Like many others, I’ve found myself with a lot of time on my hands for the past month or so. Initially, I thought it would be a perfect opportunity to catch up (and get ahead) on the many blog/social media items I’ve had on pause for the past few years, a remnant of when I was finishing up The Heritage Cookbook. That didn’t turn out to be the case.
Social distancing, or as I have grown to call it, physical distancing, has been relatively drama-free for our household, but our daily habits have evolved. We are taking the concept seriously, because I am on immunosuppressant medication, as well as the fact that we live with my in-laws, who are of a high-risk age (or kupuna, as they say here in Hawaii). My wife makes a weekly grocery trip to replenish our pantry and fridge, and we dedicate two dinners each week to ordering takeout to boost the local economy. I have adjusted to a work-from-home environment, and the military has relaxed its grooming standards; I’m getting used to long hair. I developed a homeschooling curriculum for our fifth-grade son, to supplement the schoolwork his teachers are giving him, and we’re teaching our youngest to read.
Admittedly, even with six people in the house, it’s easy to feel a sense of isolation from time to time. I never thought I’d be so happy to take a call from work, just to speak to someone new and satisfy my inherent human desire for a sense of belonging. My mother-in-law has been hardest hit from this isolation, as she has built a very strong circle of friends in our local area, whom she now cannot visit.
But as I’ve been looking through our pantry to devise our weekly meals, I’ve been making a habit of cooking with all of those back-of-the-shelf ingredients that have stacked up over the years. We had quite a collection of flours from my recipe testing during The Heritage Cookbook: multiple variations of einkorn, rye, and whole wheat. Rather than let them endure further neglect, I decided to start experimenting with these flours to perfect the beginner’s sourdough recipe I wrote for the book. So like a lot of other folks, I eventually fell into a rhythm of daily breadmaking — making way more than we could ever conceivable eat. Once the results were shareable, we started giving them out to extended family and my in-laws’ friends around our neighborhood, via mailbox delivery. Now, our neighbors have a reason to call my mother-in-law to chat, and it’s been easing her stay-at-home experience.
And yeah, this recipe isn’t “Paleo”, or gluten-free for that matter. It’s not an ideal food staple, nor is it high in nutrients. But it is fermented, so maybe it’s better for you than yeast-leavened bread. I eat a slice every few days, mostly to test its flavor but also to just enjoy my work. Rather than focus on what it isn’t, I’d rather look at what this Community Sourdough Bread has become in our household: a tool to share a little love to those around us, at a time when we’re all re-writing the rules.
I hope you and your loved ones are doing well, and staying safe and healthy. More soon.
Left: einkorn flour starter. Right: rye flour starter.
Fair warning: this recipe is longer than usual. There’s just no way to write a short sourdough recipe.
First, let’s talk about your sourdough starter. This is the single biggest hurdle to jump when tackling sourdough. The concept sounds simple: add flour and water together until it generates enough wild yeast to leaven bread. But it can be tricky. There are lots of guides and videos out there that are very useful in your success, but I’ll share what I do.
Your starter will prefer the nutrients and minerals present in naturally-milled flour. If you can, use something like rye, whole wheat, or einkorn flour for your starter. Bread flour or all-purpose flour can be used, but will take longer to become mature, and will have a less interesting flavor. I used a blend of rye and whole wheat at the beginning, but switched to einkorn when the rye ran out. As you can see above, rye flour usually works best for helping the starter rise and for getting those trademark bubbles.
Next, the water you use is important. Depending on what comes out of your tap, or even filtered from your fridge, your water may inhibit your initial bacterial growth. To be safe, you could use bottled water. Another option is to use 100% fruit juice, like grape, orange, and/or pineapple juice to kickstart everything and give it plenty of sugar to feed on. Our tap and filtered fridge water killed my first two starters, so I tried another starter using a small can of pineapple/orange juice we had on hand for making mixed drinks. I used the juice for the first two days, then switched to bottled water — by the fifth day I had a starter that was active and mature. Once my starter was mature (and harder to kill), I filled a gallon jug with tap water and let it set overnight to dechlorinate, then covered and have been using that ever since.
When feeding your starter, consistency is important. This is what I did: I combined equal weights starter, flour, and water: 50g of each, with feedings at 9am and 9pm. I kept the starter in a quart-sized jar, and loosely covered it with the inner metal cover that comes with mason jars. During each feeding, I discarded the excess starter to get it back down to 50g, then added another 50g each of water and flour. I started with a fresh new jar every other day, just to keep things clean. After the third day (sixth feeding), I started using just 25g of starter and 50g each of the others, to give the starter more raw flour volume to eat (and therefore strengthening it). By the fifth day, it was ready for baking, which I started on the sixth day. You’ll know when your starter is ready when it doubles in size about 8 hours after feeding, and if it will float in water when at peak height (pro tip: when spooning out some starter to test, don’t stir it or anything, just carefully scoop and place straight into the water).
Now, I have settled into a minimal-waste routine: I use 10g starter in the morning combined with 20g each water and flour (totaling 50g), then feed that entire starter with 60g each flour and water in the evening. This gives me a starter that is 170g the next morning. I use 128g of that starter for that day’s loaf, and have ~42g of extra starter left over. I then use 10g of that starter to start the cycle all over again. At one point I was trying to get it 100% perfectly efficient with zero waste, but quickly learned that all those little bits of starter that get stuck in the jar and elsewhere add up, and it’s better to have a comfortable excess of starter so that you don’t run out. 32g of starter, which is how much would be wasted if I was 100% efficient, would be about one hefty tbsp of starter. I think that’s an acceptable loss.
Anyway, that’s it for the starter. Once I start leaving the house again, I will probably figure out a different rhythm for feedings that complement my schedule. The starter doesn’t need to be fed twice a day, but it helps. Once a day is fine.
Next, let’s discuss hydration, which simply means the amount of water in the recipe. Hydration is calculated by the weight of the water compared to the weight of the flour. The more water in the dough, the more air bubbles and rise (also known as “oven spring”) in the bread. The issue is that the wetter the dough, the stickier it will be, and harder to shape. Additionally, the type of flour you use can affect how sticky the dough is, because different doughs have different gluten/protein content. All-purpose flour is anywhere from 8-11% protein, while bread flour is 11-13% protein. The lower the protein level, the stickier it will be, and it won’t as readily rise in the oven. I currently use all-purpose flour because that’s what we have at the house right now, and it’s about 4x cheaper than bread flour. The results are still excellent, as you can see in these pictures.
For this recipe, we’re going to use 67% hydration. At this amount, it is nice and easy to handle if using bread flour, and manageable with all-purpose flour. You can scale the hydration up to 73% for a moderately temperamental dough, or up to 80% for an advanced dough. My advice is to start with the 67% hydration until you become confident, then work your way up. For example, I made six 67% hydration loaves before tackling 73% hydration, and I’m not quite up for 80% yet…maybe next week. The bread in these pictures is made with 67% hydration dough using an all-purpose flour that is about 11% protein, but I’ve tried it on lower-protein (9%) flour with the same results (but stickier to work with). I’ve added the calculations for 73% and 90% hydration doughs at the bottom of the recipe below, but if you want to play around with hydration figures, use this calculator.
For the flour mixture itself, I like to add about 7% whole wheat or einkorn to my flour. That amount, coupled with the 100% einkorn starter, means that about 10% of my bread is made with whole ground flour, which gives the bread just enough earthy notes to be wonderfully complex, but still palatable for children. You could add more whole wheat or einkorn to your flour, just be prepared for a more rustic, dense bread. Also note that einkorn or whole wheat flours do not have less gluten in them; they actually have similar or higher gluten content than regular white flour. The presence of bran in those flours means that those fibers cut through the gluten proteins, which reduces the strength of the gluten network…hence the denser bread.
Finally, some suggested tools. You need a kitchen scale, for making both the starter and the bread itself. Nothing fancy, just something that will allow you to weigh accurately in grams.
You’ll want a dutch oven to bake the bread in, but if you don’t have one, you can bake it in a cast-iron skillet or on a pizza stone. A dutch oven will create a mini-oven inside your oven, in which the bread can steam. It’s the ideal environment for a nice crust. This Lodge cast iron dutch oven is great because you can use it upside down, so that you don’t risk burning yourself when adding the dough to the hot surface. If using a plain cast-iron skillet or pizza stone, I suggest adding a pan of water to the oven (on a lower rack) and use a spray bottle to wet the dough and inside of the oven with water before closing the oven door.
Dough scrapers are cheap and let you easily remove the dough from the mixing bowl, but a silicon/rubber spatula also works. A bench scraper is also ideal when shaping the dough, because the dough won’t as easily stick to it compared to your hands. You’ll use this tool twice: once when pre-shaping the dough for bulk fermentation, and once more when shaping it for proofing.
Using a proofing basket (aka “banneton”) will give you a consistent loaf shape. Dough made with all-purpose flour will sag and flatten without something to support it, so the banneton helps keep it in shape. I use a 10″ oval banneton, but a round one works fine as well. Some people like to proof their dough inside the liner cloth that comes with it, but I like to dust the basket itself and use the cloth as a nice cover while proofing. This gives me the white rings you see on the bread. You can proof the dough (step #4 of the recipe below) directly on your countertop, but if using all-purpose flour, the dough will flatten a lot and probably not rise that much once it gets into the oven. So if using all-purpose flour, I recommend getting a banneton (and putting the dough in your fridge to proof…more on that in the recipe).
Community Sourdough Bread
Recipe adapted from this excellent No-Knead Sourdough Bread video.
250g water (67% hydration) (see note below)
128g sourdough starter
350g all-purpose or bread flour
25g whole wheat or einkorn flour
white rice flour for dusting the banneton
1. In a large bowl, combine the water and salt, and stir to combine. Add the starter and stir to combine. Using your hand, stir in the flour and mix together until everything is uniform, about 30 seconds. You’re not kneading the dough or anything, just trying to get it all together. The dough should be wet and sticky, or “shaggy”. Cover with a damp towel or plastic wrap and set aside in a warm, draft-free environment (like on top of the fridge).
2. For the next two hours, you’ll be autolysing the dough, which is a fancy term that means you’re making sure that the protein in the flour is adequately hydrated. You have two options: either just let it sit for two hours, or you can do what they call “stretch and folds” every 30 minutes. To do a stretch and fold, you just grab the end of the dough furthest from you, pull it up to stretch it (not so much that it tears), and pull it towards you to fold like a sheet of paper. You then rotate the bowl and do it again for the three other sides. It takes about 10 seconds each time, but will definitely make your hands sticky. You should notice that the dough becomes springier every 30 minutes. I prefer to do stretch and folds for the first two hours, especially when working with all-purpose flour, because it makes the dough easier to handle for the rest of the recipe.
3. After two hours, you’re ready to pre-shape your dough for what they call “bulk fermentation”, which is basically when the bacteria from the sourdough starter have the opportunity to feed on the flour, creating carbon dioxide gas in the dough. Using a dough scraper or a rubber spatula, invert the dough onto a dry (unfloured) counter. Do some stretch and folds, then flip the dough over. It’ll be super sticky, that’s fine. Wash the sticky dough from your hands, but don’t dry them – you want wet hands for the next step. Also wet your bench scraper. Face the edge of the bench scraper towards you, then place it under the far side of the dough, and roll the dough towards you. The stickiness will create resistance that will make surface tension on the dough, and help form it into a ball. Here is a good video demonstration (note that the video creator is using bread flour, and all-purpose flour will be stickier than in the video). Do this a few times until you have a pretty good ball, the plop it back into the bowl. Cover the dough again and let it sit for 4-5 hours. A rule of thumb is to allow it to grow 30% in size, but there is some wiggle room here. I do bulk fermentation for 4 hours, but our house is relatively warm (about 80F during the day here in Hawaii). You may need 5+ hours if you’re somewhere chilly.
4. Now we’re going to shape the dough for proofing. Here, you want to dust your work surface with about 1 tbsp of flour (bread or all-purpose is fine), then very gently invert the dough onto the dusted surface, top-side-down. Be gentle with the dough, you don’t want to deflate the gas that built up during bulk fermentation. Now, form dough into your final shape — you can either do the bench scraper method in step #3 again if using a round proofing basket, or roll it into a sausage shape if using an oval banneton (use this video for an example). Heavily dust your proofing basket with rice flour, then place the dough, top-side-down, into the basket. Why rice flour? Because it won’t incorporate into the dough, and will ensure that the dough slides easily from the banneton after proofing. You can now loosely cover the basket with a grocery bag or towel and either leave to proof at room temperature for 1-2 hours, or place in the fridge for at least 2 hours, but up to overnight. If using all-purpose flour, I suggest you put it in the fridge. The longer you leave it in the fridge, the more sour (and nutritionally digestible) the dough will be, since it gives the bacteria more time to develop.
5. One hour before baking, place the dutch oven (or cast iron/pizza stone) in the oven and set the temperature for 500F. Let it preheat for an hour. If you put your dough in the fridge, don’t worry — you don’t need to take it out to warm it up or anything, you can just throw it into the oven while it’s still cold. Carefully remove the dutch oven, then invert the basket into the oven, so that the top side is up. Take a moment to shift the dough to the center of the dutch oven, then brush away a bit of the excess rice flour. Using a sharp knife or razor, score the dough about 1/2” deep; I do one score along the long edge of the dough for oval shapes, and two scores for round doughs. Place the cover back on the dutch oven and put it in the oven for 20 minutes. If using a cast iron skillet or pizza stone, you can pull the oven rack out a bit and plop the dough right on the skillet/stone. Carefully add the water pan and spray the inside of the oven (not the oven glass!), then close the oven and bake for 20 minutes.
6. After 20 minutes, reduce the oven heat to 450F, and remove the cover if using a dutch oven; remove the water pan if using the skillet/stone method. Bake uncovered until dark golden brown, about 15 more minutes, then cool on a cooling rack and wait at least 1 hour, but preferably 2 hours, before slicing.
** For 73% hydration, use 275g water. For 80% hydration, use 300g water.
** This bread will remain nice and fresh for about three days. On the first day, I just loosely cover the bread with a towel. On the second day, I put it in a resealable plastic bag that is 3/4 sealed. At the end of the third day, if there is any bread left, I slice it and put it back in the plastic bag, seal it up completely, and throw it in the freezer. We then just grab slices to make toast straight from the freezer.