For the last year or so, I’ve been practicing making bread. I’ve been fascinated with the idea of bread, partly because of the image of Jesus as our bread of life. Anyway, this is a little off-topic for me, but occasionally someone asks me for my bread recipe.
I’m going to give you a basic recipe for a boule. That’s a loaf you form by hand and bake without a pan–preferably on a stone. It makes good pizza crust, foccacia, or bread sticks, too. You can do all sorts of things with this recipe, but that would make for a long, long post, so let’s just start with this.
1 C sourdough starter
1 1/2 T dry yeast Update: I now only add a teaspoon, to any recipe. It helps the sourdough flavor to predominate, and it’s always plenty
2 T kosher or coarse salt
2-3 T ground rosemary (opt.)
3 1/2 C lukewarm water
4 1/2 C unbleached or bleached all purpose white flour (more or less)
Mix your dough the day before you want to bake if possible. It’s more convenient, and it will taste better.
I’ll tell you how to make the starter at the end of this post. Let it sit out and warm up if you have time, then pour one cup of it into your bread bowl. Add the commercial yeast if you want to. It makes the bread rise more enthusiastically. Add the water and whisk it all together until the dry yeast dissolves. You can let it sit for a while (15-30 minutes) at this point to give the yeast a head start, but you don’t have to. Add the rosemary (or other herbs of your choice) and the salt. (note: Salt and some herbs can inhibit the yeast, so don’t over-do it.) Keep in mind that if you add a significantly greater quantity to your recipe, you’ll want to increase the salt.
Add the flour a cup or two at a time, stirring it in as you go. Make sure you have a cup or two sitting by when you start mixing with your hands so you can pour it in without gunking up your flour canister if you want more. If you’re using a heavy-duty mixer with dough hook, be careful you don’t over-mix. You don’t have to knead this bread, and it will work better if you don’t. Keep adding flour until the dough isn’t sticking too much to your hands. It will be a little sticky, and you can oil or wet your hands if you like, to alleviate this. You don’t want to over-do it with the flour, or your bread will become tough. Kneading it too much can also make it tough — just knead it enough to mix in the ingredients well.
Oil the ball of dough and cover it with plastic wrap or a damp tea towel. Place it in the refrigerator or other cool place overnight. It doesn’t have to be really, really cold–a chilly basement would do fine. Allowing the dough to rise overnight enhances the flavor greatly.
Next day, punch down the dough, let it warm up if necessary, cut off a piece the size of a grapefruit, and form it into a boule (that’s chef-talk for a ball) or a long narrow loaf (like French bread or baguette or similar). If you’re going to use a baking stone, place the loaf on a bed of cornmeal on a cookie sheet, pizza peel, cutting board or something like that to rise. Otherwise, just put it on an oiled pan/cookie sheet/etc. Set your oven to 450 degrees Fahrenheit. Place a stone inside to pre-heat with the oven if you have one. Put a pan on the lower shelf that’s big enough to hold one cup of water (don’t fill it yet). Wrap up the remaining dough and keep it in the fridge for 3-4 days, or divide and freeze it. Freezing it takes the umph out of the yeast, so when you thaw the bread, knead in a tsp of dry yeast to get it going.
Let your loaf rise for about 20 – 40 minutes, then slide it off onto the stone in the oven. Nudge it with a spatula if it doesn’t want to move. Or just put your pan in the oven if you haven’t got a stone. Pour one cup of water into the pan on the bottom shelf and close the door. Unless you made a really big loaf, 35-40 minutes should be about right. The bread should feel firm but not brick hard. Getting the timing right takes a bit of experimentation, and it will vary with the size of your loaf, your altitude, weather, etc. After awhile you’ll get the hang of it.
The water in the pan will create steam in your oven and give your bread a nice, crackly crust. I know it’s difficult, but let your bread cool on a rack for at least 10-15 minutes before cutting it, or it will be too soft.
Now for the starter . . .
I mix my starter 1:1 flour and water (more or less). Actually, it’s been such a long time since I started my starter that I forget the exact proportions. It doesn’t really matter. I like it the consistency of pancake batter. You can leave it out on the counter covered by a strainer or cheesecloth until it starts to grow something, but being an impatient sort, I added several tablespoons of commercial yeast to mine. You could add other kinds of yeast, like wine or beer yeast or the lees from wine you’ve been fermenting. That will give it an interesting flavor right away.
I mixed up my flour and water and yeast, covered my mixture with a sieve, and set it on the counter for several days. It will bubble up, so use a tall container. You’re leaving it out to give it a good chance to grow a healthy population and also to collect any wild yeasts that happen to float by.
At this point, your starter is worth using. Use it in the recipe above or any bread recipe you like. Just remember you’ll have to increase the flour in the recipe because of the wet starter you’re adding. And if you increase the flour, you should also increase the salt a little bit. I don’t expect my starter to make the bread rise–it will do it, but I always add dry yeast also–whatever the recipe calls for, or perhaps a bit less. (As I noted earlier, I’ve discovered that a teaspoon full does the job just fine.)
When you use a cup of the starter, replenish it with a mixture of 1/2 C flour and 1/2 C lukewarm water. Adjust these proportions to your liking. If you don’t make bread for a week (horrors!), you can pour out a cup of starter and replenish as above. (I have been known to let mine sit for several weeks whilst neglecting to feed it. 😳 The starter will need yeast at this point to raise the bread, but it still does the job of flavoring it just fine. Add a bit of yeast to your starter once you’ve taken out what you need for baking. Add flour and water as above, and put it back in the fridge. It’s all better and healthy again!)
After a while, the yeasts use up all the starch and start to die off unless you feed them. If you find it’s not as bubbly as you like, toss in an extra tablespoon of commercial yeast anytime. Guard this starter. The longer you have it, the better it will taste. Share with your friends, but don’t forget to replenish it. If you leave it sitting too long, it will develop a layer of greeny brown water on top. Pour this off or stir it in. The starter hasn’t spoiled, and yes–it’s supposed to smell like that. That’s what makes it good! 🙂