posted by Amy on Oct 14

I’ve been making all my own bread for several years now. My staple bread is whole wheat sourdough sandwich bread. It is easy. It is very forgiving about rising times. It is inexpensive. It is delicious.

I got the idea of using sourdough starter in sandwich bread from reading the label on some store-bought bread. One of the ingredients was “cultured” or “fermented” wheat flour (or something like that.) Then I read a recipe for whole wheat bread that said to put in some vinegar, and included a comment that whole wheat bread seems to taste better with a little tang to it.

I’m not very scientific about measurements and times, so I won’t try to say exactly how I make my bread, but I will share a few things I’ve learned.

  • “Sourdough” isn’t actually sour unless you let it ferment for a long time. It’s just a yeast culture that you keep alive by renewing its food, water and oxygen supply periodically.
  • Recipes say to feed (refresh by adding more water and flour) your starter once a week. It can actually wait about a month, maybe longer. It will get a dark liquid on the top. That’s just alcohol, and not needed for bread making. Drain it off.
  • Some recipes say to leave the starter in an open container in your refrigerator. In light of the molds and other organisms that live in refrigerators, I disagree. For many years I have kept my starter in a small glass jar with a tight fitting plastic lid. I leave a few inches of headroom, so it will have air. It doesn’t need much.
  • Joy of Cooking says you can freeze sour dough starter. No you can’t, or at least not if you want to keep it alive. The ice crystals cut up the cell walls of the yeast beasties, which kills them. If you have the technology to flash-freeze, like they do on deep-sea fishing boats, go for it. Otherwise, just feed it often enough to keep it alive, even if you aren’t baking with it all that often. Alternatively, you could try drying some starter to preserve it. Spread it out thinly on sheets of plastic wrap, let it dry well, then seal it up in something airtight. This could be insurance against someone mistakenly thinking that weird-looking stuff in your fridge is spoiled and needs to be thrown out.
  • Joy of Cooking says you can’t make good bread with only whole wheat flour. This is also incorrect.* You have to knead it enough, and give it a long enough time to rise, but you can definitely make fantastic bread with no white flour in it.
  • Given that “sourdough starter” is just yeast, you can make “regular” bread with it. If you use milk, sweetener, and butter or shortening, you’ll get a nice sandwich-bread texture, not too chewy or dry. with good keeping qualities.
  • Dough made with sourdough is stickier than dough made with fresh yeast. Just keep on lightly flouring it as you knead and/or keep washing your hands to get the sticky stuff off.
  • Most recipes say to add active dry yeast to sourdough recipes. If you are in a hurry, then do that. Otherwise, you don’t have to.
  • Sourdough rises/ferments at room temperature (or colder). Start by making a sponge in a glass or ceramic bowl with equal parts flour and warm water (approximately) and the sourdough starter that you’ve been keeping in the refrigerator. Beat it well. Use about one cup water for every loaf you want to make, plus a half cup for the starter culture. Let it ferment for around 4 hours. If that’s not convenient, or if you want a more sour taste in the final product, you can let it go longer. It’s ready when you see a lot of bubbles, and when it’s noticeably lighter when you stir it than it was at first. At that point, it’s all starter. Take out about a half cup for next time, and put that in the refrigerator.
  • Then make your dough with the rest of the “sponge.” Use warm milk, honey, Kosher salt, and shortening or butter. (Use your favorite recipe to gauge how much of these ingredients you want to use.) Stir in enough flour to make a stiff dough, knead until smooth and elastic (about 15 minutes by hand), and put into a large greased bowl. Cover with a towel. At this point you can give it a warmer environment for rising (such as the oven, with a pan of hot water in the bottom).
  • I let the dough rise twice before shaping loaves. The first rising takes 90 minutes or longer. The second rising is faster, and the dough rises more than it did the first time. (It won’t be as impressive as dough made with fresh yeast, but sourdough puffs up in the oven. It has its own rising behavior.) Punch it down, cut it into pieces, and knead each piece in a circular motion, like winding a clock, to get the big bubbles out. Form the pieces into smooth balls, and let them rest for 20 minutes.
  • After the rest period, lift each dough ball with two hands and gently push your hands together to elongate it into a loaf shape. Set the loaves into greased bread pans and let rise. This will take another 90 minutes or so.
  • Preheat the oven to 425. Put in the loaves and reduce the oven temperature to 350. Bake until done. (190 degrees on an instant-read thermometer.)
  • If you can’t hang around the house for all the time it takes to go through these steps, you can just do one rising before forming the loaves, and then cover and refrigerate them until you have time to bake them. You should finish the baking within 24 to 36 hours. I have tried waiting longer than that, and it develops an unpleasant sourness, not the nice, yeasty sourness of good bread. Take them out of the fridge about 2 hours before you want to bake them. You can also freeze the dough. (This doesn’t kill the yeast. I don’t know why.) Flatten the balls and seal up in plastic bags. Thaw in the refrigerator, form loaves, let rise, and bake.

*Joy of Cooking is one of the best all-around cookbooks ever, but not for bread.

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