Sourdough Bread — Ramblings on Bread

I love bread.  Not the mushy, squishy doughy soft mess you cut the crust off of from your childhood, but the real, stuff.  The bread with a crisp crust and a crumb that is both moist and chewy.  The bread that is as good by itself as it is with butter or smoked salmon.  Bread that looks like this:

Finshed Sourdough Loaf

Ok, I lied, it is always better with butter, but you get the idea.

It was in Europe that I really developed an appreciation for good bread.  Lunch was often a loaf of something fresh, and some fruit, salami and/or cheese I picked up in the market that I would eat as I wandered around.  Growing up, the company my father worked for was German, and some of their executives would spend prolonged periods of time in the US.  He said that when he asked them what they missed from home, “good brown bread” was usually on the list.  I understand now, as I really enjoyed the breads I had in Germany.  However, it was when I went into a bakery in Paris that I really got to see the breadth of the baker’s craft.  From the classic baguettes to amazing croissants, every shape, color, and flavor were on display.  It looked spectacular, and it tasted better.  Edible art.  When I returned, I started to pay more attention to bread.  I was fortunate in that I had access to a very good bakery in Michigan.  Zingerman’s Deli is an institution in Ann Arbor.  It is pricy, but you get top shelf products.  Part of that experience is their great bread.  The owner wanted good bread to go with their sandwiches, so they started making their own.  Closer to my current home, Standard Baking is the, well, standard here in Maine.  When we go to visit friends in Portland, I will often get up early to procure a breakfast of sticky buns, pain du chocolat, and croissants for breakfast, and a loaf of a rustic french bread for dinner.

I was satisfied to purchase good bread, as when I tried to make it, first in a bread machine, then in the oven, it was ok, but the crust was never right.  I have a large pizza stone that I keep in the oven.  It helps keep the oven temperature more even, and you can leave it in there the whole time.  However, even baking on that, and adding pans of water and spraying the inside of the oven with water, I just could not get the crust right.  The key to good crust is a humid oven, and try as I might, I could not create the correct environment in my home oven.  Commercial bakeries create this perfect climate by having steam ports in the ovens.  Brick and earth ovens do it naturally.  So, as I had neither of these things, I gave up.

Then, about 3-4 years ago, I came across a recipe for no knead bread in Cooks Illustrated.  Taking a concept originally written about in the New York Times,  they tweaked the recipe and published their favorite version, and thus I learned about using time instead of  kneading to develop the gluten in the bread.  Jim Lahey, the owner of Sullivan Street Bakery in New York and the baker in NYT article, later wrote a book about this technique.   However, I feel the key point from these articles was not that I could make bread without kneading it, it was that I learned how to bake bread at home with the right crust.  The secret is baking in a large pot, which mimics the very hot and very humid ovens commercial bakeries use by trapping the steam rising from the dough in a small area to provide the proper humidity.  It gives this incredible crust, just like the best European loafs.

Now that I knew how to make a great crust, I wanted to know how to make a good sourdough.  Sourdough is bread leavened with a hodge podge of yeast and bacteria.  Wild yeast was originally used to make all bread, and it was collected from the environment in various ways, but you can’t get it without collecting bacteria as well.  It is these bacteria, the same things that make sour beers, that makes sourdough.  Sourdough bakers learned that once they got a culture going, it was easier to maintain it then to start from scratch each time.  Thus, they created a starter, which is a mixture of their yeast and and bacteria in flour and water.  This would be kept in a crock or bag.  They would then build up the starter by taking it, and adding more flour and water, and letting it sit for a while, so the fresh flour is inoculated.  Some of the starter is used to leaven a bread, and the rest is put back in the crock or bag for the next days baking.  Some starters date back hundreds of years, having been passed down in families and among friends. You do have to tend and feed a sourdough starter, but the taste they give is wonderfully tangy, deep, and rich.  They vary from region to region, from the mild sourdoughs of the French countryside to the intensely tangy breads of San Francisco, sourdoughs are an expression of their locales, changing and adapting to fit the immediate environment.  Commercial bread yeast just can’t match it.  If you want to learn more about the nitty gritty of how to maintain a starter, King Arthur Flour, which is my wife’s, and thus my, favorite flour, has a great walk-through.   Also their blogs and boards are great, and their professional bakers actually read the posts, and will often respond.  It is a great company with a great product, I highly recommend them.

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2 Responses

  1. Dear John: (Snicker as I remember hit 1980’s show) I am a friend of your wife’s….for days now I have been hearing about this bread, foaming at the mouth with the desire to make it. She kept saying “he’ll post it, he’ll post it” and you know, I get that you have a job doing important work (way more important than my business consulting bs, I’ll definitely give you that). I got so excited to log onto my Google Reader this morning and see that Grain & Grain had a new post. I skimmed it, convinced myself I must have missed the recipe in there somewhere, got my glasses, re-read it — O.M.G. where is the recipe for this perfect bread?????? Me wants! Me needs! I’ve even already ordered my sourdough starter from KAF that should be delivered on a donkey from Vermont soon. Guess I’ll just go get pancakes to tide me over for now….Your Friend Through the Internet, KGB.

    PS — Even though I don’t homebrew, or really even drink a lot of beef, I thoroughly enjoy your blog and have passed it on to my BIL, who is a homebrewer who reads you avidly. 🙂

    • Thanks!
      I promise you, it is coming. I am just getting the details worked out, I will post it this weekend. Thanks for reading the blog.

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