Friday, October 7, 2011

The whole is a sum of its parts

I love making bread. Big giant loaves of it. Sourdough, French, Dinner Rolls, Whole Wheat Sandwich Bread ... There is little in this world that rivals the first slice off of a fresh loaf of bread right out of the oven. It's heaven.

My in-laws gifted me a sourdough starter a few Christmases ago ... It's the ancestor of a 250 year old yeast culture, which means there's a good chance that one or two grains of yeast in there are at least that old. Back in the early days of bread making (we're talking hundreds of years ago), yeast wasn't really an option for baking. Most historical (and now culturally significant) breads were dense and unleavened. Then one fine morning some baker left his flour and water mixture out overnight, as the oral history goes ... maybe he was being lazy? Maybe it had been a really difficult week and he threw his hands up and said to himself, "That's it! I'm going home for a glass of wine." The next day he noticed that the pre-dough he left out had doubled in size. So he baked some of it. And it was delicious. 

What he had done is capture a wild yeast. Yes, they exist. No, I haven't caught one. I keep my starter fed in a clay crock in the fridge. You can get sourdough starter from all sorts of places. If you get in good with a baker at your favorite high end restaurant, they might throw you a tablespoon of starter - and that's all you need to begin. There's a process of feeding, cutting down the mixture, feeding it again. It seems complicated at first, but it's as simple as tossing a cup of flour and a cup of water into the container and letting it do its thing. 

We've come a long way since starters were the norm for leavening breads, cakes and other baked goods. So why keep up the practice, especially if it requires so many steps and keeping a microscopic organism alive? 


The flavor of a rustic sourdough bread is hard to compare. So, I figured I would share my favorite recipe for sourdough bread. Don't have a starter at home? You can catch a batch of wild yeast at home, if you're so inclined ... or you can buy some online (the MUCH easier route). I recommend this website, Sourdough Home, which is pretty comprehensive on the subject. They have links to help you buy a reputable starter from a few different suppliers. They'll come to you in small amounts and it's up to you to feed it and keep it alive until it's ready to bake with. Think of it like an edible chia pet? Or a guppy or spider plant that feeds you after you feed it. Now that's a pet worth having in the refrigerator. 


[I told you I like King Arthur ... my starter comes from their original batch, caught 250 years ago. My mother-in-law, Dianne, noticed I was baking a lot at home and decided this was a perfect gift- and was it EVER. Their guide is comprehensive, but not overly-so. The rules are simple with starter and once you have it  nailed, your bread will never be the same.]

1 cup "fed" sourdough starter
1 1/2 cups luke warm water
2 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 tablespoon sugar
2 teaspoons instant yeast
5 cups all purpose, unbleached flour

Mix all of that together and knead to form a smooth dough. Put your dough ball in a greased bowl, covered, and let it rise until doubled ... that'll take around 90 minutes- give or take- depending on the temperature of your kitchen, etc. You'll know it's doubled when you go to press your finger into it and the dough doesn't bounce back to shape. If you leave a dent, it's ready to knock down.

At that point, divide the dough in half (unless you're like me and feel daring enough to make one, GIANT sourdough loaf .. the result is huge, but just as good) and shape into two oval loaves. Let these rise again, for about 60 minutes, until doubled. Slash the tops and bake at 425 for 30 minutes. For a nicer crust I like to put a baking dish of water in the oven while the bread bakes. It creates steam that cures the crust and adds a great bite to the bread.

I'm sure you noticed how simple the ingredients are for a baking bread. Artisan bread really is that simple ... there are no preservatives (so you should eat it quickly!) and no chemicals. If you buy bread at the grocery store, have a gander at the ingredients on the label. If the consist of just flour, water, salt, sugar and yeast- that's awesome. Please share which bread you buy. I'm sure it's awesome. Sandwich breads add eggs and milk for protein and to create a different crumb, but outside of that breads shouldn't vary much. I decided to stop buying manufactured bread when the healthiest loaves were twice the price of others. Making bread at home costs just a few cents. We haven't bought a loaf since ... and it's been a great way to eat healthier.

I know not everyone can bake their own bread, but you should consider that most of the work is just waiting for the damn thing to rise. I hope to have bread as part of the menu I can offer clients. I have quite the arsenal of bread skills. And there's just something special about sharing bread fresh from the oven. 

In coming posts ... less about baking, more about cooking. It's this change of seasons that's got me all baking happy. Our apartment is small and baking anything helps us supplement our home heating. Ha! 

I think a braise should be next. Something that falls off the bone and melts in your mouth. With sweet and savory roasted vegetables.

Now I'm hungry again ... and I just had breakfast! (Muesli to be exact. Love that stuff.)

Be well, enjoy your Friday!

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