Rise of the Starter Culture

Last July I recklessly attempted sourdough bread from scratch. We had a commitment ceremony where I promised to feed and protect my newly born starter, buy suitable glass jars and crockery jugs for the rising tyrant, for better or for worse, et cetera. Well, not for worse, because if it goes bad you kill it and start over. That, in and of itself, is a reason to take care that your sourdough beast lives and thrives because it takes weeks to create one from just flour, water, and wild yeast. I feel like I am making Belgian beer sometimes.

Okay, maybe there wasn’t a ceremony, but living with a sourdough habit is a bit like a relationship. You keep it chill, then warm it up when you need it, and feed it until you know it loves you again. You don’t want to waste anything, so you learn to make all kinds of things from the sourdough discard: pretzels, pizza dough, popovers to name a few, all strangely starting with the letter “P.” But the best thing is making your own super tasty whole wheat sourdough sandwich bread. It takes about three days, including the warm-up feedings, but it is worth it. Seriously.

I keep the starter in the refrigerator most of the time so I don’t have to feed it. About every week, I pull it out and feed it. If we are running out of sandwich bread, then I feed it every 8 or 12 hours to get it super bubbly and then start the bread process. Here’s what it looks like.

The sleeping starter emerges from the depths of the refrigerator waiting to be fed with equal parts water and flour by weight.

‘Tis a happy starter that doubles in size four to eight hours after feeding. It’s ready to use!

Make the levain from the starter. This provides the yeast engine for the bread. Yes, it’s spelled LEVAIN on the King Arthur Baking site.

Then we wait overnight. The levain will double in size and be bubbly. Before it collapses, however, you throw all the flour, water, and any additions like seeds in the mixer and make a dough. Let that rest for two hours and then you can add the salt and the levain. It rises for a couple of hours and will get nice and pillowy. Then you break it into two loaves and put it in the pans, spritzing it with warm water and sprinkling some rolled oats on top. Let them rest, then toss them into the refrigerator overnight.

Dough rising in loaf pans, spritzed with water and sprinkled with rolled oats

After rising in the refrigerator for around 18 hours, I toss them into a preheated 500 degree F oven and turn the heat down to 475. Bake for 20 minutes and turn down to 450. Bake for another 20 and turn down to 425. Finish baking at 425, usually about 10 minutes until the core temperature is between 200 and 210 degrees F. So far, I’ve over cooked them all and will experiment with reducing the higher temperature times to see what effect that has on the finished product. If you haven’t figured out yet, my kitchen is my favorite laboratory.

Two sourdough bread sandwich loaves fresh from the oven.

Two sourdough bread sandwich loaves fresh from the oven. Cool them on a rack for at least two hours before slicing.

A partially sliced loaf of fresh bread

I have found a bread knife to be indispensable! With practice, you can make the slices any thickness you want.

We go through one loaf per week. I bake ahead, of course, then slice and freeze the loaf we don’t need right away. Baking your own bread takes time, as you can see. Besides being super yummy, you know exactly what is in your bread because you put it there!

Here’s a link to the post that got all this started: Sourdough Starter Starting

If you’d like to see my favorite sourdough multigrain sandwich bread recipe so far, you can see it on the King Arthur Baking Company site here.

Bon appetite!

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