Crack the Code to Great Sourdough Bread!

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For years, I have been trying various different methods to make great sourdough bread.  Some of the recipes called for sourdough starter, others called for mixing and refrigerating, but nearly all of them called for the addition of commercial yeast.  I had this hankering for sourdough bread that could be made without commercial yeast — after all, Ma Ingalls did it.  Why couldn’t I?
So, I kept researching and trying more recipes.  I made my own sourdough starter countless times.  As long as I added a little commercial yeast, I could make decent bread, but if I omitted the commercial yeast, I had doorstops, paperweights and hockey pucks.  Not exactly what I was looking for.  Very occasionally, I would hit a winner.  My family would rave and devour.  They would tell me to make it again. And. I. couldn’t.
My sourdough bread efforts were entirely inconsistent, and my sourdough starters were consistently sluggish.  Humph.
But now, every week, I make fabulous high-rising sourdough breads, sourdough muffins and sourdough anything-I-want without commercial yeast.  What’s my secret?  How do you crack the code to great sourdough bread without commercial yeast?  Well, I’m so glad you asked, because I’m going to tell you.  That way, you can make some, too.
Meet Mildred:  (Yes, we named our sourdough starter.  If you had to feed something everyday, and keep an eye on its welfare, you’d give it a name, too.)
This is Mildred, the Amazing Sourdough Starter.
She lovingly provides my family with fabulous breads every week.
1.  Get a Good Starter!  Before you can make great bread, you must have great yeast. Sourdough Starter is simply wild caught yeast, rather than manufactured commercial yeast.  I like wild things.  They make me happy.  Besides, commercial yeast will never have that wonderful sourdough flavor.
But where does one go to get a great starter?  I have lots of recipes to make starter from scratch, but no matter how many times I tried to make my own starter, it just wasn’t consistent, great yeast.  I didn’t know why.  It bubbled and did all the things a starter is supposed to do, but it wouldn’t raise my breads fast enough for them to actually be edible.
Back in the day (you know, when Ma Ingalls was baking bread), starters were passed down and maintained for generations.  Did you ever wonder why?  I guess I just thought it was like zucchini  — there was always too much, so they pushed it off on every unsuspecting passerby.  But that isn’t actually the case.  In reality, sourdough starter was treasured.  Only the lively, active ones that raised bread well were passed on.  When a starter could consistently raise bread well, it was nurtured and valued, otherwise the family would not have bread.
It takes a long time to age and ripen a starter to consistency and there is no guarantee that a home grown starter will ever make good bread.  It all depends on the wild yeast that thrives in your area.  Some areas have great wild yeast floating around (that’s why San Francisco is famous for its sour dough bread).  I now recommend finding someone who already makes great sourdough bread without commercial yeast and begging for some of their starter.  That way you know you’re starting off with something that will work.  The trouble for me was that I don’t actually know anyone who makes real sourdough bread.
After a great deal of research (thank you, Google), I found this sourdough starter online that kept getting good reviews, so I took the plunge and bought some.  I am so glad I did.  It has been a wonderful starter, and proved that I was actually capable of making good sourdough bread without commercial yeast.  The flavor is fantastic.  It is fresh, rather than dried as so many purchased starters are, so you are up and running in no time.  If you want to make great bread, I highly recommend this starter! (and just in case you’re wondering, no one is paying me a dime to say that.)
2.  Learn to Take Care of Your Starter.  Now that you’ve begged, borrowed or bought a starter, you need to learn how to take care of it.  You can keep it on the counter and feed it at least once a day, or try keeping it in the fridge and feeding it twice a week.  I kept mine on the counter over the winter, but now that it’s warmer, I’ve got one on the counter and I’m experimenting with the fridge method with the other one.
I usually use 1/2 cup to bake with (or toss, if I don’t have time to bake, but don’t tell Mildred), and use 1/4 cup to feed and keep my starter going.  So I put 1/4 cup starter in the jar, add 1/2 cup filtered water and 1 cup unbleached flour.  Stir and cover (because you don’t want to find bugs in your starter — that just wouldn’t be good.  Not that you ever have fruit flies at your house or anything.)
I super-duper recommend this book:
 
It’s called The Art of Baking with Natural Yeast by Caleb Warnock & Melissa Richardson (again, no one is paying me to plug them).  I bought it on Amazon.  This book totally unraveled all the mystery behind making great sourdough bread without commercial yeast.  It has the best instructions for the care and keeping of your starter that I have ever seen anywhere.  Not only does it make the regular feeding completely clear, but it also tells you what to do if your starter acts sluggish, stops raising your bread or if you completely neglected it and need to revive it.  It also has some great recipes for All-Natural Sourdough breads and more.  If you want to make sourdough bread you totally need this book.  End of infomercial.

 

3.  Get Some Good Recipes.  Again, The Art of Baking with Natural Yeast is a great place to go.  (I know, I said the infomercial was over.  Bear with me while I rave.)  I made the bread pictured above using the Honey Molasses Sandwich Bread recipe found in that book.  It is a staple everyday bread around our house now.  Absolutely great.  And look at that rise!  It looks just like bread made with commercial yeast.  The sweet smell of success smells a whole lot like sourdough bread.

 

And the Blueberry Cream Muffins are addicting.  Totally sinful.  Try them.  You won’t be sorry.

There are a bunch more recipes, including a San Francisco Sourdough that tastes like it came out of a bakery.  Yum!  If you’re going to work this hard to maintain a starter, you should have some recipes that make it worth the work, right?
Next time, I will give you my recipe for a traditional sourdough bread made without commercial yeast. Until then,
Have a great day!
Angela
 
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