The Bread Illustrated cookbook presents its recipes from easiest to most difficult. The first chapter is “Starting from scratch: 12 foolproof breads that teach the basics”. It then progresses to “Sandwich breads”, “Mastering size and shape”, and so on. The final chapter is titled: “Raising the bar: project recipes worth the time”. Oooh – intimidating!
I am pleased to say that I finally dipped my toes into this scary chapter by baking the mother of all breads: sourdough. The cool thing about sourdough is that it is made entirely without yeast – at least, not the kind you buy in the grocery store. It is made using something called “sourdough culture”, which takes 13 – 18 days to make. No joke.
(The left is what it looks like when you make it, the right is what it looks like the next morning. Repeat for two weeks.)
The Bread Illustrated recipe for sourdough culture involves an awful lot of flour (9.5 cups total) and filtered water – that’s it. The process is oddly similar to brewing beer. You mix some of the flour and some of the water, let it sit for 2 to 3 days until it’s bubbly and smelly, and then you basically add some more flour and water EVERY SINGLE DAY for two weeks. It’s strange and I don’t yet understand the science behind it. It feels incredibly wasteful, since every morning, you only keep 1/4 of a cup of the bubbly mix from the day before, and you toss the rest. But I followed the rules diligently and it appears to have turned out well. Better than my home brew did, at least.
The good news is that once you’ve established your culture, you can keep it for a long time in the fridge. It requires weekly maintenance, kind of like a house plant – more flour, more water, some room temperature sitting time, then back in the fridge. So basically, I will be baking sourdough bread once per week until the end of time.
Making the culture is just the first step in baking sourdough bread. The next step includes this line: “… let sit at room temperature for 5 hours, then refrigerate for 16 to 24 hours”. Step 7 then says “… let loaf sit at warm room temperature for 1 hour, then refrigerate for at least 12 hours or up to 16 hours.” Timing it all is somewhat tricky, because step 8 calls for leaving the loaf at room temperature for 2 to 3 hours, then you actually have to bake the bread for just over an hour. If you don’t manage it right, you could be baking sourdough at 3 AM.
There’s a reason this bread is in the advanced chapter.
Mine turned out WONDERFULLY (by my admittedly imperfect standards, at least).
The crust is crispy, the middle is chewy – it tastes like the perfect rustic bread and I am so proud of it.
But I have a confession: I actually prefer the chewier, paler crust of the sourdough bread my brother-in-law buys at the local grocery store. It’s not some artisan bread, it’s just the house brand inexpensive kind. There goes my bread snob credibility.
Anyway, I’ll be baking 52 more of these over next year, so it will be interesting to see how my skills evolve!