Sourdough bread is the oldest kind of leavened bread known to man. It is earliest recorded in Egypt around 1500 BC, but how it was discovered is total conjecture. There are all kinds of good stories regarding the discovery of the potent dough, but it is anybody’s guess how the first person suddenly decided to use wild yeast to make their usual flatbread rise to a fluffy loaf. Of course, with all of the brewed products available back then, like wines and beers, it is conceivable that some might have spilled into flatbread dough or that dough was left out and attracted the plentiful wild yeasts to produce a bubbly sponge, but I’ll leave you to your imagination to come up with “the story” of how sourdough starter was discovered.
My own imagery conjures up a man who stumbles home after a night out with the boys, precariously grasping a clay jar of strong Egyptian beer (brandname Pharoah’s Choice), and occasionally managing to find his lips to take another swig. As he wobbles into his humble abode, he finds his dutiful wife on her knees, mixing a batch of dough to bake for the next day’s flatbread allotment. Mr. Ancient Egyptian lunges toward his wife to give her a drunken hug, as she stands to greet him, and as if in slow motion, the clay jar of suds pitches out of his loose grip, flies through the air and lands squarely on the floor, shattering to pieces and sending waves of dark ale into Mrs. Ancient Egyptian’s bowl of flour and oil. Mrs. Ancient Egyptian lets loose with a string of hieroglyphics and cries over her ruined bread. The mess goes into the trashbin, also made of pottery, and the angry wife stomps off to bed. Next morning, she awakens to find an oozing, bubbly live thing, growing in her trashbin and out of curiosity, the Mrs. pours the doughy sponge into her floured breadbowl because she didn’t have an Oklahoma Pastry Cloth™, picks out any bones that had also been thrown into the trash from dinner the night before, adds some flour and then bakes the dough in her 400 degree brick and mortar oven. Out comes a tall, fluffy confection that she tentatively samples. A smile gradually replaces her angry frown and she comments, (in ancient Egyptian of course) “This bread is tangy and light – a veritable pastry worthy of royalty! I would think that it would be quite good with jam and tea.” As a result, she forgives her husband and encourages him to come home and drop his ale into her bread on a regular basis. I’m sure that it happened that way.
Sourdough starters are made with a variety of ingredients. Depending on the taste desired, milks, potato water, sugars, and various types of flours are incorporated to create a “sponge”. This sponge is continually “fed” to keep the yeast alive and thriving and as it is nursed, it develops its own particular flavor. Personal taste determines which characteristics are desirable or not.
Just a bit of historical trivia: According to www.kitchenproject.com, during the gold rush days in San Fransisco, California, a bakery run by the Boudin family from France used sourdough culture to create a unique and famous bread that miners enjoyed every morning. Since 1849 they have been using the same sourdough culture, which they call a “Mother dough” and the same recipe. So important is their “Mother Dough” it was heroically saved by Louise Boudin during the Great San Francisco Earthquake of 1906. Here in Oklahoma, sourdough starter has been used on the prairie through days of wagon trains, landruns and cattle drives to produce biscuits, pancakes, muffins and bread. It doesn’t take long to find a class here, where one may learn to create these morsels in a dutch oven nestled in the coals of a campfire.
Every sourdough sitter considers their starter to be the best. As in the case above, many starters have been handed down through generations of bread bakers. However, it is possible for you to start your own legacy and tweek it to your own taste. You can make the base recipe that follows, and then divide it to keep some going as a pristine culture and experiment with various additives like milk or potato water instead of just plain water on the rest. Also, as your culture becomes exactly what you like, it is a good idea to pour some onto wax paper and allow it to dry into a flat sheet that can be broken into small pieces and stored in a tightly sealed jar. If something horrible happens to your live culture, you can start over by adding two tablespoons of dried culture with 2 tablespoons of water to reconstitute and bring to room temperature and then start your usual process over again with this base.
If you are not going to use your starter for a time, you can put it in a jar with a tight fitting lid and store it in the refrigerator. I have also had luck with freezing cubes of my starter to then thaw to room temperature and start the process over. And one last tip that I use: I use bottled spring water to hydrate my starter, as city water has chlorine that kills the yeast and well water can have bacterias that ruin the taste.
I have tried a variety of starters and have come up with my favorite that is very, very simple. If you wish to be truly “pioneer”, then you would omit the yeast and let this starter stand for three days, stirring once each day, to capture any wild yeast in the air. When you start seeing bubbles, you start the “feeding” process. I personally like the flavor achieved from adding a little powdered yeast to get started. Again, if you wish to be “pioneer” in making the true, slow, sourdough bread then you would follow my bread recipe, ommitting the yeast and allow your dough to rise for as long as 24 hours, but I am including in the recipe, two teaspoons of yeast in case you do not wish to wait that long to have bread and still have the sourdough flavor.
3 tbsps whole wheat four
2 1/2 tbsps warm water
1 tsp powdered yeast
In a crock container or other opaque glass jar, mix ingredients with a wooden or plastic spoon. Do not use any metal utensils or containers. Allow to stand overnight, covered with cheese cloth. Next day, stir in 2 more tbsps of flour and 1 1/2 tbsps water. Stir and let stand overnight. Continue this process each day of using 2 tbsps flour (you can use white flour at this point) to 1 1/2 tbsp water until you have approximately 1 1/4 cups of starter. At that point, you have enough to make a loaf of bread. You must have enough starter to be able to remove 1 cup and still have some left to continue feeding for the next time. As the starter grows, it should be bubbly and pungent. Overnight, if a liquid rises to the top, just stir it in and continue feeding. Each time you make bread, it is a good idea to transfer all of the starter into a clean jar or bowl and wash the container that houses the starter to keep mold from ruining it. Dry the container and return any culture that is left after removing a cup and start the feeding process again.
To make bread:
1 cup sourdough starter at room temperature
3/4 cups warm water
2 tsps yeast
2 tbsps honey or sugar
1/4 tsp baking soda
2 tsp dough enhancer (lecithin)
3 cups high gluten flour either whole wheat or white or combination of both
Sprinkle yeast over the surface of the 3/4 cups warm water and allow to “proof” or dissolve in the water and bubbling to the top.
In a mixer with a dough hook, place starter, honey or sugar and yeast water along with one cup of flour, salt, enhancer and soda. Mix to blend.
Dough enhancer can be purchased at Sonrise Grains
Gradually add second cup of flour. Continue mixing. Add third cup in stages because you may not need all of it. The thickness of your starter will determine how much flour you use. Your dough should pull away from the sides of the bowl. If it does not, add more flour. If it appears too dry, you may add a little more water. This picture shows the dough too dry.
This is better
Using the dough hook on low speed, knead the dough for 8-10 minutes. It should be smooth and easily formed into a ball.
Put the dough out onto the Oklahoma Pastry Cloth™ and form into a ball. Wrap in plastic wrap and allow to rest for 10 minutes.
In a bowl, pour a tablespoon of olive oil into the bottom and place the dough, topside down, into the oil. Turn right side up to coat the dough ball in oil.
Cover with a warm, damp towel and allow to rise until doubled. If not adding yeast, allow to rise in a bowl that is covered with a wet towel and then covered in plastic wrap. Rise for anywhere from 8 -12 hours until doubled. The longer the rise, the stronger the flavor.
When risen, punch the dough down and put out onto pastry cloth and pat out to 1 inch thick. (If not using yeast, knead in a little flour.) With oil on your hands, wipe the dough with oil and then begin rolling toward you like a jelly roll, firmly pressing the edges into the dough. Continually oiling your hands, continue rolling until loaf is created. Tuck ends under. On a cookie sheet or Italian loaf pan, oil the pan and sprinkle with corn meal. Place loaf onto cookie sheet or into pan and cut diagonally with scissors to make slashes. Cover with warm, wet towel and let rise until double. (If not using yeast in the recipe, cover with towel and spray water mist onto the towel occassionally to keep it moist as it rises for 1 to 4 more hours.)
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Spray the bread with a mist of cold water before placing into oven and then bake for 20 minutes until browned. Turn bread over in the Italian loaf pan and bake 4 minutes longer to brown bottom.
Remove from oven and cool on rack. While hot, you can brush melted butter over the bread. Cover bread with towel as it cools for 30 minutes to make the crust soft yet crunchy.
Slice and serve. And it IS good with jam and tea!!