making real sourdough bread

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“It is pleasant: one of those almost hypnotic businesses, like a dance from some ancient ceremony. It leaves you filled with peace, and the house filled with one of the world’s sweetest smells. But it takes a lot of time. If you can find that, the rest is easy. And if you cannot rightly find it, make it, for probably there is no chiropractic treatment, no Yoga exercise, no hour of meditation in a music-throbbing chapel, that will leave you emptier of bad thoughts than this homely ceremony of making bread.

“You should have four bread pans, which can be bought usually at a junk-man’s if one of your female relatives does not have them stuck away in some cupboard under the back stairs. You might even buy the glass ones, which are very good, although less romantic. You will need a big bowl, too.

“Given these props, then, and an oven that will hold the four pans, you can safely embark on what may, for the first time at least, be a harrowingly entertaining experience, but will probably lead to many calmer, peace-bringing times.”

– “How to Rise Up Like New Bread,” How to Cook a Wolf by MFK Fisher

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I love Fisher’s words on the subject of baking bread — as a ritual, an exercise in bringing a little bit of the past and a little bit of peace into our modern kitchens. No matter where you stand on the nutritional value or detriment of bread, I think there are few of us around who would say we didn’t like it, or that it was a meaningless foodstuff. When I think of bread, I think of reading Little House on the Prairie. I think of my grandmother’s fresh yeasted rolls at every breakfast, at every holiday supper. I think of Biblical characters shaping and molding leaven to bake on a hearthstone next to the fire. The ancients, the people and traditions in the root of all of us.

In my mostly grain-free lifestyle, I love the idea of bread more than the bread itself, but I happened to be married to a man who dreams of it. Not just any old sliced bread, not the so-called “healthy” stuff packed with seeds and fibers, but the hollow crusty boudin loaves with a real sour taste and gasping air pockets inside. I have a feeling that, if we ever get to France, our tour will include an equal number of pain au chocolate and baguettes burnished gold by ancient wood-fired ovens as it will museums and boulevards.

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So I bake this for him. It is, as Fisher writes, a task that requires a great deal of time, but if I can find it the baking process proves to be a worthwhile endeavor. I knead and fold and rest, both my arms and the bread, and finally bake it in a preheated dutch oven at a very hot temperature, twenty minutes covered to trap the steam and seal the crust, twenty minutes uncovered to let the bread poof and crackle.

It is a labor of love in the truest sense of the phrase. When two loaves (sometimes a pretty as a picture, sometimes a little more dense than usual) are finally resting upon the breadboard, my husband tears into them with abandon and plenty of butter. Few crusts remain for toast the next day, but I think through these tokens of affection he feels the most loved. Hot bread, a full belly, a sweetly steamed kitchen and a flour-flecked wife do indeed a happy man make.

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Notes on baking sourdough: I first started this experiment with a recipe from Nourishing Traditions by Sally Fallon. The sourdough starter recipe I posted is what I have used through this entire process, even though I switched halfway through my experiment to the Tartine Bread methods of baking.

Whereas the NT method calls for freshly ground flour and overnight soaking, plus little more than a few turns of the dough, the Tartine method is much more involved. You must make a starter, and from that make a leaven, both of which take several days combined of feeding and rest. After the leaven has activated, more flour and water are added, there is a rest, then salt is kneaded in, and then another rest. The bulk fermentation happens at this point, but there are several more steps that follow. Each of the final steps involved turning and folding the dough, plus a few more rests. However, as time-consuming and labor-intensive as this recipe is in comparison to the NT method, it produces a reliably delicious loaf every time. Plus, the Tartine method can be “customized” to fit your schedule; i.e., if you run out of time for baking or if you’ll be leaving the house for a few hours, you can slow the fermentation process by refrigerating the dough. Chad Robertson, the author of the Tartine book, is thoughtful that way.

Because the Tartine method is so perfect and involved, I will not attempt to recreate the recipe here — bread making is, after all, a marriage of art and science, with as much to do with feel as it is ratios. If you’re interested in making bread like the kind I’ve written about and photographed, check out Robertson’s book. Regardless of it you get around to actually baking a loaf yourself, the tome is gorgeous, more novel and travel log than cookbook. It will be as at home on a coffee table as in a kitchen cupboard.

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5 thoughts on “making real sourdough bread

  1. Yum! You are right, those look like the kind of loaves you might find in France. When they make bread over there, they mean it.

    The Patient Husband found a yeast free bread recipe some years back that called for making a sourdough starter and leaving it on top of the fridge, then doing stuff to it for several days. The natural bacteria in the air caused the bread to rise/ferment. It was kind of heavy, but had an interesting piny rosemary flavor that could only have come from the cedar grove north of our house.

  2. This post is particularly exciting because today I found some reeeeaalllly good quality first-press olive oil that was beautifully green and cloudy, and it made me think how yummy it would be to drizzle it on olives, mozzarella, tomatoes, basil and freshly baked bread. I actually went in search of bread flour but they had run out. I haven’t made bread in ages, but today I felt like I was ready to give it a go again, and then here I see your post. This must be a sign. Hahah 🙂

  3. Sour dough bread is wonderful! My father makes sour dough bread every Saturday with his own starter. I occasionally have made it with his starter and it is delicious fresh with a little butter on top. Loved your story!

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