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!


I’ve always loved ciabatta as the perfect grilled sandwich bread: chewy and toothsome on the outside, tender and pleasantly spongy on the inside. The ideal base onto which one can melt all manner of things that are tasty when melted. This being my first attempt at home baked ciabatta, I followed the recipe laid out in one of my favorites bread books: Bread by Eric Treuille & Ursula Ferrigno (a killer combo of French and Italian baking sensibilities).

The recipe begins with an overnight starter that I allowed to sit out at room temperature (which was probably hovering in the low 60’s) for 24 hours. Since it wasn’t too warm in my kitchen, I figured the little yeasties could handle a slightly longer fermentation period without becoming too exhausted.


1/2 tsp. dry yeast

2/3 cup water

3 TB milk

1/4 tsp. honey

1 cup + 2 TB flour

(Side note: after looking at other ciabatta recipes, I realize that this starter formula is relatively unique in that the dairy is included at such an early stage, rather than in the final mixing. The addition of a sweetener–albeit a small amount–also seems to be non-universal in ciabattaworld. I personally like this starter combo, as I think it allows for a deeper flavor to develop, and provides a little more of a feast for the yeast.)

The next day, I followed the rest of the recipe, and added to my starter:

1/2 tsp. dry yeast

1 cup water

1/2 TB olive oil

2 1/2 cups flour

1 1/2 tsp. salt

Per the authors’ instructions, I beat the dough with a wooden spoon for 5 or so minutes, and then let it rise for 3 hours. It was strange not to hand-knead a bread dough, but ciabatta is simply too sticky a dough for hand involvement. In a vain attempt to provide my yeast friends with an ideal work environment, I gave my oven a burst of heat, shut it off, waited for it to cool a bit, and then set the bowl of dough inside to rise. Unfortunately it remained a bit toastier than I thought it would, giving the yeast a chance to party a little too quickly. Once I caught my mistake, I brought the temperature down to a happy 75 degrees, and the little fellows slowed down a bit. After  three hours I had a bubbling bowl full of beauty:

Covering everything, myself included, with a liberal coating of flour, I split the dough in two, and transferred each half in all its sticky glory to a well-dusted baking sheet. The dough felt heavenly. It was soft and supple and just barely firm enough to be manageable. I gently shaped (or encouraged, rather) each blob into what could nearly be considered a loaf-ish form, careful not to expel any of the lovely air bubbles that are so prized in ciabatta. I let these loaves proof for almost half an hour while pre-heating my oven (and beloved bread stone) to 425 degrees.

In a delicate operation, I somehow managed to transfer my loaves into my miniature oven (seriously, it’s tiny) without ensuing disaster. They baked for close to half an hour, with some periodic burn-preventing rotation. When they emerged, I had to laugh a little. According to my lovely bread book, “ciabatta was given its name because the bread resembles a well-worn slipper.” If these slippers were made for Andre the Giant, then this statement would be absolutely true. The loaves were a lovely crackling brown and had expanded beautifully, but had that sort of flattened look that is so typical of comfort footwear after years of experiencing the full brunt of one’s body weight. Nevertheless, I was pleased.

Cutting into and munching on the fresh loaves made me forget about slippers, and focus on the pleasing contrast of crust and crumb-the latter so very tender and soft from the added dairy. Revealing the cross section of a newly baked loaf is always one of my favorite moments, like finding the prize in the king’s cake (although less of a dental risk). You never know what it will reveal about the bread’s inner character and it is almost (almost) as exciting as eating the first slice.

These particular loaves revealed just what I was hoping to see: a beautiful network of air pockets, perfect for mopping up the sauce of dinner to come.

All in all, quite delicious. I think next time I will add a touch more salt, and will use a different blend of white and wheat (a little heavier on the whole wheat). Thank you to Eric and Ursula for writing such an accessible recipe!