Sometimes I wonder at the leap of faith it must have taken for that first person to discover that while wine left too long became unpalatable, if left even longer, would become palatable again as vinegar.
Or that flour and water, when mixed together then left alone, would take on a life of its own amidst a bubble of bacterial activity. And who was brave enough, discerning enough, or hungry enough to discover that the gooey, sour mess is actually a delight when combined with flour, salt and water, and then baked into bread?
The sourdough starter I’ve used for the past decade or so was given to me by a guest who also happened to be a chef. He claimed that his starter was over 100 years old and had traveled west with the early settlers, then returned back east via his grandmother. With its rich smell and mellow flavor, I have every reason to believe him.
Because it’s so precious to me, I’ve frozen a couple of batches just in case something goes terribly awry and I lose my working starter. It’s more an insurance policy than a likelihood; what’s more likely is that my well-fed starter will take over the schooner galley in its zeal to consume starch.
My journey of discovery into bread-making, and sourdough bread-making in particular, was a combination of science, art and good timing. I received the gift of the sourdough starter around the same time I was experimenting with no-knead baking.
The combination of sourdough starter, my quest for a no-knead bread, the challenges of working in an ultra-small cooking space and my desire for creativity all merged. The result? Not so much a recipe as a template for bread-baking that produces loaf after loaf of creative, delicious breads.
Instead of using sourdough as a leavening, I use it primarily for flavor. While it does add to the leavening of my bread, I don’t depend on the sourdough alone; I also use yeast to insure consistency and to shorten the rising and/or resting time.
This also allows for a higher moisture content, which makes for a terrific crust and a moist interior.
The best part is that I can now incorporate all sorts of leftover grains into my bread with ease and consistency. Brown rice, oatmeal, millet, quinoa and polenta all find a second life in my healthy breads.
So this is how it works:
1. In a large bowl, mix together a ratio of:
5 cups flour (or flours) of your choice
1 tablespoon yeast
1 tablespoon salt
2. Add 1 to 2 cups of cooked grain such as brown rice, oatmeal, millet, quinoa or polenta.
3. Then add 1/2 to 1 cup of flavoring ingredients such as olives, dried fruit, roasted red peppers, etc.
4. Also add any herbs or spices – around 2 teaspoons of dried or 1/4 cup freshly chopped herbs.
5. Add 1 cup sourdough starter; begin to mix everything together with your hands.
6. Add water and continue to mix, adding water, until the dough just barely forms a ball and there are no little dry bits hanging out in the bowl. Depending on how moist the cooked grain is, the amount of water can vary from 1/2 cup to 2 cups.
7. Cover the bowl with a layer of plastic wrap; and let the dough rise at room temperature for 1 to 2 hours, until the surface of the dough has risen and is flat, not rounded. For those who have worked with traditional kneaded dough, this will look like a disaster. Just wait, it will be fine.
8. Put the dough in the refrigerator for at least 2 hours or overnight. No need to punch it down, in any event, it will look too loose for that.
9. Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Place a heavy (empty) pan or skillet in the bottom of the oven (you’ll use this when you put your bread in the oven to create steam). I use a cast iron skillet, filled with rocks I’ve picked from the garden and scrubbed clean, to create a sauna of sorts. It just stays in the oven all the time. The addition of moisture in the oven air helps the bread rise more and then creates a terrific crust.
10. Shape the dough into the loaves of your choice – three baguettes, two batons or one large boule.
Do this by turning the dough onto a floured surface, cutting into the number of pieces you need and gently turning the edges under to form the desired shape. Sprinkle a baking sheet with corn meal or rice flour and place the loaf/loaves on the baking sheet.
11. Cover with plastic wrap and let the dough rise again for another 20 to 45 minutes depending on the size and looseness of your loaf/loaves.
12. Slash the tops of the loaf/loaves with a sharp knife, transfer the baking sheet to the oven and immediately pour a cup of warm water into the pan on the bottom of the oven to create the aforementioned steam. Be extra careful with this step and quickly remove your arm from the oven once you’ve poured the water.
13. Bake until the exterior is golden brown and the bottom is firm, from 25 to 40 minutes depending on the size of your loaf/loaves.
Dutch Oven Bread
Another way to achieve a similar result is to bake your bread in a Dutch oven. This covered pot creates a convective space for moist air, which allows the bread to rise beautifully, and then, once the moisture has dissipated, creates a terrific crust.
I use this method at home frequently. However, aboard the Riggin I need to make four loaves at a time – but I don’t have the space for four Dutch ovens, so I choose the traditional oven method described above.
To make the Dutch oven bread variation, follow steps 1 through 8, then:
1. Place a covered Dutch oven in the unheated oven. Preheat oven to 450 degrees.
2. Shape the dough into a round boule; place the loaf in a bowl lined with parchment paper.
3. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let the dough rise again until doubled, another 45 minutes to 1 hour.
4. Slash the tops of the loaf with a sharp knife and transfer the parchment paper and dough to the hot Dutch oven and cover with the hot lid.
5. Bake until the exterior is golden brown and the bottom is firm; about 50 to 70 minutes (no peeking for at least the first half hour).
Remove from both the oven and the Dutch oven and let cool before slicing.
Variations to the Basic Recipe
OATMEAL WHOLE WHEAT BREAD
2 cups cooked oatmeal
2 cups whole wheat flour
4 cups bread flour
2 teaspoons yeast
2 teaspoons sea salt
2 cups sourdough starter
1/2 cup water
Follow the directions above.
SUN-DRIED TOMATO, ARTICHOKE AND SPINACH BREAD
To the basic recipe add:
1 cup sun-dried tomatoes
3/4 cup artichokes, drained and broken into pieces
1 cup lightly packed spinach, de-stemmed, washed and well-drained
ROASTED GARLIC AND BLACK OLIVE BREAD
1 cup black olives, pitted and halved
1/2 cup roasted garlic; about 3 heads roasted and peeled
Reduce salt to 2 teaspoons
Anne Mahle of Rockland is the author of “At Home, At Sea.” She can be reached at email@example.com