I like laundry. Things spin around; there is a sense of renewal at the end. I feel gratified breathing in the scent of clean clothes and having restored softness in my socks. It’s a simple short term reward.
At the opposite end of the spectrum is making sourdough, a process I never endeavored until late last year. A single loaf can take a day to make, even longer depending on the recipe. The starter alone requires several weeks to become active. It can really test one’s patience, a virtue I do not have in abundance. Still, I became and remain a faithful follower to this lactic acid way of life.
My husband jokes that I pay more attention to my starter than I do to him. Of course that’s not true but I do love how quickly my starter responds to the attention I give it. It’s immediate and reliable. I know that if I feed it with rye flour and fresh water and stir it every morning, it will bubble and grow and be ready to bake by a certain time. Sourdough is a constant in my life that I control. A delicious beautiful constant. I take comfort in the fact that if I tend to it regularly, it will live in perpetuity. I can’t say the same about my body or even my house plants.
There is a poster in The Library of Congress inspired by one of Judy Grahn‘s Common Woman poems. The quote comes from “Vera, From My Childhood” and it reads:
I swear to you
on my common woman’s head
The common woman is as common as the best of bread
and will rise
For years I have been baking. When I was younger, I’d help my grandmother who is American but of Danish and Norwegian heritage. She comes from folks who love a sweet roll. Lots of people who cook, bakers even, are terrified of working with yeast. Not Grandma. She wills it to her command.Though as far as I know, she’s never worked with sourdough. If commercial yeast scares you, then wild yeast is probably the stuff of nightmares. So let me tell you what I’ve learned about sourdough. It is forgiving and surprisingly resilient. Even after a vicious bashing and having the wind knocked out of it, it will still rise.
Across Christmas I forgot my sourdough at home and for a week, it starved. I was convinced I’d never be able to revive my beloved starter I’d affectionately nicknamed The Queen Mother. Lo, after several feedings she lived! I changed her name to Lazarus. Not only did she endure, she thrives just like the common woman in Grahn’s poem. I wonder how many loads of laundry she washed.
Someone recently told me sourdough is a hipster hobby. Perhaps but not for me. Sourdough is life-affirming. Making it fills me with hope. The way it grows and gives and feels between my fingers as I knead and shape it. That wonderfully, warm, bready, slightly sour smell that permeates the flat when I bake it, I love it and am grateful for it as simple and common as it may be.
TO MAKE A SOURDOUGH STARTER:
The first ingredient is patience. Something with which I struggle.
Equal parts organic flour and filtered water. (I use rye flour)
I started by stirring 50 g of each into a smooth paste. Within 24 hours, small bubbles were visible.
FEEDING YOUR STARTER:
On day 2, I disposed half of my mixture before adding 50 g of flour and 50 g of fresh water.
I repeated this step daily. Not until day 9 did I see bubbles all throughout my starter as opposed to just on the top. This is when I knew my starter was close to ready.
TESTING YOUR STARTER: Put a teaspoonful of starter in a cup of water. If it floats, it’s ready. If it sinks, it’s not. Continue feeding it for a few more days then test it again. Once it is ready for use, you can keep it alive with daily feedings. Or if you’re not going to use it that much, place it in the refrigerator and top it up with occasional feedings. This can go on forever. You can read more about this on The Perfect Loaf.
Ingredients for a sourdough sponge:
250 g strong white bread flour
275 g warm water
150 g sourdough starter
Method: Mix all ingredients in a bowl the night before you want to bake. Cover with plastic wrap. In the morning, the mixture should be good and bubbly. You want it to look this frothy.
Ingredients for a Sourdough Boule:
the sponge you just made
280 g strong bread flour (White is easiest and yields lighter loaves but feel free to mix in a bit of whole wheat. Play with the ratios to discover the taste and texture you like best.)
10 g sea salt
Method: Combine the sponge, flour, and salt in a large bowl. Use your hands to bring everything together. Knead the dough for at least 10 minutes or until smooth and elastic. Personally, I am fond of The French Method as demonstrated in the video below, but there are lots of ways to knead your dough. Do whatever pleases you.
A good test to tell whether or not you’ve built up the gluten enough with your kneading is the window pane test. Stretch a bit of dough between your fingers. If you can do this and it stretches thin enough that you can see the light through it without tearing, the dough is ready. If not, continue kneading. This isn’t to insinuate the dough won’t rip at all, but if it does, it should do so in small circles as opposed to long tears. If the dough sticks whilst kneading, use a bit of olive oil on your hands and counter top. This will help and won’t make the dough heavier like using flour.
Once it’s ready, place your dough in a large bowl that has been lightly greased with olive oil. Cover it with plastic wrap and set it aside.
When the dough has doubled in bulk, knock it back and shape it into a boule. Below is a very good video from Hobbs House Bakery that gives you several options on how to do this. Use whichever method you like best.
Once you have your dough in the banneton, cover the top and leave it for a second rise. Again, allow it to double in bulk.
Preheat the oven to Gas 10/500°F/260°C. Place the lid of a Dutch oven in the center rack to heat and a bowl of water on the very bottom rack for added moisture.
When your oven is hot enough, turn your dough out of the banneton onto a piece of baking paper. Score the bread with a design of your choice.
Remove the Dutch oven lid.
Carefully move the baking paper with the dough on it onto the Dutch oven lid. Sprinkle the boule or spray it with a a bit of water. Put the bottom part of the Dutch oven over the bread. Doing this will trap moisture which will make a good crust.
Place the upside down Dutch oven into the oven and bake for roughly 35 minutes.
After this time, remove the top of Dutch oven and continue baking the loaf for another 10 to 15 minutes depending on how dark you like your crust.
When it is finished baking, remove it from the oven. Remove it from the baking paper and allow it to cool on a wire rack. This will prevent the bottom crust from going soggy. Don’t cut into it before it’s cooled or the texture might be a bit gummy inside.