My daughter’s friend opened our fridge the other day and let out a shriek. ‘What the heck is this?’ She held out a plastic tub crusted on the rim with what looked like pancake batter. A thin puddle of dark liquid covered its doughy contents.
‘Whoa, careful,’ I said, taking it gingerly from her hands and putting the lid back on. ‘That’s my favorite starter, made with wild huckleberries. It makes great bread. At least, it does when it wants to.’
Lily, who’s been a fan of my bread for a whole long time, grimaced. ‘You make bread with this stuff? That’s so gross.’
No, not gross, Lily: a bit unusual maybe. If she’d stuck around long enough to listen, I might have told her about the wild yeast thing and the health benefits of long-rising dough and all that, but by then she’d found the key lime pie yogurt and was off again.
If you’re anything like me, you’ve got a few of these sourdough starters lurking in your fridge. One I made from organic California grapes lovingly teased into fruition over 10 days some years ago. Another from rye flour that naturally ferments. And last fall’s brainchild, made from mountain berries plucked at 3600 feet. That last one yielded 6 lovely loaves and then promptly went into a funk.
But I’m going to be honest here: I don’t use any of my starters in this recipe. Every one of those starters is finicky and unpredictable at best, and when it comes to making bread, reliability is the key. So I’ve come up with a method that yields great sourdough loaves in a 3-day process. Very little attention is necessary until the third day, and the results are amazing. If you don’t have a woodfired oven, instructions on baking in a conventional oven are included as well. Go on, relax and make some sourdough!
Don’s Woodfired Sourdough Bread
Make 3 loaves, 23 ounces each
For the Starter:
2/3 cup rye flour
2/3 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
¾ cup cold water
1 teaspoon active dry yeast
Mix these together in a large bread bowl with the handle of a wooden spoon, scraping the sides clean as you go. Cover with a clean dish cloth or a loose-fitting lid and let rise in a cool place (55-60° environment) for 12-14 hours until frothy. I do this step in the early evening and let it go overnight.
½ cup rye flour
½ cup unbleached all-purpose flour
3/8 cup cold water
Add these to your starter to ‘feed’ it in the morning. Scrape the sides again, put on a loose-fitting lid or a piece of plastic wrap and let it sit in a cool place for another 10-12 hours.
1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
½ cup cold water
Feed the starter again, this time with wheat flour only. Let sit covered in a cool place for 10 hours or overnight. By morning, the starter should be bubbly and somewhat risen. It will also smell sour, which is the smell of active lactobacillus fermenting in the mix. This is good.
Make the dough:
All of the starter
2 cups of water at 105°
½ teaspoon of active dry yeast
4 cups of unbleached white bread flour (I use Pendleton Mills ‘Morbread’ with 12% gluten)
3 teaspoons of salt
2 Tablespoons of flaxseed meal (optional)
1 cup of flour for bench work
Using the handle of a wooden spoon, stir the water, yeast, 4 cups of bread flour, salt and flaxseed into the starter. Mix well, scraping the sides of the bowl to incorporate all the ingredients. Knead for 10 minutes on a lightly floured surface.
Return the dough to a clean bread bowl, cover and let rise for 5 hours at room temperature (68-70°).
Deflate the dough, turning it over as best you can and leave to rest for a further 1 to 1½ hours before shaping into loaves.
For Baking in a Woodfired Oven: For best results, bake this bread in an oven that has been heated for 2½ hours by a medium-sized active fire. In the last hour, move the fire from side to side to allow even heating of the floor tiles. After this time, move the active but non-flaming coals to the back, throw on a fistful of hardwood twigs and sweep the floor clean of ashes. Once the twigs have finished burning, you’re ready to bake the bread.
For Baking in a conventional oven: Line the center rack with quarry tiles or a pizza stone and preheat at 450° for at least half an hour. When the loaves are ready for baking, drop the heat to 400°.
Form the loaves / final rise: Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured counter and divide the dough into 3 equal pieces. (note: if using a conventional oven, you can only bake 2 at a time; put one of the pieces back into the bread bowl for another hour.) Form a ball with each piece by stretching the longest skin of dough across the surface and tucking it underneath.
Line 3 baskets with cloth napkins or dish cloths, and sprinkle generously with flour. Plop the dough balls into these, toss on a bit more flour, cover with the corners of the cloth and let rise for 1¼ hours in a warm place.
Once risen, turn the unbaked loaves onto either a wooden peel or the back of a cookie sheet sprinkled with cornmeal. Brush loaves lightly with an eggwhite mixed with 1 Tablespoon of water and slash as desired.
For Baking in a Woodfired Oven: Slip the unbaked loaves into the oven in a semi-circle about 12” away from the coals. Close the door all the way and bake for 1 hour, turning several times to bake evenly. Loaves are ready when the crust is medium brown.
For Baking in a conventional oven: Slip loaves 2 at a time directly onto the tiles or pizza stone. Bake for 20 minutes at 400°, lower the heat to 350°, and bake for another 40 minutes, turning the loaves as necessary to ensure even baking. Loaves are ready when the crust is medium brown.
This bread is great with seafood, chowder and salad. Our favorite Friday meal is fresh Dungeness crab served with grilled asparagus, sourdough bread and glasses of chilled Prosecco. Give it a try!