The Goal: One plain loaf of crusty, flavorful sourdough bread, risen with a home grown starter.
Dear people who love good food,
As I have been touting this so called ‘competition’ for a few weeks now, I will go ahead and reveal the complex and difficult-to-remember rules. Between my brother Nick and I we have determined the following criteria before embarking upon our individual yet shared journeys:
-No extra flavorings, just one loaf of plain sourdough bread.
-No restrictions on yeast or method.
The main distinction between our two methods was that mine used all plain white flour and was intended to have a more classic sour taste, whereas Nick’s was a mix of rye and white flour.
Please enjoy this tale of our various trials and tribulations on the way towards the perfect loaf.
The first step in the whole process is to get the starter going. You mix together a simple combination of flour and water, and continue to feed it over the course of a few days (or a few weeks in my case) and keep the natural yeast happy. The goal should be a starter that’s rising up double in volume after every feeding, and completely laced with bubbles. This process took a lot longer than five days for me to see success, and I had my share of despairing moments in which I thought I’d ruined everything. However it rose triumphant in the end!
Day 1 8/8 – Mixed together flour and water to a pasty dough, and set on top of refrigerator.
Day 2 8/9 – Looking quite bubbly and coming along very nicely, I was quite pleased. But then I did the stupid thing, according to a friend who had experience with sourdough, when you use tap water you should let it sit out for several minutes, half an hour or so, in case there’s any chlorine in the water. I completely forgot to let it sit out this time, and just added it straight in, so we’ll see tonight if there’s been any problems caused by that. Hopefully it won’t kill everything!
Day 3 8/10 – Having to purchase new flour as I used all of my previous bags on those damn croissants. Hopefully mixing two different batches of flour won’t cause any issues. Starter is looking a bit flat still, hopefully it will start rising in volume as it’s supposed to tomorrow. Plenty of bubbles but no rise in volume.
Day 4 8/11 Normal feeding.
Day 5 – 8/12 I am afraid it’s not working. It’s got a ton of little bubbles and it smells very sharp and vinegary, but it’s not doubling in volume or rising much. I think I’ll go ahead and wait until the evening so a full 24 hours has elapsed, and if it’s still not risen much, I’ll discard half of it and keep maintaining as the “day 5 and beyond” steps suggested in the recipe. I’ll try to make some bread tonight with the current batch, but hopefully if it goes wrong, I’ll have better luck in a day or two as the starter continues to feed and develop.
Day 6 8/13 – I thought it was time to bake my first loaf! I created the leaven by mixing some of my sourdough starter with water and flour in a separate bowl, then letting it sit overnight. In the morning it had a couple of weak bubbles, but when I did the test to see if it would float in a glass of water it sank right to the bottom. A healthy leaven ready to use would have floated. I have decided to just keep feeding my starter until it’s looking more lively first, and then try again. It smells very sharp and sour, so I know it’s doing something, it’s just not as voluminous and bubbly as I’d like. I think maybe that damn chlorine on day 2 ended up ruining it after all. Let us hope I can build it back up faster from this point on. I will plan on continuing dumping half of it out and feeding today and see how it goes. Side note – I am taking care of Nick’s starter while he is out of town, and it is frustrating. His looks perfect every single morning. Bastard.
Day 7 8/14 – I am going to try thickening up my mixture today. I heard that it should be thicker, more like muffin consistency or something? I’m feeling disheartened, I don’t know if I should keep pressing on with this non-bubbly mess or start over. I’m also considering buying bottled water to make sure I’m not adding anything to the starter that’s slowing it down.
Later – Okay, fed my starter and greatly increased the thickness of the mixture. I’m curious to see what this will do, and I don’t really have anything to lose. It has more the thick gloopy texture of a muffin batter as described rather than the thin cake batter texture.
Day 8 8/15 This morning discovered that the top of my fridge was cold, not warm like suggested in the recipe! Took both starters down. I keep wanting to blame the temperature or the consistency or something, but Nick’s starter is still doing great.
Maybe I need to start feeding mine twice a day too. I’m deviating and thickening up the mixture already anyway. And it doesn’t look bubbly at all this morning which is… promising…
I think if by the end of this week I’ve still seen no improvement I might dump it and start over.
Day 9 8/16 – I decided to continue with regular feedings but did add a pinch of dry fast acting yeast to mine. I thought maybe the plastic wrap wasn’t allowing enough natural yeasties in so I switched to a towel, but overnight it developed a very weird unpleasant skin over the top, so I skimmed it off and switched back to the plastic wrap. I think adding the little boost of yeast really encouraged it, I am now seeing a notable rise in volume, and there are bubbles throughout the mixture. I have been noticing that it smells much less sour now than it did at the start. Maybe because I’ve been discarding half before feedings? I’m curious if it will still flavor the bread with a sour taste.
Day 10 8/17 I think my starter is ready. I will feed it as normal tonight and then tomorrow evening take some out and start to cultivate a leaven overnight. Then on Saturday I can try to bake a loaf if it’s still looking good.
The First Bake
I am attempting my first loaf! To show how much I love you all, I actually went to f*king Walmart to get a dutch oven. I hope you’re happy.
The actual process of baking the loaf was fairly simple. I mixed the leaven with flour and water into a shaggy, loose dough, then folded over the course of a few hours (see pictures from Second Bake). I let it rise overnight in the refrigerator, and it didn’t rise as much as I would have expected. Despite this I decided to go ahead with the bake.
I will say, the most amazing thing I have gleaned from this is that I will be using a dutch oven much more often. It created this amazing crispy crust on the outside. I’ve never been able to get that from bread before, I was very excited!
For my first loaf, the internal bread structure looked great, the crust was crunchy and delicious. However, the sour flavor was not very strong. I decided to attempt another loaf the following weekend, visiting my brother at his lake house retreat (so fancy). I have been keeping my starter just at room temperature, and feeding once a day, dumping out some so it doesn’t bulk up too much. It’s rising a -lot- every day, bubbling up I would say at least triple the volume, definitely staying healthy. I have accidentally fed it with water that probably had chlorine in it a few times, but it seems to be well enough along now that it’s staying healthy regardless.
The Second Bake
Whew. All right. Here we are, weeks later, starter is going strong, and we are going for a try #2 on sourdough bread.
After adding in the salt water to the dough, I headed over to the lake house to visit my brother and his family. Over the next two hours, every thirty minutes, I would take a break from frolicking in the water to scamper back up into the kitchen and stretch the dough, folding it four times over, then allowing it to rest again, a total of six times.
It’s fascinating, how little work you have to do in order to accomplish a gorgeous, glossy dough. It also was rising up a lot more between each fold, incorporating much more air. Once my folding and shaping was finished, I decided to let it rise at room temperature instead of shoving my baskets in the refrigerator overnight again. I believe this was the right decision, because I got a very excellent result. They rose into pretty much monsters. I was concerned they’d risen a bit too much, honestly, I only hoped they didn’t explode in the oven!
There was nothing left to do but bake. I heated the dutch oven, then gently tipped in my beautiful monsters and baked, one at a time.
WOW. I just took my first loaf out of the oven. It looks f*king GORGEOUS. A little maybe over-brown on the bottom but it feels hollow when I tap on the bottom, and totally done cooking. I went on the lower end of the 15-25 minute mark at the end of the bake. As soon as I took it out of the dutch oven and slid it onto the cooling rack it started to make this fantastic crackling sound which I immediately googled, and it turns out that’s a good thing which means the loaf came out right!
The only portion of this whole endeavor I think could have been done differently is the slashing of the loaves right before baking. I think I need a sharper knife because when I slashed, the bread deflated slightly in that spot. Not sure if that was supposed to happen but we’ll see once I slice into it, if it has still fared well. I’m so excited i just misspelled excited three times!
Upon slicing it was enjoyed by all. It was nicely aerated, not dense at all, and tasted very slightly of sourdough, though the sour taste was still very subtle. I’m not sure how to get that any stronger and sharper… I think this will be a goal I will continue to try to achieve going into the future.
I didn’t have any problems with the rise, and although it did lose its crunch because I stored it in a plastic bag, as soon as I popped it in the oven for a couple of minutes it crisped right back up on the crust. I’m incredibly proud of myself for having achieved a crusty and delicious loaf… I almost forgot it was supposed to be a competition.
Read on to see Nick’s progress, and if you like, share your opinion on who came out ahead!
8/22 – I’m technically not starting my notes from the beginning. Last week I kicked off a brand new starter and fed it for two days before I realized that I had to go on a trip that would take me away for 5 days. So I had Sarah feed it for me during that time. When I got back, I noted that there were some bubbles to indicate at least moderate fermentation, but I then put it in the refrigerator until I would really have time to bake. Today (Tuesday) I took it out of the fridge at 11:00 PM with the idea that I would leave it out overnight to warm up, and then feed it in the morning. I even put it in a clean jar so I would be able to observe the rise and fall of the starter. I will be taking actual notes and pictures on the progress from now until I bake on Sunday or Monday.
8/23 – After feeding the starter this morning, I wasn’t able to get back to it until midnight when I got off work. I know I’m not following the instructions exactly here, but I have to work with the schedule that I have. In any case, I clearly have a very healthy starter here. After only one feeding there were lots of bubbles, and the mixture had risen about an inch up the side of the jar. I fed it once more before bed, and decided to start feeding three times a day starting on Thursday.
8/24 – Today I fed the starter at 8:30 AM, 2:30 PM, and again after work at midnight. Starter is still showing lots of activity. And it already passed the float test! I have a feeling that I pulled this out of the fridge way too early. I won’t be able to do my levain build until Saturday, and I’m sure this starter is already good to go. I guess I’ll just have to keep feeding it for an extra day or two. At least I know this, if I have any trouble baking the bread, it won’t be because of a bad starter!
8/25 and 8/26 – Three times a day feeding went without a hitch. For some reason I originally thought that this feeding schedule was designed to get a very strong fermentation, but now I realize that the goal is actually to feed it before the flavor gets too sour. My starter has a mild funky sweetness to it, without having the strong vinegary scent that characterizes San Francisco style sourdough.
- 9:30 am – mixed together the ingredients for the levain build. I accidentally added 40 extra grams of water, so I added appropriate amounts of flour to maintain correct ratios. Hopefully that doesn’t ruin everything.
- 2:00 pm – Combined all of the flour with all but 50 grams of water (as prescribed by the recipe) to begin the autolyse stage which will last one hour. Levain is showing good life, but it hasn’t quite doubled yet. Smell is still sweet without much sourness. Hopefully everything is not ruined.
- 3:15 – Having finished the levain build and the autolyse phase, I combined all the ingredients including the salt in a bowl for the bulk fermentation phase. The recipe I’m using is very specific and requires water to be added at very specific temperatures for a final dough temperature of 76 degrees. However, due to the hot weather and high ambient temperature, I overshot the temperature by 5 or 6 degrees. Hopefully that doesn’t bring everything to ruin.
- 4:15 – Three times throughout the bulk fermentation the recipe calls for a “stretch and fold”, during which I stretched the dough across four times in an envelope-like fold. I found the dough to be extremely wet, yet also stretchy and glutinous. It almost looks like everything may not be ruined!
- 7:40 – I’ve got my dough turned out on the counter and loosely shaped. I’m letting the dough have a 10 minute rest before I begin the shaping process. Honestly, it is pretty simple, but I’m feeling really terrified. I’ve done this part in the past just enough times to know how easy it is to screw it up and deflate the rise that I’ve been working all day to create. If you get the dough too sticky, it can stick to your hands and tear. But if you get it too floury, it will slide across the counter, and you won’t be able to get the tension in the shape that I really want. Well, here’s to not ruining everything!
- 8:00 – I followed the instructions for folding the loaves into tight envelopes of dough, and placing them in their baskets for proofing overnight. The next tricky part will be getting the loaves out of the baskets and into the oven without tearing the skin and releasing all that precious tension. The recipe calls for lining the baskets with rice flour to keep the loaves from sticking, but I didn’t have that on hand, so I just used white flour. I suppose I’ve ruined everything, but I’ll find out in the morning!
- 8:30 – I took a curious peak at my proofing loaves this morning. They seem to have risen just a little bit, and one of them had a bubble in the top, indicating at least a moderate amount of yeast activity. I’m just a little worried that they aren’t going to be as puffy as I would like when it comes time to bake today. I’m wondering if I should take them out of the fridge for a bit to speed things up… but it’s possible that could be ruinous.
- Noon – pulled the first loaf out of the fridge and put it inside my pre-heated covered baking stone and… it looks flat as a pancake! I’m really bummed out about that, because it’s going to take an amazing rise to make it look anything like a real loaf of bread. On top of that, after placing it inside the stone, I realized I had forgotten to score the top of the loaf! So I had to pull the stone back off, score the top, and put it back. I’m almost certain of ruin this time.
- 1:00 – Second loaf also looked a bit sad and flat, but at least I remembered to score the top!
Postmortem: The first loaf did end up rising a bit, but my single line score along the top was just not enough to give it room to expand to its full potential. The loaf, as pictured did turn out edible, but failed to explode into the full-sized puffy loaf I was hoping for. The second loaf was scored in a square pattern, and it definitely rose much better, almost meeting my unrealistically high expectations for myself. Cutting into this loaf revealed a good hearty crust and several very large bubbles in the center of the loaf. It was beautiful, and had a very hearty full flavor. However, there was one preventable problem that kept this loaf from being as good as it could have been. The recipe called for baking it at 500 degrees covered for 20 minutes, then turning the heat down to 450 and cooking it uncovered for another 30 minutes. However, I think I forgot to press “start” on my oven when I turned the temperature down, meaning that my loaf stayed at 500 the whole time. For this reason, I saw that the top of the loaf was just getting close to being burned, so I pulled it out of the oven 5-10 minutes before the allotted time. This would best explain why the bread had a slightly gummy texture which I can only imagine was caused by being slightly under-cooked. I believe this factor also gave the loaf a slight “wet grain” flavor that was reminiscent of a barn yard.
In closing, I am very happy that both loaves ending up pretty good. While both had some small issues, I am encouraged that I know exactly what went wrong in both cases, and I’m confident that I will be able to correct those errors the next time.