Sourdough, Round One

Sourdough has always intimidated me a little. It’s like looking at the eleven-year-olds in the back of the bus when you are only six. You desperately want the prestige of sitting in those prized seats. You have no idea why they are so elusively enviable, but you know they must be really excellent. The only problem is that when you are six, you are pretty sure you will never be eleven. Until today, I felt that the whole concept of sourdough was shrouded in mystery, much like the back of the bus. When you’re up against stories of decades-old sourdough starters, it’s a little scary to start your own. Luckily, I was armed with an excellent book, Bread Alone, by Daniel Leader & Judith Blahnik, that allowed my six-year-old self to go sit in the back of the sourdough bus.

My infantile starter (or chef, I should say), years away from even being in its adolescence, was nonetheless bubbling away happily after four days of daily feeding.

Following the instructions of the brilliant authors of Bread Alone, I had begun my chef with 4 oz. of flour and 4 oz. of water (along with an added pinch of yeast, since there probably aren’t so many wild little yeasts in my kitchen just yet). Every day for three days, I added another 4 oz. of flour and water each. Yesterday, after tasting a very pungent nibble of dough, I determined that my little chef was ready to transform into a levain. Again per the authors’ instructions, I added 6 oz. of flour, effectively rendering the transformation. I let this mixture sit in the refrigerator overnight to slow it down, since I wouldn’t be able to get to mixing my final dough until a little beyond the recommended fermentation time.

This morning, I measured out the 18oz. of levain that I needed for my bread, and converted the remaining mix back into a chef by adding 2.5 oz. of flour and 7 oz. of water. I stuck this fellow back in the fridge, where he awaits a weekly feeding, and can now provide me with a starter every two days if I so desire. As long as I don’t neglect my chef too seriously, I am now officially on the sourdough wagon!

Following Bread Alone‘s basic pain au levain recipe, I used my hands to break up the 18 oz. of starter with 18 oz. of water (a marvelous gooey job that is just not spoon-worthy). I then added 24 oz. of flour and 1 TB salt. As I kneaded, I probably added in 3 or more oz. of flour until my dough reached just the right consistency. The dough then fermented for 2 hours, went through an awkward pat down/division (I desperately need a dough cutter) and then rested for another half an hour. I next shaped my loaves–one in a torpedo shape, the other in a loaf pan–and let them proof for a further two hours.

With much anticipation, I slid my torpedo loaf into my 425 degree oven, and had a whomp-whomp moment when I realized once again that my loaf’s dimensions exceeded those of my oven. I quickly poked and prodded the loaf as it sat on the rather toasty oven stone and managed to turn it into an S-shaped torpedo without singeing my fingerprints off. After a few rotations, and about 25 minutes, my inaugural sourdough loaf emerged.

It was a silly shape for sure, but it smelled like bread heaven. The scent was noticeably different from any other bread I’ve yet baked-not only yeasty but, well, sour I suppose. It seems that we usually associate “sour” with old milk, or taste bud annihilating candies (warheads, anyone?), but this “sour” was rich and fermented and delicious. My second loaf emerged shortly after, nestled in its ceramic loaf pan-a fantastic invention I was not aware of until this Christmas (thanks Beck!)

The first cut into my S-torpedo revealed a dense crumb with a nice thick crust, and a million tiny air pockets.

As I took my first bite, I was both pleased and surprised. The flavor was incredibly rich–almost nutty–and kept evolving the more I chewed. While my taste buds were pleased with this moist and flavorful experience, my teeth were surprised at how much the bread bounced back upon first munch. It wasn’t tough by any measure, but it was quite chewy. After a few more munches, I became accustomed to the flavor/texture combo, and quite enjoyed it.

I do think, however, that the chewiness of the dough was due to the prolonged fermentation period of my levain. Instead of the recommended 8-10 hours at room temperature, my levain spent about 15 hours in the fridge. I think my little yeasty friends used up too much of their umph by the time I mixed my final dough. Since the yeast in the levain is the only leavening agent in a sourdough bread, it is important that it is not taking a nap by the time you are ready to put it to work. This probably accounts for my slightly flat torpedo, as well as the more dense, chewy texture. The beautiful thing about having my own sourdough starter now is that I can try again in two days!

Thank you to Daniel and Judith for debunking the sourdough mystery with such clarity!

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