Monday, November 15, 2010

Weekend Edition: Adventures in Sourdough

I showed you my sourdough starter on Thursday, and this weekend I made my first loaf of bread from it.

I read a lot of recipes, and had planned to use one from Chocolate & Zucchini, but since most of her measurements are in grams, and I don't have a kitchen scale, I had to look elsewhere.  I ended up going with this recipe from S. John Ross.  It turned out pretty well, but there are definitely a couple of things I'd adjust for the next loaf.  I think my sponge should have been a little wetter, because I was only able to incorporate two cups of flour instead of the recipe's three.  I felt like even with dramatically less flour my dough was on the verge of being too dry when I was kneading it.  Also, next time I'd cut out the sugar that is added to the sponge prior to mixing up the dough.  I know sugar is often added to feed the yeasts and make the bread rise, but this loaf had a touch of sweetness to it that I don't favor.  Don't get me wrong, it wasn't a sweet bread, but was more like a commercial sandwich loaf.  

All in all, the loaf turned out better than I expected.  It rose well, it browned nicely and formed a nice crust, it cut nicely, and it tasted good.  I mixed whole wheat and white flour.  It wasn't particularly sour-- there were parts of the bread that tasted more like sourdough than others.  The crumb was dense enough that it would be good for sandwiches, but it wasn't dense and heavy, or hard to chew.  And most importantly, it sent me an omen that I should continue to make sourdough.  Do you see the perfect "S" that formed as the bread rose?

I also made pancakes with some of the sourdough starter.  I used another recipe from Uncle Jim's Book of Pancakes, a vintage cookbook that I featured in this Vintage Kitchen post (before I'd named the Vintage Kitchen posts, I guess).  They look slightly red because I threw some frozen raspberries into the batter.  Extremely good pancakes.

If you click those photos they'll open slightly larger, but in case you still can't read it, here's the transcription.

Sourdough Pancakes from Uncle Jim's Book of Pancakes by James E. Banks; Filter Press, Palmer Lake, CO, 1967.

In the early days of the American West, a solitary prospector or herder couldn't go to the market when he needed yeast for his baking.  So he carried along a sponge of sourdough starter.  It really was sour dough.  Even today, sourdough cookery is one of the supreme treats for an amateur chef.

The first thing you need is a starter.  Here's a method that has always worked for me.  Because this is still an art, not a science, it may not work for you.  If it doesn't, wait a few days and try again.  Your first batch of sourdough pancakes will repay your effort many-fold.

Place 1 cup of milk in a glass jar or crock (nothing metal!) and let it stand at room temperature for a day.  I use a 6 oz. instant coffee jar, but any wide-mouthed jar will do.  The second day stir in 1 cup flour.  Leave the mixture uncovered in a warm place (80˚ F is ideal and can be achieved near the pilot light on a gas stove.  Not too near, though or the heat will kill the yeast.)  for 2 to 5 days, depending on how long it takes to sour and get bubbly.  To speed the process in warm weather you can cover the jar with a layer of cheesecloth and let it stand outdoors for a few hours to expose the dough to wild yeasts in the air.  If the mixture starts to dry out, stir in enough lukewarm water to bring it back to its original consistency.  When it has a good sour aroma and is full of bubbles, it's read to use.

Every time you use your starter, replenish it with equal amounts of flour and milk.  Let it stand at room temperature for a few hours, or until it gets full of bubbles again, then cover loosely wan store in the refrigerator.  From time to time you may have to scrape some mold from the top of the jar where the starter dries out a bit.

This is certainly not the only way to get a starter going.  When Cal Queal, outdoor editor of the Denver POST, appealed for a recipe, he got 23 answers.  A starter is best if used once a week.  If you don't use it for two or three weeks, discard about half and replenish it as described above.  If you don't expect to use it for several weeks, you can freeze it.  Be sure to leave it at room temperature for at least 36 hours when you want to use it again.

After you've worked with your starter for awhile, you'll get to know it as an old pal that gets better with age.  I'd read this and was skeptical until I noticed that my results took a real turn for the better about six months after I made the starter.

Here's the basic recipe:

1/2 cup sourdough starter
1 cup undiluted evaporated milk
1 cup warm water*
1 3/4 - 2 cups unsifted flour
2 eggs
2 TBS granulated sugar
1/2 tsp salt
1 tsp baking soda**

In a large bowl gently mix 1/2 cup starter, 1 cup undiluted evaporated milk, and 1 cup lukewarm water (*or 2 cups whole milk), and 1 3/4 - 2 cups flour.  The amount of flour is determined by the consistency you like.  Leave overnight at room temperature.  Be sure not to leave a metal spoon in the bowl.

Next morning add 2 eggs, 2 TBS granulated sugar, 1/2 tsp salt, and 1 tsp baking soda**.  Mix well, but don't beat.

** If your starter is quite sour, you may need to add more baking soda.  You'll learn by trial and error.  Never go more than 50% above the suggested amount.

For variations on the basic recipe, you can replace as much as half the flour with buckwheat flour, rolled oats, cornmeal or wheat germ.  They are all good.

If you want to make sourdough waffles, add 2 TBS melted shortening to the batter just before baking.

In the old time lumber camps, the loggers had an easy substitute for syrup.  The simply dissolved brown sugar in hot coffee and poured it over the pancakes.


  1. My mouth is watering looking at that bread! I can almost smell it. I can't tell you how badly I want a piece of it made into toast with lots of melting butter. When are you trying your next loaf? I might come for a visit!

  2. Emma,
    If only someone would figure out how to transmit smell with a picture! Well, you're certainly welcome to stop by if you're ever in NM! I think with sourdough you sort of have to establish a routine, and my plan is to bake bread on Sunday mornings, and maybe Wednesdays if I get that into it and feel the need. So just build it into your itinerary.