Exactly one year ago I embarked on a mission to learn how to make really good bread, naturally leavened, crunchy-crusted, tender-chewy crumb, with that heart-grabbing toasty-nutty-caramel-fermenty-yeasty aroma only fresh bread has. Fresh real bread.
As a pastry chef, my professional life always revolved around sugars, butter, eggs, cream and an endless array of other rich, expensive ingredients. With bread, I have found it incredibly refreshing to create so much variety with so few, basic ingredients. All you really need is flour, water and salt.
I started, appropriately, with a starter. I invited my tiny new yeast and bacteria friends to share our home, initially in a little container of raisin-water and flour. They eventually made it their own, prospered, and multiplied. This was pretty new to me, and I worried. There were moments of anxiety. Was I smothering my new friends with too much love? Too little? Are they still alive? I am more confident after all these months, but there is still so much to learn.
Should I have named my starter? Seems like everyone does, which is fine, but I didn’t. Regardless, I have strong feelings of attachment to these new boarders. The girls (definitely an all-girl club) came with us on a road trip to San Diego, where we baked up really fluffy loaves in the consistently warm, dry hills above Escondido. On our drive home, they accompanied us to the fabled Tartine and The Mill, Josey Baker’s super bakery/cafe. They stayed in the car, but still…
In early autumn we camped and hiked around Mt Hood, Oregon, and the girls were
there too. At the most beautiful campsite in the known world, I fed my starter, kept her warm overnight between our sleeping bags, and the next day mixed a beautiful batch of country bread. Soon we were on the road again, me performing bulk fermentation folds in the passenger seat, husband in search of a new campsite with a good firepit, and… okay, so the rest of the operation did not go so smoothly. But we tried! After every adventure we came home to tell the girls that stayed behind (never keep all your starter in one tub!) all about our fun, refreshed her and got back into the rhythm of life at home with sourdough.
I started my bread-ucation with a bunch of reading: Ken Forkish’s Flour Water Salt Yeast (plus visits to his bakery and pizza place in Portland, OR), a pile of Peter Reinhart books, but especially Crust and Crumb, and I just loved the little 52 Loaves, by William Alexander, who taught himself bread by baking the same loaf every week for a year, including a stint in a French monastery where he helped the monks revive a baking tradition that had been lost.
After a while I zeroed in on Tartine Bread, which, with it’s 100 explanatory pages (okay, I exaggerate) for Country Sourdough production, gives a really solid starting place for the novice sourdough baker. I prefer working with his smallish quantities of moderately wet (100%) starter, which I find less prone to acetic acid production, I enjoy the hand’s-on methods and inspiring recipes . I still use this book regularly , but have now begun working with Jeffrey Hamelman’s Bread, which feels like like setting out on the open road with bottomless fuel tank and adventures ahead. I know I said it before, but there’s so much to learn, and it is so ridiculously exciting.
I am a convert. As a food lover with food issues (AAARRGH!.. a story for another day), I am thrilled that I can successfully digest these delicious, long and slow fermentation breads most of the time. But there’s more to it than that. I am unabashedly obsessed with this tactile, sense-intense, productive process, one that is so tied to our histories and heritage.
Yadda yadda yadda… what about the recipe? This week I made a batch of my super delicious and healthful Morning Oats, fermented steel-cut oats with cardamom and sweetened with dried apricot and ginger. I used this soaker and a bit of walnut oil to enrich a loaf of country sourdough based on the basic Tartine formula. The result is tender, sweetly aromatic without being sweet, and really delicious.
Breakfast Porridge Sourdough
700ml plus 50ml warm water (about 80F)
200g 100% sourdough starter
800g bread flour
200f whole wheat flour
20g sea salt
3/4 recipe Morning Oats
3T walnut oil
1/2c sunflower seeds
1/2 pumpkin seeds
Make the Morning Oats and allow to cool. You’ll only need 3/4 of the recipe for bread, so enjoy some porridge for breakfast too. Don’t forget to remove the cardamom pods before adding to the bread!
In a moderate oven (300-350), toast the seeds until slightly colored and just fragrant. Allow to cool.
In a large bowl, combine 700ml warm water and starter and stir to combine. Add flours and mix to a shaggy mass. Cover, and allow the dough to rest, or “autolyse” for about 3 hours. (a shorter autolyse is fine, about an hour).
After rest, add salt and 50ml water and incorporate. Place the dough in a container with a lid that is large enough for the dough to approximately double and with enough room for you to manipulate the dough throughout its bulk fermentation.
the Bulk fermentation
Bulk fermentation is done at room temperature, which for “normal” homes is somewhere between 68F and 72F. If your house is anything like mine, unless it’s summertime, it’s a whole lot colder. Find a small space you can heat safely for this period. I heat a small guest bathroom with an area heater, and elegantly dub it the Salle du Pain. Find what works for you.
Every half hour for a period of 3 hours fold the dough: wet your hands and gently stretch the top quadrant of the dough up and then over the middle of the dough mass. Do the same for the sides, and then the bottom. Even though your dough probably isn’t rectangular like the envelope at right, you can pull the top, sides and bottom towards the middle in the same way.
With the first fold, incorporate the oat porridge soaker, nuts, and oil.
As bulk fermentation progresses, you’ll find that the expansion of the dough-due to trapped gasses within the glutinous dough structure-may make the dough more difficult to stretch and manipulate. This is a good sign! Work the folds gently so as to deflate as little as possible.
After fermentation, gently invert your dough onto a lightly floured work surface. Cut the dough in half, then fold each portion in half, so that the side of the dough (that was floured from the work table) is now enclosing your dough. Gently round the loaves with your lightly floured hands or with a bench knife. Let rest a few minutes
Your final shaping will be like the envelope folds from before. Bring the quadrants into the center-top, sides, bottom, and place the dough into a floured bread form. An 8″ stainless mixing bowl lined with a piece of well-floured cheesecloth is perfect, or if you have baking forms (bannetton or brotform), use those.
Let rise at room temperature (68F-72F) for 3 hours, or alternately, place in fridge overnight to retard.
Preheat oven to 500F with two deep covered baking dishes inside. Baking dishes don’t have to be glamorous or cute. I retrieved my husband’s ugly old smoke-colored pyrex covered casserole from the give-away pile, and it works great.
When the oven reaches temperature, remove one baking dish, remove lid, and gently invert a loaf into the pre-heated baker. Slash the top carefully with a knife or razor blade (one slash, or two in an X work well), place the lid on top and return to the pre-heated oven. Repeat for the second loaf.
Drop temperature to 450 and set the timer for 25 minutes. After 25 minutes, remove lids. Set timer for 20 minutes. Total baking time is 45-50 minutes, which should give you a crusty, well-burnished loaf.
Allow to cool, and enjoy!
Care and Mantenance
Naturally fermented breads have a remarkably long shelf life, especially those with higher water content. At 75%+ hydration, this bread should easily last a week, with proper care. It’s easy.
Slice what you need, and store the rest at room temperature with the cut side down. I store mine on the cutting board so it’s always easy to enjoy. That’s it! Keep plastic bags, plastic wrap, and refrigerators away, but if you must, wrap in paper. If you can’t manage a whole loaf, freezing is an option Better yet, give your extras to a new friend. There will be many.