As you read this today, Earth Day turns 50 years old. I’m sitting here drinking hemp-laced matcha tea, compliments of my favorite farmer Bruce Haas. And lately—in fact for most of the past month—I’ve been reconnecting with Earth in as many ways as I can—reading Edward Alby, Jane Goodall and Aldo Leopold, practicing yoga, singing with Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan and Joan Biaz on the radio, meditating (or trying hard), dancing barefoot on warm days in the yard on the grass, taking long walks at twilight, talking to trees—all that 60s counter culture stuff I just never outgrew.
And speaking of counter culture, I’d like you to meet a new special friend: Here’s Maya, or rather Maya Two. That’s her in the jar next to the bread. She’s a bit messy today, but we’ve been busy. Maya is a gift from my friend Jane Zappia—yep Pop’s Pies Jane Zappia. Jane called at the end of March and said: “Would you like some sourdough starter? I have more than I need.” OMG. Can you say Soooooo Hippie! Of course I would!
When she dropped it by, she instructed me to watch a video featuring master baker Patrick Ryan—his master class on making sourdough starter and baking bread. I did…in fact I’m pretty sure I watched it at least 15 times! He’s just so dang cute, so easy to understand, so perfected in his craft, so encouraging, so….ok, 15 times.
And you know where we are headed here, so be sure you watch Chef Ryan before you get into this post. I strongly suggest at least 15 times. It won’t be hard. Be brave! And check out The Fire House Bakery he runs with his wife Laura in County Wicklow and his Bread School in County Cork. Yes, a little side trip to Ireland is a wonderful way to get down to Earth.
So what’s with the name Maya? Jane named the starter after one of our favorite authors, Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise. Of course. Right? I have been feeding Maya sprouted whole wheat organic flour and filtered water weekly ever since she arrived. I store her in the frig because I’m baking sourdough about once a week, so the frig slows her down a bit—sort of like my milk kefir. But about 24 hours before I bake, she comes out of the frig and into my dark warm pantry to get all bubbly and yeasty and sweet-tangy smelling. Then, next day I just pull out what I need, feed her again and pop her back in the frig. To me this ancient process feels grounded, in tune with cycles of seasons, the workings of the Earth and its marvelous system of sustainable life. “Home” is a good word to describe baking sourdough bread for me.
In this post, I will recount for you the steps you need to make a sourdough starter and a loaf of bread (Chef Ryan shows you how to double this recipe.), pointing out my go-to ingredients and where to get them as we progress through the recipe, but do not skip Chef Ryan and his master class video. He does everything so much better than I can. I’m just a newbie here! I will say that, for me, the most challenging part in all this was converting the grams to typical American equivalents—you know, cups and ounces and teaspoons. If you have a scale that measures in grams, this won’t be a problem for you. But in case you don’t, I think I can help—it’s sort of been trial and error because…
As Chef Ryan keeps repeating, the one golden rule to baking sourdough is that there are no golden rules…no one-size-fits-all guidelines for perfect sourdough because, of course, everyone’s kitchen is different; everyone kneads bread differently with different levels of strength; the humidity and temperature are different nearly every day (in the Midwest for sure). You just have to learn to talk with your bread. As Chef Ryan says: “The bread will tell you when it’s ready.” So watch the video, read this post, make your starter, and bake!
For the Sourdough Starter (a seven-day process, which you will do only once), you’ll need only two ingredients:
Sprouted Organic Whole Wheat Flour (One-Degree Organics Sprouted Whole Wheat Flour performs really well here, but King Arthur Organic Sprouted Whole Wheat is a close second.)
Water (I use filtered water from our Britta.)
- On Day One you will take a pint-size clean glass jar and mix about a quarter-cup flour (50 grams) with about a quarter-cup water (50 milliliters). Set on your kitchen counter covered lightly with a tea towel overnight, about 12 hours.
- On Day Two your starter should look more like a paste, with the flour and water combining with bacteria in the air. Move the current starter to a slightly bigger jar; then,add another quarter-cup of flour and another quarter-cup of water. Repeat letting it sit out covered overnight.
- On Day Three repeat the process described above but increase the flour and water to a half-cup each. The starter should be growing now, getting bubbly and yeasty, moving up the jar as it feeds. If necessary, move to a bigger jar.
- On Day Four it’s time to discard some of the starter before you add more—taking out about three-quarters of a cup and adding back a fresh half-cup each of flour and water to the remaining mix. Then back on the counter under the tea towel.
- On Day Five repeat the process in step four, discarding about a cup of the starter this time and adding back in three-quarters cup flour and water each. At some point between day four and five, you will probably need to a bigger jar if you haven’t already—choose one that will accommodate the rest of the process and will become a permanent home for your starter.
- On Day Six repeat the process of discarding and adding. This time you will discard about a cup and a quarter of your current starter mix and add in about a cup of flour and water each.
- On Day Seven you should be able to use your starter—it should have expanded up your bigger jar, acquired a vinegar-sweet smell and become bubbly, thoroughly wet and spongy. If it needs another day—Patrick said this and it sounds ambiguous here, so again, WATCH THE VIDEO—just let it keep going another 12 hours.
- Three and a half cups flour, which can be just basic all-purpose flour (My favorite combo right now is one and one-half cups King Arthur Organic All-Purpose Flour, one cup King Arthur Organic Bread Flour and one cup Jovial Einkorn All-Purpose Four. Einkorn is a fine yellow flour from Italy, similar to cake flour.)
- One cup filtered water
- One and one-half teaspoons fine sea salt
- One and one-half cups sourdough starter (about 5 ounces)
- Combine the flour and salt. Then mix in the water, followed by the starter. The dough will be super wet and sticky. You can begin to knead this is your heavy-duty stand mixer, using your dough hook, which is what both Jane and I highly recommend. Chef Ryan is an old hand at this and is using just his highly skilled hands. So if you don’t have a stand mixer, you can do it, but it takes time and strength. Be Brave! And see the photos after the recipe for the entire process.
- When I make sourdough, I find I need to let my mixer run for about 30 to 40 minutes, depending on the temperature and humidity in the kitchen. Chef Ryan explains what you are looking for is a “windowpane” effect—holding a piece of the dough up and allowing it to stretch apart between your hands. If it rips and tears, it is not ready—need to knead more. But once it will stretch out to a thin, nearly transparent layer without breaking, you are good to go. I check the dough about every 10 minutes during the first knead in the mixer.
- Once I have that desired windowpane effect, I scrape it off the hook and move it to my lightly floured board for a final knead by hand. I just want to feel the dough and talk to it a bit and listen to it tell me it’s ready. You’ll know it’s ready when it starts to release from your board fairly easily and bounce back in your hands as you knead—really just like other bread dough at this point. But it does remain sticky, which is just fine. Don't keep adding flour to try to correct this—you'll get tough dry bread. I will say here that my bench scraper became essential for moving the dough around. Be sure you have one—explained in the video!!
- For the first rise, I use a fairly large clean mixing bowl coated with a bit of olive oil. I place my dough in the bowl, roll it around to coat it and stick somewhere humid, cool but not cold, and draft free. Usually this is my oven with a steamy water bath. My dough is covered with a tea towel. There she sits for at least three hours—possibly four. It all depends on the day, the weather, the dough.
- Once your dough has risen and is springy, it’s time to knock it back to where you started for your second rise. Kneading at this point is much easier in my experience. The dough has become less sticky and more amenable to your wishes. So just place it on your lightly floured board with your handy bench scraper near and knead away—for me it is usually about a 10- to 15-minute exercise. But everyone is different, remember. So you want to get your dough about half its risen size and nice and springy all over again.
- Now place it in a bowl that is quite a bit smaller than the first one. In Chef Ryan’s video, he uses a traditional proofing basket and a makeshift Pyrex dish. I use a Corningware medium-size casserole that works quite well. Make sure it is oiled so the dough doesn’t stick. You want the second-rise dough to be in a smaller container because sourdough will expand out, getting flat, which is not what you want. Keeping it rising up is the purpose of the smaller container.
- Put it aside to rise for another three to four hours. Make sure you have a towel or plastic wrap over the dough to keep it from drying out. You can also put it in the frig for about 12 to 14 hours, if that works better with your schedule, but you’ll still need to keep it covered.
- When you and the dough are ready to bake, preheat the oven to 450 degrees and place a large pan (I use my broiler pan.) on the bottom rack of the oven to heat, as well. Now put your kettle on and get the water to a rolling boil. I listen for my whistle.
- While the oven is coming up to temperature, get your dough and turn it out on a lightly floured baking sheet. My baking sheets are aluminum—great for conducting heat but terrible for your health. So I place a piece of parchment paper on the baking sheet instead of the dusting of flour. You will need to be mindful of this because typically, parchment paper is safe to about 435 degrees—and you are at 450. So, it should be fine, but don’t freak if the edges of the paper go black and start to disintegrate. This is trickier if you do two loaves at a time, but one is usually without incident.
- Once the dough is turned out onto your baking sheet, you will need to score it with a sharp knife—I make four cuts, just as Chef Ryan instructs. The cuts have a glorious backstory—watch the video!! But they also have a purpose—allowing air to escape so your loaf doesn’t explode! Think baked potato.
- To bake the bread, shove your baking sheet in the oven and quickly take the kettle and carefully fill the empty tray in the bottom of the oven with the boiling water; then, shut the door. There will be a burst of steam, so careful here—easy to get a burn. However, the steam is critical because it allows the bread to finish the last little bit of rise and then develop that OH-YUM crust we all want in sourdough. Takes a bit of practice, but well worth it. I actually use this streaming method for all my breads. It mimmicks the capabilities of a commercial oven, giving you professional results.
- Bake for 30 to 35 minutes, rotating once. When the bread sounds hollow when tapped, you’re done. Immediately slide the loaf onto a cooling rack to calm down. The only thing left? Grab that butter!
The prep time here refers to the approximate time it takes to knead the dough and let it rise twice, unless you choose the overnight rise. The cook time is baking time.
Yep, takes a while, which is why I often start my bread in the afternoon and get it to its second rise about 6 p.m. Then I let place it overnight in the refrigerator, so that when I rise in the morning, it has too and we are both ready to roll. Preheat the oven, put the kettle on and mark my bread. Hot bread first thing in the morning. Ok so heaven, right?
See, I know this sounds like a big deal, a lot of work, some trial and error. Not gonna lie, that’s how it felt to me. But now I’m in the rhythm—Sunday nights are bread nights, well sometimes Monday nights—whatever works. And it feels good, so natural and connected to the Earth. I bet it can be that way for you, too. Be brave…
“If we surrendered to the Earth’s intelligence we could rise up rooted, like trees.”
Rainer Maria Rilke