The pandemic has prompted three pretty significant food-related changes in my life. 1. I started a vegetable garden and a compost pile. 2. I keep chickens in my backyard. 3. I bake sourdough bread. I am by no means alone in any of this. In fact, these three things are so ubiquitous that they are pandemic clichés, at least with the suburban set. But they are each wonderful things even so. I have developed a deep love of gardening, and I find my chickens to be endearing little pains in the ass, but I have nothing useful to contribute on either topic. I do have some thoughts on sourdough though. And I also have a simplified version of that epic Tartine Bakery recipe, below.
Sourdough and the Pandemic
People sure did turn to baking sourdough bread during the pandemic. Pre-pandemic, I wasn’t especially fond of sourdough, and I baked bread exactly never, but after the stay-at-home order started, baking sourdough bread became a goal. This was inspired by the self-sustaining, self-reliant qualities we associate with sourdough, I suppose. The ability to make more and more starter, and more and more bread, with nothing more than flour and water (and salt for the bread). It’s the same impulse as growing your own vegetables and keeping chickens. Potential (or actual) food shortages be damned, we were going to eat.
But there was something more going on with bread than just that desire to provide. Bread is more than just sustenance; it’s more elemental. There’s a quote from the French playwright Jean Anouilh that goes like this: “I like reality. It tastes like bread.” I might say that I like bread because it tastes like reality: not reality as in things as they exist, but reality as in the state of being real. Bread is a way to connect to what is genuine. When faced with everything being upended, like what we faced this past Spring, connecting to the most basic and elemental things was a great comfort.
Because I was by no means alone in my impulse to bake bread, there wasn’t a bag of flour to be found for weeks after lock down began. Desires for specifics like King Arthur’s unbleached organic flour were frivolous. Flour was as precious as toilet paper. What’s perplexing is that sourdough recipes, especially the Tartine Bakery recipe I modify below, blow through quantities of flour that were obscene at that time—like someone telling you to burn your precious toilet paper to keep warm….
There was also the matter of the starter. Contrary to what some sources indicate, flour and water that you mix and then leave out on your kitchen counter for days may not undergo a magical transformation into a bubbly, happy colony of lactobacilli. I tried several times to make my own starter, but was never able to get it going. Then, a friend gave me some of her 8-year-old starter and I have succeeded in not killing it. In fact, I have shared it with several people who likewise were not able to start their own.
Once I had some active starter, next came fears about keeping it alive and flourishing. Did I need to keep it bubbling and constantly expanding? Keeping it active like that means lots of feedings, which in turn means lots of excess starter, unless you are baking lots of loaves. I was not. So I, like many others, started doing things like using excess sourdough starter (aka discard) for baking, suffering the indignities of things like sourdough muffins. (That said, if you find yourself needing to use up excess starter, I did find one recipe that was amazing: https://www.kingarthurbaking.com/recipes/sourdough-crackers-recipe. See image below.) Nowadays, I don’t really have much excess starter. And I don’t remotely keep my starter bubbling; it sits in a cold fridge most of the time.
Even though there’s still a raging pandemic in the U.S., there is always ample flour at the grocery store. And while I no longer have the same primal motivations to bake my own bread, I still make the sourdough about once a week. When a loaf comes out of the oven and has cooled a bit, my husband, my daughter, and I always gather around for the first still-warm slice, spread with butter and sprinkled with salt. It’s our tradition now. And it’s lovely. A pandemic silver lining, compliments of the colony of lactobacilli living in our refrigerator.
Okay, enough about that. Let’s get to the bread baking!
The Recipe I’m Modifying
I primarily use the Tartine Bakery country bread recipe that was featured in The New York Times back in 2014, and which you can find it on the Tartine Bakery site (https://tartinebakery.com/stories/country-bread). After baking it a bunch, I cut some corners. It’s still very good, and I think my approach should take some of the intimidation out of making it. This is my simplified version. If you’ve been aspiring to make this recipe, or sourdough in general, maybe it’ll be helpful.
What You Need
Before you start, you’ll need sourdough starter. I am assuming your starter has been in the fridge. If you do not have sourdough starter, ask for some from someone who does have it. I’m quite sure they’ll share. It’s what sourdough people do. If your starter is bubbly and active and ready to use, you can skip over “Waking Up Cold Starter” below.
You’ll also need a kitchen scale. You must weigh your ingredients; measuring by volume is just not okay.
You’ll also need a Dutch oven, like a Le Creuset. This bread, like that Sullivan Street Bakery no-knead bread that swept the universe almost 15 years ago, needs to be baked in a Dutch oven. I use a 5 1/2 quart Le Creuset.
Flour. I use a mix of unbleached white and whole-wheat flour from King Arthur.
Salt. The recipe calls for fine sea salt. That’s what I use.
Parchment paper. Not essential, but I very highly recommend it. It makes life much easier—and safer—when cooking the bread. Note: Parchment paper is not the same thing as wax paper. Do not use wax paper.
Time. The way I lay it out here, it’s going to take you about 26 hours from taking your starter from the fridge to placing a baked loaf on a cooling rack. Start on one morning, bake the next morning. Worry not—most of that time, the dough is in the fridge and does not need you at all.
What to Do
Waking Up Cold Starter
This adaptation of the Tartine Bakery recipe makes one loaf; the original recipe is for two loaves. One of the perplexing things about this recipe is getting the timing right. The very long and complex recipe can make it hard to get your head around. I’ll assume you want bread on a late Sunday morning. So, we are going to start Saturday morning by taking the sourdough starter out of the fridge (if you want bread on a Wednesday, take the sourdough out on Tuesday, obviously, and so on). Assuming you have about a cup worth of starter, give it 25 grams warm water and 25 grams flour. If the quantity of your starter is a little skimpy, feed it more—maybe 40 or even 50 grams of each. If you have a lot, I’d still do 25 g each flour and water. Mix well. Cover the top of the container with a cloth napkin or tea towel, place it somewhere toasty, and let it wake up. I have found that I usually have some nice bubbles and a significant increase in volume in about 4 hours. Other times, I’ve had a sluggish starter after 4 hours, so I feed it again; you can discard some if you want, but I usually don’t bother. If you do feed it again, check back in 2 hours. If it’s looking bubbly and active, you’ll want to test to see if it’s ready to use. Take a small amount—about a teaspoon—and drop it into a cup of room-temperature water. If it floats, it’s ready to use.
Making the Dough
This part is going to take about 4 hours.
1. Put 100 grams of active starter (which is sometimes called levain or starter sponge) in a large bowl. Add 350 grams of warm water and stir to disperse the starter. I just use my fingers. (Note: Do not use all your starter! You need to save some to grow and use in future loaves.)
2. Add 400 g white flour and 100 g whole-wheat. (The real recipe calls for 450 g / 50 g, but I like a little more whole wheat.) Mix it well with your hands until the flour and water are integrated. It will be a sticky mess. Cover the bowl and let it sit for about 30 minutes.
At this point, feed what remains of your starter. Depending on the volume left, use somewhere from 25 to 50 g of flour and the same weight in warm water. Stir well and let it sit out on the counter for a half hour or so. Then cover it and slip it back into the fridge. It needs to be fed about once a week if it lives in the fridge. I feed it when I am ready to bake, but if you will not be using it for bread after a week, throw out a scoop of the cold starter before feeding the remainder again, then slip it back into the fridge for a week.
3. Add 10 grams fine sea salt and 25 grams warm water. Use your hands to mix the salt and water into the rest of the dough. Keep squishing the dough through your fingers until it all comes together as a ball, albeit a ragged, sticky one.
4. Cover the bowl loosely with saran wrap and move it to a warm place. Let dough rise for 30 minutes.
5. You will now fold the dough; you will do this 6 times over the next 2.5 hours. Moisten your hands with water. Uncover the dough. Grab the bottom edge/underside of the dough at the 6 o’clock position and pull it up to 12 o’clock. Turn the bowl 90 degrees clockwise and do the same thing—grab the underside at 6 o’clock and pull it up to 12. Again, turn 90 degrees, grab and pull up. Then one last time, a 90-degree turn and a pull of the dough from 6 to 12 o’clock. That’s it. Put the saran wrap back on top of the bowl, put it in a toasty spot, and go about your business.
Do this every half-hour for the next 2.5 hours. The dough will transform a bit, from a sticky mass to a soft, supple ball. It should be billowy and increase in volume 20 to 30 percent. This step is about 3 hours in total. If it doesn’t seem to have risen much, do a couple more increments of 30 minutes and fold.
6. Here’s where I radically diverge from the Tartine recipe, where I cut some serious corners. At the three hours mark, I do one last folding of the dough. Then I sprinkle the top with some flour, pick it up, put the floured side down in the bowl, sprinkle what is now the top with some flour, put the saran wrap over the top, and put the dough in the fridge. You are done with dough for the day. Go do something else.
7. Wake up and take the bowl of dough out of the fridge. I then take the dough out of the bowl. Take a piece of parchment paper and put the dough ball onto it. Lift the parchment paper (and dough) and place it into another bowl, one that is not cold. We want the dough to come up to room temperature, and if it’s sitting in a cold bowl, it will take longer. Put the dough in a warm spot and let it sit for a while until it is no longer cool to the touch, it rises somewhat, and air bubbles start to appear—all signs the yeast is on the move again. I find this usually takes about 2 hours.
Baking the Dough
8. About 30 minutes before baking, preheat your oven to 450 degrees and place the empty Dutch oven or other lidded cast-iron pot in the oven with the lid on. The pot should be in the oven for about 30 minutes. We want the oven and the pot to be nice and hot. 30 minutes to heat the oven and pot
Meanwhile, dust a little flour on top of the dough, still nestled in parchment in the bowl. Using a very sharp knife, see if you can make a couple of shallow slits in the top. People make gorgeous designs with a lame (a blade made more scoring dough); I am not one of those people.
9. Very carefully remove the heated pot from the oven and remove the lid. Lift the parchment paper and the dough cradled therein from the bowl; place quickly into the hot pot. This is 450-degree enameled metal—be careful! Put the cover back on the pot and put the pot back in the oven. Cook for 20 minutes. Remove the lid and cook for another 20 minutes. It should be a lovely golden brown color with hints of dark brown. About 40 minutes to cook
10. Transfer bread to a wire rack, lifting it out of the pot by grabbing the parchment paper. Cool for at least 15 minutes before slicing. 15 minutes to cool
All that’s left now is to eat that bread!