How I Sourdough

Hello from quarantine, my long-lost blog readers. I know I’ve neglected you for a while — I’ve shifted all of my energies to Instagram and my podcast — but something has happened during this strange time that calls for me to dust off the ol’ food blog and tell you about it. And that something is that I’ve become one of those sourdough people.

I know, I know: there’s a lot of uproar about making sourdough right now. For starters (haha: sourdough humor), you need a LOT of flour to make it. Not just to make a loaf, but to feed the starter that’ll give your loaf rise. I bought some red fife whole wheat flour on Anson Mills website a few weeks ago that’s been sustaining me, along with their bread flour; but when that ran out, I went to Central Milling and bought three fifty pound bags of flour. At the time, I didn’t really visualize in my head what that looked like (it seemed like a good deal); now I have three enormous bags of flour in my kitchen that I can barely lift, let alone open. (If that sounds selfish to hoard all of this flour, don’t worry, I’m giving lots of it away; and baking loaves of sourdough for friends which I put in my trunk, so I can stay six feet away upon delivery.)

Now that I’ve addressed the downside of making sourdough right now, let me address the upside: this is the perfect moment to take the time to learn how to make sourdough. Emphasis on the word “time”: if you’ve got plenty of it, like most do in quarantine, and you’ve got plenty of flour, the only thing stopping you is fear. So let me help you with that.

Sourdough is an intuitive process. The main thing to understand is that you’re working with wild yeast. You could make a very plain-tasting bread with a packet of yeast that’ll be a wonderful way to begin your bread journey (I recommend this Splendid Table sandwich bread, which I made a few weeks ago on the recommendation of Tucker Shaw and loved); but with a sourdough starter (and the wild yeast contained within it), you’re going to get a bread that brings in ‘da noise, brings in ‘da funk.

What you see above, is the greatest gift I’ve ever been given: a mature sourdough starter (from the amazing pizza restaurant, Ronan), a cast iron cooking vessel, and two bags of flour from my extremely generous neighbors Rachael Sheridan and Jeremy Fox. You may be thinking to yourselves: “Oh, well no wonder he’s had so much luck with sourdough… famous food people gave him an amazing starter!” And you’d be absolutely right: I think so much of my early success (I’m eight beautiful loaves in), has to do with this magical starter.

But all is not lost! If you can’t get your hands on a mature starter (and you can buy mature starter online, or ask any bakery if you can have some), you can definitely make your own. My sourdough journey actually began two weeks ago when I started watching Josey Baker’s sourdough tutorials on Instagram. If this post leaves you with nothing else, let it be these tutorials. After reading countless books on sourdough (including Tartine Bread and Flour Water Salt Yeast, both excellent), the Josey Baker videos are what got me off my ass and into the kitchen. He demystifies everything, including making your own starter. In fact that video is kind of hilarious: you just mix flour and water and that’s it. Leave it on your counter for two weeks, feed every day, and you’ve got starter. (Whole grain flour is best.)

Josey made everything seem easy and that’s how I’ve been thinking about sourdough bread-making: the less you build it up in your head, the easier it’ll be. Rachael turned me on to a recipe from Ursula Siker (@basic_baker_bitch) who has her own helpful sourdough tutorials on Instagram. Her recipe made two loaves and so I cut it in half. I often find it helpful to write out complex recipes by hand to help me understand each step, so this is what’s currently attached, via magnet, to my fridge.

It seems complicated, so let me simplify.

The first step is to turn your starter into a leaven. What’s the difference between a starter and a leaven? This is something I’ve been trying to figure out, so here’s how I understand it: a starter is something you maintain to make future bread; a leaven is something you mix when you’re ready to make bread that day. (In either case, I keep the starter on my counter with the lid half-off. You can refrigerate, but then you have to revive the starter, something that I’m scared to do. Plus keeping it on my counter encourages me to keep making sourdough; the more you make sourdough, the better you’ll get at it.) So every day, I feed the starter: I pour out most (leaving 1/2 cup), add 1/2 cup of warm water, and then I add enough flour to make it into a mildly thick paste. That’s it.

But when I’m ready to make sourdough, I make the leaven. So, using a kitchen scale (a must for making sourdough) at 9 in the morning, I mix 25 g starter, 200 g water (at 78 degrees; I don’t take the temp, I just guesstimate), 100 g of AP flour and 100 g whole wheat flour. It should be a thickish paste. Leave that in the jar or container and go have your morning. At 1:30 PM, when your leaven has hopefully come to life (it’ll be bubbly and bigger) it’s time for the next step.

Now it’s time to make your dough. In a large bowl, using the scale, mix together 375 g water (at 90 degrees; again, I guesstimate), 100 g leaven, 450 g AP flour, 50 g whole wheat flour, and 10 g salt. Don’t forget the salt! I mix this by hand, which is important; not only does it help you bring everything gently together, it allows you to get a feel for your dough. As I’ve gone along, I’ve started to notice if my dough is too wet and I’ll sometimes add a little more flour.

That’s what your dough will look like in that first, shaggy step. Worry not: you don’t need to knead it or work it or do anything. Once it’s mixed (and this is what I learned from Josey), you just cover it with a dish towel and walk away for an hour.

When the hour’s up, it’s time to start your folding. This is where time comes in. You’re going to fold the dough, every 30 minutes, for the next four hours. “Four hours!” you might be thinking. “Yes, four hours,” I reply. But we’re in quarantine, what else are you doing?

Folding may sound complex, but it’s actually super fast and simple. Here’s an image from Flour Water Salt Yeast, I hope I don’t get in trouble for using it. (Josey’s videos are also super helpful on this front.)

As you can see you just grab the dough from one side and pull it up. You’re stretching it basically; pull it up, but don’t tear it, and lift it to the other side of the dough. So if you’re pulling the dough up from 9 o’clock, pull it to 3 o’clock. Do this four times all the way around (it helps if your hand is wet) from 9 to 3, 12 to 6, 3 to 9, and 6 to 12, and finish by flipping the dough upside down. Cover and do again in 30 minutes.

You’re basically giving this shaggy dough structure each time that you do this. When four hours are up, you should notice that the dough is smoother and sturdier. You can do something called the windowpane test after four hours: that’s where you stretch the dough to see if you can see through it, like a windowpane. If you can, you’ve done a good job. If not, you could keep folding for another hour or so.

Now we’re ready to pre-shape! Dust a large cutting board with flour, dust the top of your dough, and flip upside down (flour-dusted side down). Do your same folding technique and then flip upside-down again and gently shape into a nice ball. Rest for half an hour.

After half an hour, you’re ready to do the final shape and transfer to a proofing basket. I got my proofing basket in France years ago; it’s linen-lined and I DUST IT WELL WITH FLOUR before adding the dough, or I’d never get it out the next morning. My friend Emily doesn’t have a proofing basket and made a successful loaf lining a colander with a dish towel and also dusting it well with flour.

To do the final shape, dust the top of your dough with flour again, flip upside down, then do the same four folds, only this time, instead of flipping upside down, you’re going to place it — smooth side-down, seam-side up — into the well-dusted proofing basket. Nicole Rucker (my friend and one of the best bakers around) saw what I was doing at this point on Instagram and told me to really pinch the seams closed, so be sure to do that.

Are you proud of yourself? The hard part’s over! Now you just cover this with a dish towel and place in the fridge overnight.

The next morning, place your Dutch oven into the oven with the lid on and heat to 475. Again, Rachael and Jeremy leant me a beautiful cast iron one; I have a 4-qt Staub one from Sur La Table on the way right now (it’s on sale and worth looking at; $99, down from $400!). The key here is your want a round, 4-quart Dutch oven if you can find one. Anything larger — like my normal, oval-shaped Le Creuset — will give too much room to the bread and it won’t puff up into a beautiful boule.

So once your Dutch oven is hot (I leave it in there at least half an hour), CAREFULLY take it out and lift the lid off. Carefully remove the dough from the proofing basket (don’t handle too much, you don’t want to deflate it) and place it in the hot Dutch oven, smooth side up. Then take a serrated knife and carefully slash along the top.

Carefully put the lid back on and place back in the 475 oven and cook for 20 minutes. Then take the lid off (your kitchen is going to smell amazing right now). Look at how it’s puffed up!

The final step is just to bake it another 15 to 20 minutes. Ken Forkish, the author of Flour Water Salt Yeast, says it’s important to really brown your bread here. So just keep it an eye on it and see how far you can take it. I try to really get a deep, dark brown.

Take it out of the oven, lift with a metal spatula on to a baking rack, and cool for at least an hour before cutting into it.

So, yes, it’s a lot of work to make sourdough. But the secret is, the more you do it, the more all of these steps become second nature. Now I’ve started making a loaf a day; it’s a soothing break from reading the news. And dropping off loaves to friends is a way to not only still feel connected, but to feel like you’re doing some good during this crisis.

And nothing beats the feeling of triumph you’ll feel when you pull a loaf of sourdough that you made yourself out of the oven. So I’m passing the baton to you, dear reader: now it’s your turn to sourdough.