I like to think of myself as a woman of simple needs. Give me clean white linens, a simple cat eye, generally uncomplicated and unfussy food—and I’m satisfied. So instead of fancy jewelry, my boyfriend, who gets me, bought me a container of primordial ooze from the 1700s as an anniversary gift last year. That ooze turned out to be a container of King Arthur Flour’s sourdough starter, and let me tell you, I couldn’t have been happier.
For the uninitiated, sourdough starter is a mixture of flour, water and wild yeast, and it’s one of human society’s oldest methods of making leavened bread. According to Michael Gänzle in the “Encyclopedia of Food Microbiology”, “One of the oldest sourdough breads dates from 3700 BCE and was excavated in Switzerland, but the origin of sourdough fermentation likely relates to the origin of agriculture in the Fertile Crescent several thousand years earlier”. So, while sourdough bread might not exactly be compatible with a paleo lifestyle, if we ever developed a Bronze Age diet, it would certainly be a main staple.
Similar to other fermented foods like sauerkraut, kimchi, kombucha and yogurt, sourdough is made using a fermentation process. The starter contains lactobacillus cultures which are probiotic, meaning it can have benefits for your gut. Of course, once you bake or cook with the starter, the cultures die. But, during the cooking process, lactic acid is created. According to one study, consuming lactic acid may lead to “improved nutritional value of food, control of intestinal infections, improved digestion of lactose, control of some types of cancer, and control of serum cholesterol levels.”
So, why isn’t all bread sourdough bread? Sounds like a dream, right? Well, there’s a catch: Sourdough is a living creature, and a finicky living creature at that. To quote Sam Fromartz in “In Search of the Perfect Loaf: A Home Baker’s Odyssey”, “to make a sourdough starter, you should realize you are a farmer, not a cook! You are creating the conditions for…microscopic animals to live happily”. Because of sourdough starter’s need for a balanced microbial ecosystem and its constant hunger, I naturally named mine Gizmo and began looking into how to best serve my tiny, tiny, tasty farm.
If you’re keeping your starter at room temperature you need to “feed” it with a mixture of equal parts flour and water every. day. Naturally, unless you’re a professional baker, this isn’t the ideal method for most people. I choose to keep my starter in the fridge and feed it once a week, and this is the method that works best for my personal lifestyle. If you’re a frequent traveler, you can also dry out your starter, or, like I did when I recently went on vacation, freeze it.
The possibilities with sourdough are quite literally endless. Here, a few of my favorite recipes.
SOURDOUGH BREAD RECIPE
This is an easy, hands-off recipe, but not for those in a hurry. Most bakers will tell you all of baking is an exact science (and for the most part, it is), but with sourdough you’re dealing with a living creature, so some days you might have a different product than others. The more times you make this bread, the more times you’ll get the hang of it. This recipe is the ideal bread for serving alongside soup, avocado toast, making sandwiches, dicing and toasting into croutons, or just plain snacking. Adapted from Jim Lahey’s No-Knead Bread.
- 3 cups all-purpose flour
- 1 3/4 teaspoons salt (or less—up to you!)
- 1 3/4 cups room temperature water
- 1/3 cup fed sourdough starter
1. Combine flour and salt together in a medium bowl. Add room-temperature water and the sourdough starter in a large bowl until smooth. Add flour mixture to water mixture and stir using wooden spoon (I use my hands, but either will do), making sure to scrape the dry flour from bottom of bowl until dough comes together, then knead by hand in bowl until shaggy ball forms and no dry flour remains. Cover bowl with plastic wrap and let sit at room temperature for at least 12 hours or up to 18 hours.
2. Transfer dough to lightly floured counter and knead 10 to 15 times. Shape dough into ball by pulling edges into middle. Transfer dough, seam side down, to a dutch oven. Cover with plastic wrap.
3. Adjust oven rack to middle position and place loaf or cake pan in bottom of oven. Place pot on middle rack and pour 3 cups of boiling water into pan below. Close oven door and let dough rise until doubled in size and does not readily spring back when poked with your floured finger, 2 to 3 hours.
4. Remove pot and water pan from oven; discard plastic from pot. Lightly flour top of dough and, using razor blade or sharp knife, make one 7-inch-long, 1/2-inch-deep slit along top of dough. Cover pot and place on middle rack in oven. Heat oven to 425 degrees. Bake bread for 30 minutes (starting timing as soon as you turn on oven).
5. Remove lid and continue to bake until loaf is deep brown and registers 210 degrees, 20 to 30 minutes longer. Carefully remove bread from pot; transfer to wire rack and let cool completely before serving.
SOURDOUGH PANCAKES (OR WAFFLES)
This is a great way to use the discarded unfed sourdough starter you end up with during weekly “feedings”. Taken from King Arthur Flour. Makes 1 dozen 8″ waffles or about 2 dozen medium-sized pancakes.
- 2 cups all-purpose flour
- 2 tablespoons sugar
- 2 cups buttermilk (or buttermilk powder)
- 1 cup sourdough starter, unfed
- all of the overnight sponge
- 2 large eggs
- 1/4 cup vegetable oil or melted butter
- 3/4 teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
1. To make the overnight sponge, stir down your refrigerated starter, and remove 1 cup.
2. In a large mixing bowl, stir together the 1 cup starter, flour, sugar, and buttermilk.
3. Cover and let rest at room temperature overnight.
4. In a small bowl or mixing cup, beat together the eggs, and oil or butter. Add to the overnight sponge.
5. Add the salt and baking soda, stirring to combine. The batter will bubble.
6. Pour batter onto your preheated, greased waffle iron, and bake according to the manufacturer’s instructions.
7. Serve waffles immediately, to ensure crispness. Or hold in a warm oven till ready to serve.
A perfect way to use up your “discard” each week that’s quick, easy, and a way to impress guests at your next dinner party. From King Arthur Flour.
- 1 cup King Arthur Premium Whole Wheat Flour or White Whole Wheat Flour
- 1/2 teaspoon sea salt
- 1 cup unfed (“discarded”) sourdough starter
- 1/4 cup unsalted butter, room temperature
- 2 tablespoons dried herbs of your choice, optional
- Oil for brushing
- Coarse salt (such as kosher or sea salt) or chopped fresh herbs for sprinkling on top
1. Mix together the flour, salt, sourdough starter, butter, and optional herbs to make a smooth, cohesive dough. It will feel much dryer than the sourdough bread dough.
2. Divide the dough in half, and shape each half into a small rectangular slab. Cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate for 30 minutes, or up to a couple of hours, until the dough is firm.
3. Preheat the oven to 350°F.
4. Lightly flour a piece of parchment, your rolling pin, and the top of the dough.
5. Working with one piece at a time, roll the dough to about 1/16″ thick. The dough will have ragged, uneven edges; that’s OK. Just try to make it as even as possible.
6. Transfer the dough and parchment together onto a baking sheet. Lightly brush with oil and then sprinkle the salt and/or chopped fresh herbs over the top of the crackers.
7. Cut the dough into 1 1/4″ squares.
8. Prick each square with the tines of a fork.
9. Bake the crackers for 20 to 25 minutes, until the squares are starting to brown around the edges.
10. When fully browned, remove the crackers from the oven, and transfer them to a cooling rack. Store airtight at room temperature for up to a week; freeze for longer storage.
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