I am breaking my long silence here with a post about sourdough. The lazy person’s guide to sourdough, that is. I know I’m not the only one with a low fuss approach to breadbaking, but lately I’ve been asked by a few people for resources and I don’t know that I have one place I would send people to, so I’m going to post all my advice here, with links to additional resources I’m aware of.
By now, there has been so much press on sourdough that I’m sure you are aware that to make sourdough you need some sourdough starter to begin. Starter is simply flour and water, fermented over time in the right conditions. You can get starter from someone you know, or you can make your own. I highly recommend getting some from someone you know, but if you can’t do that then this Sourdough Bootcamp by the Boreal Gourmet is an excellent resource for both developing a new starter and using up the discard in the process.
The big thing with developing the starter, and sourdough fermentation in general is that it takes time and there is no getting around that. A recipe may tell you that in two days your starter should be doing x, but in your particular kitchen at a certain time of year it may only take one day, or it might take three. It’s way more important to learn about your starter and what it should look like when it’s ready to bake with, then to pay attention to the timing other people tell you.
Once you get some starter happening, you shouldn’t have anymore discard going forward and it’s really easy to maintain in the refrigerator. If you bake everyday, keep it on the counter, but in my house once or twice a week is more normal. Maintaining starter requires that you have a couple of clean quart-sized mason jars (preferably with the wide mouth opening), and a kitchen scale.
I tend to mix up about 300-600 grams of starter whenever I start to get low. To do this, I weigh the starter in my jar out into a clean jar, and then to that jar I add an equal amount of water and flour. So if there is 100 grams of starter in my jar, I add 100 grams of water and 100 grams of flour. I use all-purpose flour for my starter, but any flour should work with varying results. (This ratio of 1:1:1 makes a 100% hydration starter, just in case you get into fancier recipes that call for specified hydration ratios.)
Once I’ve added the flour and water to the old starter, I stir it up into a paste, put a lid back on the jar and keep it in the fridge. It will slowly activate in the cold temperatures, but whenever I want to bake I have to get it more activated on the counter. Starter kept in the fridge like this will last a long time, but should be fed once a month or so if you are not actively baking with it. If you let your starter go for say — 2 years — without touching it, it will require a lot of work to reactivate it (ask me how I know). A healthy, active starter has lots of big bubbles and a slight curvature at the top. A non-active starter looks a lot like white glue and after time it will separate and liquid rises to the top. At any point you can reactivate your starter by stirring the liquid back down and feeding it a few times.
Baking with your starter
Baking sourdough takes more planning than other kinds of bread might, but not too much effort overall. My baking tends to take two days, but there is not too much fussing in those two days.
In short form these steps are:
With more info (also, the full recipe below contains this info in slightly different form so you have it all in one place):
My (current) favourite lazy sourdough recipe
There are a million sourdough recipes on the Internet and some fancy-schmancy books out there – and I am sure many of these professional bakers have recipes far better than mine – but I am after a tasty loaf with minimal effort and mess – and this is what have found works for me (the steps above are the same as the ones described in this recipe). The first time you make this, you might want to just use all all-purpose flour to see the process without getting too fussy – but branching out with different flours makes for a much more satisfying flavour profile. I’m sharing here my favourite so far:
Hydration and crumb
I am not going to get into hydration math here, but just want to say that the loaf above is a low-hydration loaf that produces a tight crumb (by which I mean, the dough is stiffer to work with, and it doesn’t have a ton of holes in it when you cut it open). Low hydration tends to make a tighter crumb, and many sourdough purists are big believers in high-hydration/open crumb. I have worked a bit with high-hydration doughs and found that I just don’t have the time or patience for the mess that can ensue. Also, for everyday eating with eggs or cheese toast, I prefer my bread with less holes in it.
For a good discussion of hydration and how it impacts your bread (and your experience baking bread), I recommend this blog post at True Sourdough
If you get into sourdough in some more intense way – then I would recommend Sarah Owens’ book Sourdough: Recipes for Rustic Fermented Breads, Sweets, Savories, and More which is full of wonderful flour, fruit, vegetable combinations with which you can really go down the bread rabbit-hole. Her book also includes lots of beautiful recipes for discard and starter like cookies and pastry all made with whole grains.
Why make sourdough at all when commercial yeast is so readily available? For me it’s about being able to take two simple ingredients – flour and water – and turning that into something delicious and non-replicable. Every time you make a loaf it is different for one reason or another, every time you feed your starter, the taste can change ever so slightly or it might take longer to double in volume. The taste profile of sourdough is complex and ever changing, and I can honestly say that the best breads I have ever eaten (I’m looking at you Breitenbush Hotsprings and Willows Inn), the ones that have brought me great joy, have all been sourdoughs. With the recipe above, I have figured out the process and the recipe that works best for me, fits into my work days and results in something that brings the great pleasure of high end food into my home.
As I mentioned at the top, sourdough takes time and your kitchen temperature, bacteria, and ingredients are going to influence how much time it takes. I have had so many “failures” with sourdough, and they were all related to paying attention to the recipe rather than my own observed experience.
What really changed things for me is that once I found a recipe that worked for me (around my work schedule and that wasn’t demanding of my time), I made it over and over again. I changed the flours, I add more or less water, tried different timing on the rise and different scoring techniques. This is how you make a recipe yours and also learn how dough works, how different ingredients impact texture and taste, and what flavours you are working to develop in your bread.
I bake once or twice a week (or when guests are here, every day because people devour this bread a loaf at a time), and find the technique above just fits into my life. Perhaps you have more time and inclination towards more nuanced technique and if so – there are a million resources out there! But if not, my lazy advice above stands in for a damned good loaf of bread. Promise!