I became interested in sourdough and set up my sourdough starter in 1975 on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. I dried it out and put it in suspended animation when I went to Ireland and Europe in the spring of 1976 for what turned out to be a year. I awakened it when I got home and have been keeping it going one way or the other (inert or active) ever since.
In the late 1970s, my friend Kate baked at Souen, a macrobiotic restaurant on the Upper West Side (relocated now to the East Village, south of Union Square). One morning I got a call from Kate. She was in a state.
“I’ve dropped our starter and it’s all full of glass!” she said. “Could we have some of yours?”
I don’t know of Souen is still making Ainslie sourdough, but for many years, they were.
Your Own Starter
Freshly ground flour is a help when you’re trying to attract wild yeasts, which is what a sourdough starter requires. The little hoodlums are in the air. We simply need to set up a food source and wait. They will refine themselves over time and become a population that thrives of bread flours, rather than say, grapes.
They will eat starches and give off gas, which will cause your bread to rise. That’s what commercial yeast does, too. Sourdough starters usually work more slowly and are somewhat less athletic than commercial quick rise yeasts. I usually add some commercial yeast to my bread after letting the starter have it’s way with it. More on that later.
To begin your starter, get good clean, hopefully un-chlorinated water and the freshest flour you can find.
Mix up a heavy wet batter of water and flour–heavier than pancake batter, lighter than wet bread dough–and cover it loosely with a damp kitchen towel and let it sit.
If it’s summer, find a cool place for it: it may mold before you get a starch friendly yeast to call it home. Fall or Spring are good times to start a starter, but don’t let the calendar stop you. That’s not what it’s for.
After a few days in the 50-65 or 70 degree Fahrenheit range, the batter may begin to have a faint pleasant odor. A few days more and it may have some bubbles in it. Keeping its moisture balance in mind, feed it a little flour, add a little water if necessary, and let it go right on.
Making a Sponge Dough
If you have a starter going, then dilute it with a couple cups of water, add flour to make a pancake like batter sponge and let it sit at least overnight and up to two or three days, if you’ve got a cool place for it or it’s spring, winter or fall.
When you get tired of waiting, remove about a cup of the starter into a clean glass jar with a lid that doesn’t seal airtight. This is your starter now and you’d rather the darned stuff to dry out than be sealed up too tight and mold.
Drying out puts the yeasts into suspended animation. They wait for moisture then come back into active life. This is how I left my starter for a year and came back to it. This is how the gypsies traveled with it in uncertain times.
Mold happens when (1) it is too wet for too long, and/or (2) another bacteria moves in on the yeast’s territory when the yeast has finished digesting all the starches and runs out of food, goes dormant and allows someone else to sneak into it’s territory and wreck the place. Think: Rolling Stones and Hotel Rooms. It’s not pretty. This is why we feed starters–adding fresh flour and sometimes water–even if you have to throw some of it away in order to make room for the new flour (arrrrggggg, says the Scot). Sourdough will hang around and be happy as long as it has something to eat. Your job is to keep it happy. Feed it once a week, when it’s dormant in the refrigerator
Use the rest to make bread, pancakes, waffles, crepes, etc.
No Knead Bread and the NY TIMES
There is a wonderful bread technique sweeping the kitchens of bakers all over the nation that allows nonprofessional kitchens to make bread that has previously been only available to steam injected brick ovens in professional bakeries. It’s why we go out and buy bread instead of making it: that rough textured, chewy, thick crusted, slashed and floured peasant bread.
This technique involves making a ‘sponge’ (a very wet pancake like batter) and letting it sit for at least 12-18 hours to develop some flavor, adding some commercial yeast, salt and if you want just a dash of oil (totally optional), and then enough flour to make a shaggy, wet dough that’s incredibly hard to handle.
Having lined the necessary number of containers in which it will rise with parchment paper, you turn this wet dough out onto a well floured pastry cloth (a piece of muslin will do, as will parchment paper). You stretch the dough a couple of times and shape it into a rough ball, seams under and drop it into your parchment paper lined containers to rise until doubled. I use spring form pans and straight sided containers of various sizes, as needed. Settle these into their rising pans and cover their surfaces with a little flour. Then cover the loaves with a damp cloth or clean kitchen towel to keep the drafts out and moisture in and walk away for a couple hours.
A Note On Rising
Cold risen bread is becoming the rage. It takes longer, and that time is spent developing complex flavors that a bread dough risen in a warm oven can only dream about. If you have a cool back porch, a clean dry spot in the basement, or a room where the radiators are turned off when the kids are off at college, you call let the dough rise slowly there, bring it to room temperature for the final rise and the bake it. The time and cool temperatures involved favor sourdough yeasts over commercial slam-bam-thank-you-mam yeasts and make for much more satisfying dough. (Time, sometimes, is not money; though money can always be time.)
If you’re in a rush, or have a gig to go to tomorrow, then let it do it’s final rising in a nice warm kitchen and get packed. A gig waits for no man, or woman.
This wet bread dough is baked in a covered dutch over, heavy sauce pan, pyrex or porcelain ware that has been brought to 500 degrees F. on the lowest rack of your oven. This is the tricky part and you can get burnt seriously and easily in a matter of milliseconds so wear oven mits on both hands and pay attention:
Preheat the pans with their lids in place on the bottom rack with your oven temperature set to 500 degrees for at least a half an hour. If you’re using enamelware, put it in the cold oven and let it come to temperature slowly.
When the bread dough is fully risen (a finger tip indentation pushed gently into the surface of the dough either springs back very slowly or remains dimpled), slash the top with a sharp knife or a razor blade two or three times to the depth of 1/2″ or so.
Then remove the 500 degree pans from the oven with your oven mits, lift off their lids with your oven mits and leave a hot pad on them to remind you not to grab them.
They look like normal pan lids or handles. But they are 500 degrees. Your hands will not forgive you. Put the hot pads on them. Don’t rush this. You’ll be sorry. I was.
Having removed the lids of the hot pans, carefully lift the dough out of its rising container by the parchment paper and drop it, parchment paper and all, into your hot pans. If it’s a little lopsided, using hot pads or oven mits, give the pan a shake to straighten it out. It doesn’t have to be perfect. In its final rising inside the pan, it will straighten itself out a good bit. And asymmetry is next to godliness, as we all know.
Grab your oven mits, cover it with the 500 degree pan lids, and put it back into the 500 degree oven. Lower the temperature to 450, and set the timer for 25-30 minutes. When the timer goes off, grab your oven mits (this is really important, can you tell I make my living with my hands?) and remove the lids. Put them on the stove top to cool. Leave the pot holders, or oven mits right there on them so you, or someone else won’t think they should be put away and grab them bare-handed. This is a second degree burn waiting to happen and will be so for at least 30 minutes or so.
When you uncover the dough, reset the timer for 25 minutes. When it’s done it will give a nice hollow sound when you tap the crust.
Give It A Rest
Let it cool on a rack for a couple hours, if you can manage to keep your hands off it for that long. This allows the dough to finish drying out and set. If you cut it too soon, the dough will ball up in the moist center and turn into mini-gnocchi.
Enough butter will ameliorate this, if you simply can’t wait: the voice of experience.
If the loaf crust softens up a bit as it cools, you can return it to a 400 degree oven for about ten minutes to crisp up the crust before you serve it.
When it’s cool wrap it up in wax paper and aluminum foil. Eschew plastic wrap or bags, and in any event, be prepared to put it back in a 400 degree oven as needed to crisp up the crust before serving.
Cut thick and grilled, this bread is a perfect vehicle for a good bitter Scotch marmalade. Grilled or not, it is also well-suited to cleaning up the remains of a bowl of south Louisiana gumbo. You will glory in its thick crust, chewy interior with big holes throughout and, if you haven’t burned yourself by forgetting to put on your mitts, you’ll be back at it at regular intervals.