Tuesday, December 27, 2011

December Daring Bakers' Challenge - Sourdough

No beating around the bush in an intro this month... this challenge was awesome.

Our Daring Bakers Host for December 2011 was Jessica of My Recipe Project and she showed us how fun it is to create Sour Dough bread in our own kitchens! She provided us with Sour Dough recipes from Bread Matters by AndrewWhitley as well as delicious recipes to use our Sour Dough Bread in from Tonia George's Things on Toast and Canteen's Great British Food!

Sourdough has actually been on my mind quite a bit recently. One of my bloggie friend (Hi, Jenni!) has been talking a bit about sourdough recently, and it really peaked my interest. I mean, I dabbled in wild yeast and levains once before, but I can't really call that an attempt at sourdough. And any research I have done about sourdoughs usually wound up confusing me - lots of talk about "hydration" and everything being carefully measured out by weight... it just seemed a bit overwhelming.

And then Jessica announced the challenge.

And I jumped in with both feet.

Me being me, I did a ton of reading about different methods of making sourdough starters. I mean, I fully intended to follow Jessica's recipe and methods very closely, but I wanted a better understanding of the whole process. Basically, the idea is to cultivate the wild yeasts and (healthy) bacteria that lie dormant in the flour. If you really dive into it, it is very scientific. But even if you don't, it is still pretty cool.

So we started out with some flour (whole wheat flour - less processed, more natural yeast to be activated) and some water. That's it. Just mix the two together.

Then cover it loosely and find a decently warm place for it to live for the next week or so...

Then, each day, as per Jessica's directions, we fed this. With more flour and water. Little miss helped.

Within four days, we were showing signs of life!

Yup, all those bubbles were exactly what I was hoping for. And it started smelling... well... yeasty. The best description I can think of for the smell was like a kind of sweet, kind of tangy beer-like smell. But that is a good thing. It means that everything was working like it was supposed to.

At this point, I noticed on the Daring Bakers forum that many of the more experienced sourdough bakers were discussing their existing sourdough starters. It seems that most folks maintain their starters for, well, ever. And, as it is a living thing that they maintain, they give their starters names. Hmmm... definitely something to consider.

Now, Jessica provided us with options. She provided with two options for starters and two options for breads to make with those starters. One option was for a rye-flour based starter, which would be used to make a rye sourdough loaf. As you may have noticed, I didn't go with that option. I followed the wheat starter process, and, now that my starter was alive and kicking, was ready to try my hand at the wheat based loaf recipe that was provided, for a French Country Bread.

The French Country Bread recipe is a little different from some of the other sourdough bread recipes I have seen. Generally, sourdough breads are made by combining sourdough starter (that has been "activated," or fed about four to twelve hours prior to beginning baking), flour, salt, and sometimes a bit of additional water into a dough, then allowing the dough to rest while the natural yeast does its job... yada, yada, yada, it's a very straightforward process. The French Country loaf had an extra step built into it - turning the sourdough starter into something called a "Production Leaven," then incorporating that leaven into a dough.

Creating the production leaven is basically just refreshing the starter, but in different proportions than a normal feed of the starter, and using a combination of both whole wheat and all purpose flour.

Jessica indicated that the leaven might be a bit stiff at this point. That it definitely was.

Then the leaven was set aside for a few hours. When it was done resting and ready to go, it was time to make the actual dough. Once again, this was a combination of the basics - flour, water and a bit of salt. This all comes together in a very sticky dough. Very. Sticky.

The dough is kneaded right on the counter, then the production leaven is placed right on top of it.

The whole thing is then kneaded a whole lot more (and I hand kneaded this - no KitchenAid used in this recipe. I really wanted to get a feel for the dough, and it is a very wet, sticky dough, so I really wanted to know what I was doing...), at which point it is ready to rest again. And this rest is achieved right on the counter, covered by a bowl.

This rest gives the natural yeasts time to activate and for the dough to aerate. At this point, the dough is ready to be shaped. Most sourdough breads are shaped in special proofing baskets (called a banneton), but I just used a round, plastic colander, lined with a very heavily floured dish towel.

And once again the dough rests. As you may have noticed, from start (or, well, starter...) to finish, the primary ingredient in sourdough bread is time.

So five hours later, we were ready to go. I turned the dough out onto a parchment paper covered baking sheet and scored it.

Then into the oven it went.

And then I got even more excited, because man did it smell good.

And 45 minutes, I saw something interesting. The bread rose kinda funny in the oven.

Looked a bit like a muppet, I thought...

But from a different angle...

Look! A rustic looking loaf of real sourdough bread!

The next morning, we cut into it.

Not too shabby. I was kinda hoping for more of those big, airy holes that you think of with these rustic loaves, but I am wondering if a more mature sourdough starter will help with that.

Regardless of the (lack of) airiness of the loaf's crumb, it tasted delicious.

And it's just the beginning. As I mentioned at the beginning, I did a ton of reading, and bookmarked a ton of recipes to try now that I have an actual starter. I have tried a few so far that I will share in future posts.

So now the question remains, what do I name my starter?

Jessica, I can't thank you enough for this amazing challenge. You have been an awesome, patient and enthusiastic host, answering more questions than I've ever seen asked about a single challenge. I am so excited to now have my very own sourdough starter, and I look forward to years of delicious sourdough baking, all thanks to you!

To see the delicious breads and sourdough creations baked in the kitchen this month, check the out here.

French Country Bread (starter and loaf)

Wheat Starter - Day 1:

4 1/2 tablespoons whole-wheat flour
3 tablespoons water
(total: scant 1/2 cup)

In a tupperware or other plastic container, mix the flour and water into a paste.
Gently cover (put the lid on loosely or cover loosely with plastic wrap) and set aside somewhere warm.

Wheat Starter - Day 2:

4 1/2 tablespoons whole-wheat flour
3 tablespoons water
scant 1/2 cup of starter from Day 1
(total: scant cup)

Stir the flour and water into the mixture from Day 1. Cover and return it to its warm place.

Wheat Starter - Day 3:

4 1/2 tablespoons whole-wheat flour
4 teaspoons water
scant 1 cup of starter from Day 2
(total: scant 1 1/3 cup)

Stir the flour and water into the mixture from day 2. Cover and return it to its warm place.

Wheat Starter - Day 4:

3/4 cup plus 1 1/2 tablespoons unbleached all-purpose flour
1/2 cup less 4 teaspoons water
scant 1 1/3 cup starter from Day 3
(total: scant 2 2/3 cup)

Stir the flour and water into the mixture from Day 3. Cover and return it to its warm place. At this point it should be bubbling and smell yeasty. If not, repeat this process for a further day or so until it is.

(note: be sure that your container can accommodate not only the starter, but the growth that it will experience as the yeast forms.)

French Country Bread
Stage 1: Refreshing the leaven

2 cup less 1 tablespoon of the wheat leaven starter created above (or another wheat starter, if you have one, refreshed per the day 4 instructions above)
6 tablespoons less 1 teaspoon whole wheat flour
1 cup plus 2 teaspoons unbleached all purpose flour
1/2 cup water

Mix everything into a sloppy dough. It may be fairly stiff at this stage. Cover and set aside for 4 hours, until bubbling and expanded slightly. (note: mine was very stiff and didn't really bubble, but it did expand a bit.)

Stage 2: Making the final dough

3/4 cup less 1 teaspoon whole wheat flour (plus more for dusting)
2 cups plus 2 tablespoons unbleached all purpose flour
1 1/4 teaspoon sea salt
1 1/4 cups water
1 3/4 cups production leaven from above step (this will leave approximately 1 cup of extra production leaven, which you can save, discard or re-incorporate into your starter the next time you feed it, or use in another recipe of your choice)

Mix the dough with all of the ingredients except for the production leaven. It will be a soft dough.
Knead on an unfloured surface for about 8-10 minutes, getting the tips of your fingers wet if you need to. Use a dough-scraper (or washed, expired credit card, if you don't have a dough scraper) to stretch and fold the dough, making the dough smoother and more elastic.
Smooth the dough into a circle, then scoop the production leaven into the center. You want to fold the edges of the dough up to incorporate the leaven, though this might be a messy process. Continue kneading for a couple of minutes until the leaven is fully incorporated into the dough.
Spread some water on a clean bit of your work surface and lay the dough on top. Cover with an upturned bowl, lining the rim of the bowl with a bit of water. Leave for an hour, so that the gluten can develop and the yeasts can begin to aerate the dough.
Once the dough has rested, you can begin to stretch and fold it. Using wet hands and a dough scraper, stretch the dough away from you as far as you can without breaking it and fold it back on itself. Repeat this in each direction, to the right, towards you, and to the left. This will help create a more 'vertical' dough, ready for proofing.
Heavily flour a banneton or proofing basket (or a tea-towel lined bowl) with whole wheat flour and rest the dough, seam side up, in the basket. Put the basket in a large plastic bag, inflate it, and seal it (I covered mine with plastic wrap, as I did not have a large enough plastic bag). Set aside in a warm spot for 3-5 hours, or until it has expanded a fair bit. It is ready to bake when the dough responds to a gentle to a gentle poke by slowly pressing back into shape.
Preheat the oven to 425 degrees Fahrenheit. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper, then carefully invert the dough onto the sheet. Make 2-3 cuts on top of the loaf (to allow for expansion) and bake for 40-50 minutes, reducing the temperature to 400 degrees after the first 10 minutes.
Cool completely on a cooling rack.



  1. I loved your step by step pictures! I was also impressed by the number of bakers who already had starters... I think I let mine die since I baked the loaf, but I might want to try again!

  2. Great job, your bread looks fantastic! A more mature starter might help with more air holes, or you could try switching your brand of flour. I've had a starter for years, and my bread got a whole lot better when I switched brands of whole wheat flour (and the new brand is also organic - not sure if that makes a difference as well).

  3. YAY Shelley and Little Miss! You did a great job on your sourdough! That loaf of bread looks awesome!! You will probably get some prettier holes inside your loaf as your starter ages. I can't wait to see what else you make with your starter! Decided on a name yet?

  4. Great work!
    Actually, the tight custard crumb is not a bad thing :-)
    Good luck coming up with a name. My whole wheat starter has been dubbed "Jill"

  5. That's a good lookin' loaf! I loved seeing all your other sourdough creations on the forum, so I'm really looking forward to your future posts. Great job!

  6. Your bread looks fabulous. Love the picture from the side of your bubbly starter.

  7. Your loaf is absolutely stunning! I'm delighted to see that you will continue with sourdough - and I bet you'll have a fantastic, open structure in no time! xx.

  8. Awesome job on the challenge--amazed by how you went the extra mile with your Banana Spice Sourdough Cake which you shared on the forum! It looked deliciously festive!

  9. So fun that your daughter helps you in the kitchen :) Great looking bread, and here's to many more sourdough adventures to come!

  10. Haha, a sourdough muppet! Regardless of the funny split, it still turned out great. Maybe you should name your starter Kermit. =)

  11. Yep, I see the muppet! Wasn't this fun! I love the look of your sourdough!

  12. Fantastic job on this challenge! My bread did that funny side split thing too but not so big, just a little slit. Can't wait to see what else you bake with your sourdough starter :) And also can't wait to hear what you named him/here!

  13. I always love reading your posts Shelly..they are so informative and personal
    Brilliant job on this challenge as always
    loved the sourdough muppet :)

  14. Your French country bread turned out beautiful, and it looks yummmy, great semi-holey crumb! As Jenni pointed out, you will get more holes as your starter grows stronger, BUT, hydration is key..a really wet dough gives you those holes too! I've been all around the SD universe, and have killed two. Herbie (yes, I name mine too lol) is now reincarnated, and this time I hope I take advantage of 'forever'. I have a dried starer sample from 1875!!

    OH, LOVE your oven's idea of 'muppet bread'..definitely Kermit!!

  15. I love your step by step photos - and what a great loaf you ended up with. Mine looks like an amoeba, but tasted good.

  16. You did such an amazing job on the challenge, Shelley! Sorry for my late visit here, I was away from the blogosphere due to my trip and holidays, but now that things have settled a bit, I'm slowly catching up :o) I loved your sourdough pancakes as well, they look awesome, and I intend to try them when I go back to Korea where I left my sourdough (frozen...hope it survives!).
    I hope you had a wonderful time with your loved ones at Christmas and New Year's festivities, and I wish that the new year brings lots of happiness to all of you!
    All the best,


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