When I moved to the farm after 13 years of living in the city, my grandmother suggested I start small. You know, small garden, only a few chickens, don’t bite off more than you can chew…I didn’t really listen. Maybe I should have. But now, almost three years into my prairie farm life, I think it might be too late to heed her wise advice…
Spill the beans is a weekly column chronicling my attempts at a self-sufficient life on this small prairie farm.
I’ve had a love-hate relationship with sourdough for the past five years or so. The relationship (and seriously, using the word “relationship” is hardly overstating considering the process) began after reading The Urban Homestead, by Kelly Coyne and Erik Knutzen. It is a truly all-encompassing guide to having an urban farm as long as the idea of keeping chickens in the garden shed, gathering fruit from public spaces and pooping in a five gallon pail sounds like something you’re really interested in. In some ways, the book is very extreme. But the tone is conversational, not militant in the slightest (as some homesteading books tend to be) and certainly makes everything sound entirely possible. (It’s worth bearing in mind, however, that the authors of the book live in Southern California, so their level of food production is considerably different from those of us shivering on the prairies for six months of the year.) I would consider it a definite must-read for anyone considering a switch to a “homesteader” lifestyle whether you live in the city or the country.
The sourdough recipe in the book is simple. First you make the starter, feed it regularly and when it’s ready (seriously, the worst words you can possibly hear when you have no idea what that even means), you make the bread. Sounds easy, right? The first loaf turned out alright. It was small, but utterly delicious. At the time, I found the feeding of the starter tedious and the making of the bread took all day. And who has time for that? I wasn’t smitten like people seemed to be. My regular yeast bread usually turned out just right every time, the rising was predictable and the taste was great. So I decided that it wasn’t for me.
My next experience, about a year or two later, was similar, except that I never actually made the bread. I made the starter, fed it regularly, but realized that I didn’t actually have enough time to bake the bread, so instead, I made the most delectable sourdough pancakes.
The best pancakes I have ever eaten, in fact. But really, is feeding a starter for a week really worth it for five or six pancakes? No, of course not. I decided yet again to pack in the sourdough starter.
Last summer, I read Michael Pollan’s Cooked. Which inspired another round of sourdough making. Again, I made the starter, fed it and made the bread. And again, the process of making the bread took all day. And again I asked myself “Who has time for this?” This time, while baking, my oven starting acting weird and the loaf came out not quite baked, flat and not delicious. At which point I declared to T that I was “never making sourdough again” and “please don’t ever let me get a sourdough starter going again.”
Famous last words. I should have learned a long time ago, to never say “never.”
I blame this latest round of sourdough making on my sister. We chatted about it and she was really keen to try it. I, of course, warned her against anything of the sort, but she was determined. She really liked how it turned out, so I, like a sucker, decided, yet again, to make a starter.
But this time, something different happened. This time, I decided to Frankenstein a few recipes together to make the actual making of the bread suit my lifestyle, my timelines. And I’ve never had a starter turn out like this before. It was frothy and had a complex yeasty, slightly sour smell. The dough proofed and rose like yeasted bread dough and the loaf coming out of the oven looked exactly like I wanted it to.
So now I’m hooked.
Sourdough Bread (adapted from The Urban Homestead, Breadtopia and Jim Leahy’s No Knead Bread)
The starter: Mix ½ cup unbleached white flour and ½ cup warm water in a glass container that holds at least 3 cups of liquid. (Don’t use metal because you won’t get the reaction you are looking for, and I try to avoid plastic as much as possible, but that will work in a pinch). It will look like paste and be somewhat liquid-ish. Cover with a cloth. The next day, get rid of (as in pour down the drain) most of the mixture – about 1 cup – and add ½ cup of unbleached white flour and ½ cup lukewarm water. Mix well. Repeat the process of pouring off most of the mixture and feeding with the flour/water combo each day. After about five days or closer to a week depending on the time of year and the temperature of your kitchen, you will notice that your mixture has bubbles on the top and should smell yeasty, or even like beer. That means it’s ready to use. Instead of getting rid of most of it, you can use it to make bread.
Important notes: You must feed the starter every day or it gets moldy. Sometimes you can get away with thirty hours between feedings, but you really are pushing your luck with that.
After pouring off the majority of starter, you may be left with little more than a tablespoon full. Don’t panic. It feels like a waste, but that’s just how it goes.
If you aren’t going to bake bread for a while, store your starter in the fridge. Feed it once a week or so. Take it out of the fridge a day before you want to use it.
The bread: Get yourself a kitchen scale. You will be happy for it on many occasions and I really think it is what has made the difference for this round of sourdough bread baking.
8 oz sourdough starter
13 oz unbleached white flour
3 oz whole wheat flour
2 tbsp bran
8 oz cool water
1 ½ tsp salt
Mix all ingredients together in a large bowl, either by hand or with a stand mixer until flour is well incorporated. Cover bowl with plastic wrap (I usually use a grocery bag). Let rest for 15 minutes. Mix again. Let rest for 15 minutes. Mix. Let dough sit, in bowl, covered with plastic for 12-14 hours.
After the long proof, stretch and fold dough (check out Breadtopia on Youtube for a video on this). Shape into a round or boule. Cover and let rest for 15 minutes. Heavily dust a cotton or linen tea towel with flour and place in a bowl or basket. Place the boule into the towel-lined bowl. Cover with plastic. Let rise for 1-1.5 hours.
During the last proof, heat oven to 475°F. Place covered Dutch oven in oven while heating. After bread has proofed, take Dutch oven out of oven and carefully (it’s hot!) roll the boule into the heated pot (this cannot be done gracefully, so just do it fast). Bake covered for 30 minutes. Bake uncovered for an additional 15-20 minutes. Take out of oven and out of pot. Place on cooling rack. LET COOL COMPLETELY before eating. It’s hard to wait, but completely worth it.
Jamie Dyck is trying to give away her excess sourdough starter. Message her on twitter, @jndyck, if interested.