Sourdough Bread: Dominatrix of the Kitchen

When the sourdough wants something, it wants it NOW, and you better do what it asks.

Arriving at a career crossroads some months ago, our 6-year-old daughter told me, “You should be a baker.  Everyone likes pie.”  While pie holds no great attraction, I’ve made a project out of baking.  Scones, biscotti, pizza, a couple of different flat breads.  But sourdough bread is the grail.  The challenge is that sourdough follows its own schedule, and you have to be there to comply.  When it wants something, it wants it NOW!

Bread leavened with baker’s yeast has been in my repertoire for years.  While care is required to bake bread leavened with commercial yeast, sourdough is at another level.  There’s an unpredictability about how each loaf will turn out, because the sourdough, and the yeast floating around in the air, have minds of their own.  I have yet to be completely satisfied with a loaf of sourdough.  It’s difficult when you’re not baking every day.  Unlike Kathy Hester of the Bake House, now relocated to New Mexico, I don’t keep a log of each batch of bread.

One has to start and maintain the culture.  Sure, it sounds like a little thing, but sometimes 5 minutes here and 5 minutes

sourdough culture

sourdough culture, bubbling away

there adds up.  Ignore the culture, and it’ll start fermenting.  That happened to me, and I was fortunate that a knowledgeable friend knew how to rescue it.  While refrigerating the culture retards development, one still has to feed it periodically.

Once you’ve got a suitable quantity of culture, the actual baking requires some planning.  Following Jefffrey Hamelman’s recipe for pain au levain in the excellent and comprehensive Bread, one  mixes water and flour and lets the bread go through autolyse for anywhere from 20 minutes to an hour.  Only then does one add salt and the culture, mixing it to a shaggy mass.

Then one folds the dough  twice over two and a half hours.  Following the folding, it’s off to the basement, where it’s cooler, to rise for 6 to eight hours.  Whether summer or winter, this gives me better results than a shorter rise in the kitchen.

sourdough bread, rising in ceramic bowl

Sourdough on the rise

The upshot is, one can make dough in the morning, let it rise all day and bake in the evening, or let rise overnight and bake the moment one wakes up.  Let the dough sit around too long, and you’ll have a pancake come out of the oven.  So I’m generally planning ahead and blocking out a day to bake.

Once the bread goes in the oven, there’s a lot of watchful waiting, peering through the window on the oven door to see if it’s rising.  My big challenge is leaving the bread in long enough that the crumb is completely cooked and not doughy.  As one watches the crust darken, it’s a bit of a leap of faith.

Once the bread comes out of the oven, it’s all I can do to be patient and let it cool off before cutting off a piece and slathering it with butter.  The planning, the hassle, and the wait is worth it.  And my daughter likes it.

bread on the cooling rack

Fresh bread; crumb slightly underdone .


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About Peter, a/k/a sourdoughdaddy

Husband, dad, personal trainer, cross-country skier, trail runner, writer.
This entry was posted in Baking, Bread, sourdough and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Sourdough Bread: Dominatrix of the Kitchen

  1. That bread looks great!! And hopefully well worth the wait… I think I might try making a starter culture and see how it goes. Thanks for the inspiration!

    • Thanks for your note. Sourdough is definitely worth the wait. In addition to Hamelman’s book, I can also recommend The Village Baker, by Joe Ortiz, as a reference on sourdough. Kindly let me know how your bread turns out!

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