Get the bread recipe here.
I’ve often wondered how it is that bread, which is so basic to most of the world’s food cultures, has turned into something that we are intimidated to make ourselves. Homemade bread is often much more nutritious, and certainly less expensive, than so-called “artisan” breads available commercially. As farmers, homesteaders, or sustainability-minded city dwellers, we not only want to learn to do more for ourselves, we want to be more economical in our use of resources. In other words, we don’t want to waste time, money, or effort.
If you’ve been to one of my presentations at the Mother Earth News Fair recently, you’ve heard the story of how I used to get up at 2 a.m. to shape and proof bread dough. Being naturally thick-headed, it took me more than a few rounds of this to figure out that I was, frankly, out of my mind. For goodness’ sake, I’m not a professional baker! Plus, I never slept well after those nocturnal trips to the kitchen. Interrupting a night’s sleep like that, all for the sake of one loaf of bread, simply didn’t make sense. So when this finally occurred to me, I set about learning how to control my bread-making routine, rather than having the process control me and my schedule.
Why do people shy away from making their own bread? The main reasons I hear are that it seems mysterious, complicated, and inaccessible (especially sourdough), or they don’t have time for bread-making. I get it, but I’m going to change your mind about it.
Bread is simple: flour, salt, yeast, and water. Bread made with commercial yeast ferments fairly rapidly; the entire process takes around four hours from mixing to taking it out of the oven. This speeding up of the process — originally designed to benefit commercial bakers — actually makes yeast bread more challenging to find time to make. Between mixing and baking, several processes happen, and transitions happen quickly, so over those four hours, your attention is required almost constantly.
In the case of sourdough, a sour culture (starter) populated with wild yeast takes the place of commercial yeast. Wild yeast multiplies more slowly than commercial yeast, so the whole process slows down as a result. Slowing down the fermentation not only results in better-tasting, longer-lasting bread, it also allows for much more flexibility in your schedule.
These days, my normal weekly baking routine covers about 24 hours. Here’s how it works:
Day one, morning: Refresh sourdough culture (3 minutes). Ferment at cool temperature for 8 to 12 hours.
Day one, evening: Mix and knead dough (20 to 35 minutes total, depending on kneading technique). Ferment dough at cool temperature overnight (8 to 12 hours).
Day two, morning: Preheat oven and baking stone, then shape dough (5 minutes). Proof dough for 1 hour as baking stone preheats. Bake bread (45 to 50 minutes).
That’s it! Total hands-on time is around 30 minutes. As you can see, most of the 24 hours is the sourdough culture and dough fermenting. By utilizing slower-fermenting wild yeast, combined with cooler fermentation temperatures, your bread dough will develop wonderful flavor and texture as the yeast and lactobacilli do their magic. And, by slowing down the process, it won’t be a catastrophe if something comes up and you have to be away from your kitchen for a while. No more having to block out four hours of time or worrying about your dough over-rising. You can even sleep nights!
Starting your starter
A lot has been written about sourdough starter: what kind of flour to use, how often it needs to be fed or refreshed, whether you should add yeast, sugar, etc. Some starter recipes I’ve seen were eye-glazingly complicated, requiring multiple feedings every day as if it were some kind of exotic pet.
Let me simplify it for you. To make a starter you need two ingredients: flour and water. Yes, you can make starters from non-grain sources like potatoes, but we’re keeping it simple here. The wild yeast and bacteria are in the air, and they’re on the grain.
To make a starter from scratch, I recommend using organic flour. Once it’s active and bubbly, it’s not so critical, but you go to some effort to get the thing going, so give it its best chance to start out right. It’s also best to avoid chlorinated water. Any kind of bottled water is fine, including distilled water. We’re fortunate to have our own spring-fed water supply, which is fairly high in calcium but not particularly hard. That’s the water I use for making bread.
I recommend measuring ingredients by weight rather than volume, because it results in more accurate measurements. Escali makes a small, lightweight scale that measures in 1-gram increments. It costs about $30 from King Arthur Flour and is my favorite kitchen scale.
In large bowl (glass or stainless steel), pour 75 grams (scant 1⁄3 cup) tepid water.
Stir in 50 grams (1⁄3 to 1⁄2 cup) organic unbleached bread flour or all-purpose flour, and 50 grams (1⁄3 to 1⁄2 cup) organic stone-ground whole-wheat flour. Dough will be tacky.
Cover with plastic wrap and let stand at room temperature for 24 hours.
Culture will look much the same as it did on day one, although it may have risen slightly.
Add 30 grams (2 tablespoons) tepid water, 50 grams (1⁄3 to 1⁄2 cup) organic unbleached bread flour or all-purpose flour, and 5 grams (1 tablespoon) organic rye flour.
Cover and let stand at room temperature for 24 hours.
Culture will have expanded 1 1⁄2 to 2 times its original volume. You should be able to see bubbles forming below the surface, and the smell will be slightly yeasty and fruity.
Repeat feeding steps of day two.
Day four and on
Culture may be ready to use any time in the next few days. Here’s what to watch for:
(1) Surface of culture looks dimpled or bubbly and may rise to a dome.
(2) Cutting through with a paring knife shows air pockets trapped by gluten strands.
If it doesn’t already look like this, simply repeat day three steps daily until it does.
Transfer starter to 1-quart container (wide-mouth Mason jar works fine) and secure lid.
Store starter in refrigerator and refresh once a week by following day two steps. I put about 1⁄3 cup of the starter in a separate container to use for baking. Then add flour and water to the original container, let it sit at room temperature for an hour, then put it back in the fridge.
The stiffer the starter, the slower it ferments. Slowing down the fermentation process means you can refresh it less often. I aim for roughly twice as much flour as water, by weight. For example, when I refresh my starter, I use about 50 grams (scant 1⁄4 cup) water and 100 grams (2⁄3 to 1 cup) flour. If it seems too dry, add a little water; if too wet, add a little flour. You’ll get the hang of it.
A new starter culture becomes active more quickly at room temperature. Once it is bubbly and has increased in volume (indicating it is active), store it in the fridge. At room temperature the acidity will build up much more quickly, increasing the possibility of endangering the yeast in there, as well as forcing you to refresh it more often. Simplify, remember? I want you to have fun making bread; 2 a.m. feedings for your starter is not fun. Or so I’ve heard.
Making sourdough bread is very similar to making yeast bread. You use starter instead of yeast, and the dough is fermented slowly instead of quickly. Otherwise, the steps are the same.
I prefer an organic unbleached bread flour of about 11.5 percent protein. For whole-wheat flour, I recommend stone-ground. I routinely make a French-style sourdough bread with 70 percent white flour, 24 percent whole-wheat, and 6 percent rye. Another favorite in our house is 80 percent whole-wheat, 20 percent white. It’s quite fun to experiment with different combinations; just be prepared for varying textures and degrees of lightness in your bread, particularly if you are using mostly whole-grain flours.
My standard master recipe for bread is a formula I use for just about any kind of bread I make. It makes a good big loaf of bread. I have used it for many different breads with excellent results.
Tips for better bread
I keep a small bowl of water next to my mixing bowl to dip my hand in while kneading. This results in a wetter dough, which takes some getting used to, but also results in a beautiful crust, lovely open texture to the crumb, and a more moist bread with excellent shelf life.
If kneading by hand, try wearing disposable nitrile gloves. I find the dough sticks less to the gloves than it does to my hands.
Try mixing and matching techniques to fit your comfort zone. For example, the no-knead technique works beautifully with sourdough bread. Just follow all the directions, increasing the dough mixing time by a minute or two and ignoring the rest of the kneading instructions.
Adding a little rye flour will speed up fermentation of doughs and starters.
You can easily freeze your starter. If you’re going away for a while, or for whatever reason you don’t plan to make bread for several weeks or more, make sure it’s tightly covered and put it in the freezer. The yeast simply goes dormant. When you’re ready to bake again, take it out and let it thaw for 24 hours or so at room temperature. Once it’s thawed, add a little flour and water to it (it will be hungry after its long nap), let it ferment all day or all night, then you’re good to go.
Give it a go
There’s more to sourdough bread than the flavor. Being a fermented food, it is a good source of the probiotics we hear so much about these days. In addition, sourdough bread is lower on the glycemic index than yeast bread, and has a longer shelf life.
If you’ve ever wanted to make bread but hesitated to take the plunge, sourdough is a great place to start. My goal, however, is simply to encourage you to make bread. If sourdough isn’t in your comfort zone, start with a yeast bread or try using a pre-ferment instead of yeast. But I hope that, as you gain some experience and confidence as a baker, you’ll try sourdough. It’s healthy, delicious, and adaptable to your schedule.
If the starter in this
article is out of your comfort zone, try using a pre-ferment. This is a
lot like a sourdough starter, with two important distinctions: It’s made
with commercial yeast, and is usually made within hours of when you are
going to mix up your bread dough. For most breads that I make, the
pre-ferment would be mixed 9 to 16 hours before I am going to mix my
dough. It is amazing how much flavor this adds to even plain white
bread. Many of the white breads of Italy are made with a pre-ferment
called biga. In France, the pre-ferment is called poolish.
Other common names for pre-ferment are “sponge” or “barm.”
• 0.75 grams (scant 1⁄4 teaspoon) instant yeast
• 60 grams (1⁄4 cup) warm water
• 200 grams (3⁄4 cup plus 4 teaspoons) water, room temperature
• 330 grams (21⁄2 cups) unbleached bread flour or all-purpose flour
In medium bowl, stir yeast into warm water to dissolve. Add remaining water and flour, stirring for 2 to 3 minutes. Cover and let rise 6 to 24 hours in a cool spot. Use right away or store in refrigerator up to five days.
Low-wheat and low-gluten baking
I am frequently asked if it’s true that sourdough starter somehow inactivates the gluten in wheat flour. A number of studies suggest this is true. In controlled lab conditions, bread dough inoculated with certain strains of lactobacillus and then fermented for many hours has been shown to indicate much lower levels of gluten than before fermentation. These studies all conclude that more research is needed, however. I also wonder, if the gluten is essentially neutralized, how does that bread dough then rise during fermentation and baking?
If you have celiac disease, you must avoid all gluten. However, in recent years, gluten has become the scapegoat for a laundry list of ailments, spawning a multibillion dollar industry of gluten-free products. The companies making these products, for the most part, have made little effort to educate the public about gluten. Many people don’t even know what gluten is. I’ve heard of bottled water and even watermelons being labeled gluten-free. Gluten exists in three grains: wheat, rye, and barley. Of these, wheat has significantly larger amounts of gluten than either rye or barley.
Many people who display symptoms similar to gluten intolerance may actually be wheat intolerant. Fructose is a carbohydrate found in wheat that is absorbed in the small intestine. However, the small intestine can only absorb a limited amount of fructose at one time. When consumed in typical American-sized portions, things like wheat bread and pasta can cause bloating, gas, and diarrhea in sensitive individuals. That’s because once the small intestine has reached the limit of its fructose-absorbing capacity, the excess travels to the large intestine, which isn’t designed to digest it.
If consuming wheat causes you discomfort or irritation, why not try lowering your wheat intake, rather than give it up altogether? One strategy would be to simply reduce the portion size in order to limit the amount of wheat in the body at any one time. I am testing bread recipes that have greatly reduced amounts of wheat. These breads are made largely of gluten-free grains, with just enough wheat flour to enable them to rise and have a pleasing texture. For example, I have successfully made bread using gluten-free grains but with added wheat-based sourdough starter. With the right proportion of this starter, the bread rises beautifully and has a soft, chewy texture, but with much less gluten than wheat bread.
If you feel better when you aren’t eating wheat or gluten, don’t eat them. This is a quality of life question, and I want you to enjoy your food and not risk discomfort unnecessarily. But if you are not sure if you’re intolerant of wheat or gluten, consider lowering your wheat intake. You might discover that you can enjoy wheat products again, if you listen to your gut and learn to work with it.
Victoria Redhed Miller lives and bakes in Washington state. Her latest book, From No-knead to Sourdough: A Simpler Approach to Handmade Bread, is due out in 2018.