Sourdough starter is a pretty incredible thing. It’s a very simple mixture of equal parts water and flour that’s fed gradually over a few weeks, while yeast and bacteria grow unprompted in the loose dough, until the mixture is full of bubbles and smells like a loaf of sourdough bread. It’s the oldest type of leavened bread there is, and was used by bakers everywhere before the commercialization of dehydrated yeast. Now, home bakers are more reluctant to bake with sourdough; after all, “wild” yeast from the starter can be unpredictable, and not everyone wants to spend the time to make a starter. However, starter can be bought online from many baking stores, and you can often buy a small container of it from a bakery. I took mine from work, which I suppose is the pizza cook’s equivalent of bringing home lined notebooks and boxes of ballpoint pens.
Once you have a starter, the rest of the loaf is very simple. A short sponge, dough, and an overnight rest later, your house will smell like you’re walking past San Francisco’s famous Boudin Bakery. This sourdough is bubbly, chewy, and nicely tangy. In the summer, it’s great topped with olive oil and fresh tomatoes or eaten with blue cheese and fig jam. In the winter it’s a great accompaniment to soups and stews, and there’s nothing better than a breakfast of sourdough toast, butter, and jam. Sourdough bread is a weekend project for home bakers and bread enthusiasts that’s delicious and satisfying.
Photos courtesy of Arjun Narayen Photography. Thanks, Arjun!
Makes two large loaves
½ cup strong sourdough starter
1/3 or ½ cup water, heated to 80F (see note below)
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 ½ cups water, heated to 70F
4 ¾ cups all-purpose flour
2 ½ teaspoons table salt
- Make the sponge: Combine the sourdough starter and water in a medium bowl until full combined. Stir in the flour until smooth. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let rise at room temperature for 2-3 hours, until doubled in size.
- For the dough: Place the sponge and the water in the bowl of a standing mixer fitted with a dough hook. With the mixer on low speed, add the flour, ½ cup at a time until all the flour is added. Continue kneading until the dough forms a ball, about 1 minute more then turn the mixer off; cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let the dough rest for 20 minutes.
- Add the salt to the dough, then knead on low speed until the dough is soft and smooth, about 5 minutes. Transfer the dough to a clean surface and knead to form a firm ball. Place the dough in a large, lightly greased bowl and flip the dough over to grease the top as well. Cover the bowl, then let rise until the dough doubles in size, 3-5 hours.
- Line two rimmed baking sheets with parchment paper. Transfer the risen dough to a clean counter and stretch the dough to redistribute the yeast and fold it into thirds like a letter. Cut the dough in half and let rest for 15 minutes. Then, using your hands to cup the dough, shape it into a smooth, taut ball. Set the dough on the parchment paper, then repeat with the second piece of dough. Cover the loaves with plastic wrap, then refrigerate for 8 to 24 hours.
- Remove the loaves from the fridge, then let rise at room temperature until nearly doubled in size, 3-4 hours.
- One hour before baking, adjust the oven rack to the lower middle position, then place a baking stone on the rack and preheat the oven to 500F. Once the dough is ready, slash the tops of the loaves with 3, ½ inch deep cuts across the top, then slide the dough rounds with the parchment onto the preheated baking stone and mist the loaves with water. Turn the oven down to 450, then bake for 3 minutes. Spray with another misting of water, then continue to bake until the loaves are golden brown and the internal temperature of the loaves is 210F. Transfer the loaves to a wire rack, then discard the parchment and let cool before slicing and serving.
Note: If you are using a 100% hydrated starter (equal weights flour and water) use 1/3 cup of water in the sponge. If you are using a 50% hydrated starter (2 parts flour to 1 part water) use ½ cup of water in the sponge.