. I look forward to it. I am sad when I have baked so much that I have no excuse to make it for a few days. When I have a bad baking experience, and I take a few days off of it, I miss it and day dream about it.

It is a beautiful process, making bread: taking three ingredients and skill and time and care and forming something that nourishes and sustains my family and gives them joy. After making bread for several years, I have delved into the world of sourdough and, after a few false starts, love it. To make good sourdough bread, you need a healthy sourdough starter and some good instruction.

In search for fresh yeast one day, I spoke with the baker Nick at Atwater's Bakery in Belvedere Square. He had no fresh yeast (they use active dry yeast), but he did offer me some of their sourdough starter. At that point I was no longer feeling the burn from my past poor attempts at sourdough, so I happily accepted, and he gave me a quart of the gooey pungent stuff FREE! I was delighted and immediately went home to figure out what to do with it. The Towson Library has several excellent books on artisan baking that got me on the right path. (See the resource list at the bottom of this post). Then Adam's parents gave me my favorite of all, Crust and Crumb: Master Formulas for Serious Bread Bakers by Peter Reinhart. Just that title makes me stand up a little taller.

So, I have settled into a rhythm with this starter. It is still alive and well after six months of baking with it. I feed it regularly with 3 oz. water and 3 oz. organic, unbleached all purpose flour.

If you want to give sourdough a try and don't yet have a good basic recipe yet, here's what I recommend. Go to Crust and Crumb on Google Books and look for the Basic and Country Levain on pages 81 - 83. You can go through the recipe there. But here are the basics.

Basic Sourdough Loaves

Firm starter:
5 ounces unbleached bread flour
3 ounces room-temperature water
3 ounces sourdough starter (assuming it is built 50/50 water/flour by weight)
(This is slightly different than the formula on pg 82, but that is because of the difference between my mother starter has a different hydration than his "mild starter").

Dough:
5 1/4 cups (24 ounces) unbleached bread flour
2 cups cool water (65 - 70 degrees)
Firm starter from above - use all of it
2 1/2 teaspoons (0.66 ounces) salt

1 - Make the firm starter the night before. Stir it up, let it double, cover and refrigerate.
2 - The next morning, pull the starter out of the fridge, let it warm up to room temperature. Break it up into small pieces, and dissolve it in the cool water.
3 - Add all the other ingredients, mix and knead for 10 - 15 minutes or until it passes the windowpane test.
4 - Let it rise for 3 hours.
5 - Divide it into two equal pieces and shape them as you wish. Spritz with oil and cover with plastic or a damp towel.
6 - Let it proof for about 4 hours.
7 - Bake it now or refrigerate to bake the next day for a more sour flavor.
8 - Bake it at 450 F for about 30 minutes on a well-preheated baking stone. Add moisture to the oven while baking for a better crust by placing a pan in the oven before preheating and pouring 2 cups of water in when you put the bread in. Also, you can spritz the oven walls a few times during the first 5 minutes of baking.

Tips:
I have found baking books and YouTube videos about baking to be essential to developing the quality of my bread and my skills in learning what well-kneaded dough looks like, how to handle the dough during shaping, and some techniques for baking it with a thinner, chewier, crispier crust.
Using an accurate kitchen scale has been essential to me in properly hydrating dough. I've learned that it is a common mistake among novice bread bakers to add too much flour to the dough when kneading. This leads to a very dense, un-fluffy bread crumb.

Bread baking books that have helped me:
Artisan Baking by Maggie Glezer - (Thank you to Artisan Books for sending me a free copy of In the Sweet Kitchen for free when I wrote them about missing pages from my copy of Artisan Baking - in addition to copies of the missing pages.)
Crust and Crumb by Peter Reinhart -- My favorite so far. I hope to acquire a copy of his Whole Grain book -- perhaps that will become my favorite. We shall see.
The Bread Baker's Apprentice by Peter Reinhart
Bernard Clayton's New Complete Book of Breads

Where to buy flour:
Union Mills - a historical mill, now in operation again -- great freshly milled whole wheat bread flour for a buck a pound. They also mill a variety of other grains (buckwheat, corn, oats, and more). THE closest working mill to Baltimore. The website says nothing about the mill selling flour, but call ahead of coming if you want more than 2# bags and the miller will have it ready for you.
Whole Foods and Safeway have organic house brands of flour.
Shoppers on Joppa near Home Depot has a ton of Bob's Red Mill flours.
The Heath Concern in Towson has bulk organic whole wheat, but in my experience it isn't always very fresh. Perhaps your experience will be better. I love that store for a variety of other products.
Fowler's Mill in Ohio -- my generous mother-in-law has given me flour from there several times, and it makes the best bread I've ever made

And if you have your own mill: Rick Hood of Summercreek Farm will sell you organic whole grain wheat berries (uncleaned -- you have to sift off the chaff and whatnot yourself) for a very decent price.
Mail Address: 15209 Mud College Road, Thurmont, Maryland 21788
Email: Farmer@summercreekfarm.com
Phone: (301) 271 9399

Cooperation makes things happen:
This is the only local organic source I have found. If you find others, let me know. Those who I talked with say that wheat and oats are hard to do on a small scale because they require the costly combine to harvest them. We should start up a Baltimore grain co-op or CSA to support local farmers who desire to have a go at small time grain farming.
There are local organic sources for vegetables, dairy, meat, some fruits, but grains and legumes are much harder to come by unless you are willing to drive over an hour for them. Again, maybe setting up a co-op would help with that problem. Any interest?
And while I'm at it, anyone have a mill they'd be willing to let me use on a barter/trade basis?

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