On winter’s bread

The start to a great breakfast:  four day old and still delicious bread, hot coffee, and lots and lots of fresh eggs

Wisdom is acquired by experience, not just by age, said my most recent fortune cookie.  Granted, I do understand this truism has a lot of gosh-that’s-so-true-ism when it comes to bread-making.  It is, alas, a skill.   You have to spank a lot of dough to understand the stretch and rise of what makes it what it is.  It honestly is not hard, though.  And I truly think that if anyone has an earnest desire to make his or her own bread, then one should start with the no-knead methods and variations.  One will realize how wonderful yet…unimproved that method is, mainly because the bread doesn’t keep long and has no real taste.  Eventually, using a sourdough starter or levain is the way to go.  And making one’s own levain isn’t as hard or as wasteful as it sounds.

I tend to keep on top of cooking-slash-cookbook trends.  I am not saying I am a purchasing consumer of said books so much as I like to learn the culinary lingua franca…it’s me eating up the culture of cooking, as it were.  And it’s another year, another batch of books of bread cookery that came ’round and were duly inspected by yours truly. And again, over and over, bread-bakers and cookbook-writers claim that the only way to make a sourdough starter at home is to throw away two-thirds of the volume of flour to do it.

Do you honestly think that your average baker threw away two-thirds of anything to make bread a hundred years ago?  Two hundred?  Two thousand years ago?  And the history of bread is five thousand years old  (give or take) so…I am just sayin’.  I think, have always thought, this oft-repeated instruction is profligate, another example of our throw-away culture, this time with us literally throwing away our cultures.    It doesn’t have to be that way to make or even maintain your own levain.

One of the least scary descriptions of home-grown yeast and its needs comes from a recent cookbook:  Darina Allen’s Forgotten Skills of Cooking (which is excellent, by the way).  “Actually, there’s no need to be scared of yeast, it’s pretty good humored and, like many of us, it has a sweet tooth and likes to be warm, so be nice to it.  The average warmth of a kitchen provides a suitable environment in which yeast can grow….”  The average warmth of the kitchen provides a suitable environment for children and husbands to grow, too.  Even know-it-all wives get schooled in a warm kitchen.

Granted, I have a starter (its name is La Mama) that I have had running for years now.  I did start it by throwing half or more of it away and it galled me.  But if I don’t get to baking twice a week I don’t think La Mama is dead and just start over.  Nope; ever the tightwad, I use what I have, making something hurriedly with part of it (English muffins, pancakes, crepes) while I add more flour to the majority of it to revive it.  If it is not really actively bubbling, it takes a couple of days to make two loaves of bread this way, but…I don’t feel guilty about wasting even a cup of the stuff.

Hey:  it’s winter in the Northern hemisphere, and we gardeners still have a yen to get our hands dirty, so, why not get out the flour?  Probably the best compromise of all is a no-knead loaf with some of your own bubbling sourdough starter.  Please see the recipe in the comments.  And…get baking!

18 responses to “On winter’s bread

  1. No-knead sourdough:

    Here’s what I do. One morning, I take a cup of La Mama and put it in a big bowl. (I replace what I have taken by putting 3/4 cup of flour and water back in to the jar, stirring, shaking, and then replacing it to its spot on the pantry floor). Into this sticky plop I add another cup of water and flour, stirring well, and I let it sit for a day within the oven, covered with a damp flourcloth towel. (The oven is off and dead cold: there’s a premium on counter space, kitchen renovation or no, around here. I put a piece of tape over the oven knob to remind me not to turn it on!!)

    The next morning I pour off whatever brackish water has formed on the top of the sticky plop and I add the rest of my flour, salt and water…and a pinch of commercial yeast. (This is a two-loaf batch so that’s another 5 cups flour, a teaspoon of salt, and enough water to make it fairly sticky but not runny). Back it goes in the oven until I come home from work. I take the bowl out (this is around 5:30), find my two cooking pots (a couple of enamelized cast-iron covered pots of French lineage) and fire up the oven, complete with pots and lids, to 550 or so. When the oven reaches this temperature, I flour up the counter, scrape the loose dough out with the plastic bowl scraper, cut it in two with the scraper, open the roaring oven/pulling out the pots’ shelf a bit, fold over the “corners” of one of the doughs to make a ball-like form and then plop that dough, flour-side up, into the nearest pot; repeat, slap lids on, shove shelf back in, close oven door and lower temperature to 475. A half hour later, I take the lids off the pots. Twenty or so minutes after that, I look at the loaves and judge them “done”…or not. There. I have had about an hour to clean the flour-encrusted counter and rising bowl, gathered a salad and made the dinner all whilst the bread was baking.

  2. El, your no-knead post 2 years ago started me baking, and now I’m a starter-raising, whole-grain-using Peter Reinhart devotee. The only commercially yeasted bread I make is Amanda Soule’s WHO bread (http://bit.ly/vaefi); most of the time I bake some variant of this light rye sourdough (http://bit.ly/19a5Dt). Its high ratio of starter helps me use up what I accumulate. Like you I am disinclined to waste, so it’s muffins and pancakes (or a cool spot for the starter) between bread-bakings. Thanks so much for getting me started on this — it’s one of my toddler and my favourite things to do together.

  3. Well you’ve inspired me to soft-cook a couple of eggs this morning, El, and stick a thick slice of pain de campagne in the toaster. I guess my starter will be celebrating its 8th birthday soon. Since I started it just as I was beginning my stint as a semi-professional baker, I call it “The Franchise” (which sounds like it could also be a character on “Jersey Shore,” which I have never seen…).

    Full-on natural leaven breads can take some coaxing in a cool northern winter kitchen, so you’re smart to suggest a pinch of commercial yeast. Also you hint at the efficacy of a little sweetness–I often glug just a bit of maple syrup or sweet apple cider into my winter doughs; the starter appreciates the bo0st, I think. A little organic cornmeal in the dough has a similar effect, and provides a nice textural variation.

    I’m still really skeptical of the no-knead thing. Flinging wet dough into blazing hot vessels just seems way scarier than doing a little kneading, sliding an orderly loaf onto a baking stone!

    Another good point here is the keeping qualities of levain breads. I make a walnut bread based on sourdough rye that hits its peak of flavor at four days old.

    I hear the timer. My eggs are done. Thanks for the inspiration~ Brett

    • Brett, live on the edge! I know you have the pots, and the will. It’s a sloppy dough though, feels very different. See Jim Lahey’s demo on the Minimalist’s site, as well as his revisiting it 2 years later. We did Lahey’s bakery (actually more than one for his partner too) so I might be a bit biased in favor of no-knead…but it fits into the work rotation well so that’s why I recommend it.

  4. I never hugely got into the no-knead thing either, reading tales of people breaking their $250 le creuset pans to make a 25 cent loaf of bread made me wince! (I did try it with a cheapo cast-iron dutch oven, it just didn’t thrill me, as I’m already pretty comfortable working with wet doughs and long ferments). I think it’s a great technique for a lot of people though, and the more folks baking, the better, no matter what their style is.

    As for sourdough, I think a lot of the anal refreshment instructions are mostly due to the professional baker’s need for uniformity and timing precision. The beauty of home cooking and baking is that you CAN improvise and change up the process. I habitually abuse my years-old SD culture (I’ve kept it in the fridge for weeks without refreshing) and it perks up fine with a little attention. When in steady use I keep the waste down by maybe doing one refreshment a week (one ounce starter, 1.5 ounces of flour, so no big loss), and then make my final starter for the recipe. Though recycling it into other goodies is a fine idea. English muffins maybe? 🙂

  5. Thanks for all the great info. I use a Cooks Illustrated recipe for “almost no knead bread” and it’s a great loaf. I haven’t had trouble with my pots, one is an enameled dutch oven and the other is a lidded cast iron. The recipe uses a little vinegar and beer to add flavor, but I doubt that would be necessary if using sourdough starter. Which leads me to my question, I once had a started and used it a few times, fed it according to directions and within a couple of months it created the sourest bread. We couldn’t even eat it, we puckered so much! Any suggestions about how to tame a too sour starter? Thanks for your blog, I really enjoy it.

  6. That’s funny because I have NEVER thrown out any of my sourdough starter and haven’t really had a problem. Granted if it’s bread everyone will eat it in our home, but I think we’ve had pretty good (and easy) results. Amen on the never, ever throwing anything out like that. And on Darina Allen. She’s a rock star in my book.

  7. Wow! So glad to read this! I have always wanted to try sourdough but couldn’t imagine pitching cups of flour every week. I always wondered why it was necessary to be so wasteful in order to have healthy and ‘frugal’ homemade bread!

  8. Did you check out Chad Robertson’s recent book? I’m working form his writing, and it suits me well.

    I, too, make pancakes with tired starter, or if I want to make bread the next day: Cornmeal to bring the amount up to what I’ll need, about half a teaspoon each of baking soda and salt, maybe some sugar, and boiling water enough to make the cornmeal start to get gelatinous. Beat in an egg once it’s cool enough not to cook in the bowl. Fold in the starter, and the sourdough makes the baking soda fizz.

    I always pour out as much starter as will pour without scraping, add maybe 3/4 cup of non-chlorinated water, stir the dregs of the starter into that water, and usually add some mix of whole wheat and all-purpose flour.

    I put 3 and 1/4 cup of water or whey in a bowl, preferably warm, and add the starter, looking to see if it floats. (If not, I know to wait longer and/or keep it warmer.) Once the starter’s dispersed, I add 3 cups of whole wheat flour, and 4 of all purpose, and get all the lumps out. I let it sit for half an hour or so, and sprinkle on a heaping tablespoon of salt, then a little water to help it dissolve, then I grab the bottom of the dough and fold it over. I turn 90 degrees and pull the bottom over again, repeating until all four sides have been turned.

    I usually leave it overnight at that point, and turn it once or twice the next day, until it seems to almost have enough gluten development. On a floured cloth, I divide it in two, shape each loaf by folding in thirds in one direction then the other (always keeping the floured surface downward), then place them seam-down in greased & floured enamelware baking dishes. After they have proofed in these (lids closed) for long enough (today, about two hours), I slash the tops, close the lids, and place them in the oven, starting it heating toward 470. 45 minutes later (about half an hour after reaching temperature), I lower the temperature to 455, remove the lids, and potentially add stuff to other racks of the oven to bake. The big loaves are usually done 20 minutes after that. The crumb structure resembles yours (even without all-purpose, if the whole wheat was harvested at the right time of year), but I don’t use commercial yeast.

  9. I have never thrown out starter! Just bake an extra batch of bread and stick that bread in the freezer! Sourdough is an excellent way to get off the treadmill of buying yeast. I do still make bread that calls for yeast, but I buy my yeast in bulk and keep the extra in the freezer. It’s much cheaper that way as opposed to buying those three little packages at the grocery store.

    It’s funny how things “catch on” because somebody with some credibility presents it as “new”. If my mom had turned out a dense loaf like those “No knead breads”, we’d have eaten it, because we never wasted anything, but she wouldn’t have been proud of it. It would’ve been considered a “failure”. This is not to say I don’t enjoy a piece of dense, chewy bread for breakfast now and then, it’s just that let’s just say no one would’ve won any prizes at the fair for a loaf of no-knead bread.

    Another thing new cooks can start with are some of the non-yeast breads like Irish Soda Bread. They can go from there to Beer Bread, and then maybe do one of those Amish Friendship Bread things. When we have done something for what feels like all our lives, and grew up with our mothers doing the same, baking bread seems natural to us. But for someone who’s consumed “bought bread” all their lives, it can look like a daunting task.

    As always, I enjoy your posts.

  10. I couldn’t agree more, this always makes me grind my teeth when I see it! My favorite – still, after 25 years – is Carol Field’s book “The Italian Baker.” She doesn’t toss anything away – though she taught me to freeze my starter when I know I’m not going to use it for awhile. I’ve never been consistent enough in ANY of my habits to maintain a sourdough over years, but they’re easy enough to start up again, and with very little effort I’m back on track. Of the recent ones I like Lahey best, (with his 24 hr starter) but it’s just a jumping off spot.

    Obviously – a culture nurtured over years, like yours, is better yet. But for those of us more dysfunctional bakers, starting a 48 hr starter and nurturing/using it over a few months is a reasonably satisfactory way to do it.

  11. This is inspiring! I haven’t been baking as much this winter as I did last but this post ans all the comments have me itchin’ to bake. Like HAyden, I think I am more of a dysfunctional baker. 🙂

  12. Ahhh, the art of bread baking! To me it is fun and delicious at the same time. And in winter warms the kitchen nicely! I like to use a recipe that yields multiple loaves and bring a loaf to my neighbor, who in turn does the same for me. It really isn’t time comsuming as far as how much hands-on time is needed. It is so forgiving that you can draw out the process over the course of several other chores needing attention and it still comes out great!

  13. Amen. Mine is doing just fine and I don’t throw any of it away. I do give it away, though, as I try to get more people to bake. I’m a yeast bully.

  14. Bravo!!! Thanks for the refresher course. I’ve been on a GF diet for 6 months and found out I’m not gluten intolerant….so sourdough here I come!!! I am excited to try your method of proofing in the oven over night. Thanks again.

  15. Right, I’m re-inspired. Having just lost my job, I am in fairly dire financial straits, with waaay too much time on my hands, and it’s too early even to start seeds. I have managed a little weeding, and have turned the compost pile, but I could feel depression setting in. (You can only apply for so many jobs a day, walk so many miles, and read for so many hours!) Baking fell by the wayside many years ago, I’d forgotten how much I enjoyed it, but it’s now going to reenter my life in a big way. Off to assemble the doings for sourdough starter.

  16. Can I just say I have loved your comments and suggestions? It is quite wonderful knowing that there’s an active bread-baking community out there…

    Sarah, I am happy to learn I nudged you along on your way to home-baked loaves. Thanks for sharing your other recipe too…there’s a lot more ingredients in there than I normally throw in my loaves but sometimes you gotta edge out of the familiar to get encouraged to try new things! And your girl is watching you do it: this is a great education, getting all floury with your mama! My now-7 year old is terribly confident in the kitchen. It’s kind of scary, frankly.

    Brett, I hope you give the no-knead thing a try, either with the no kneading or with simply the flamin’ hot covered vessel. And yeah, it’s hard to change up if you’re happy with what you’ve got. Believe me, “coming” to this path in my bread-baking career is simply one of the most freeing things I have done. I just used to be so…unvaryingly rigid with my dough protocols, it was just stupid, especially after I became a mom and then later a crazed farm owning person. “Loosen up” is the takeaway with Jim Lahey’s method, is all. And no, I haven’t seen Jersey Shore either but I do like the name of your starter.

    Sara, English muffins definitely! So easy. But you’re quite right about the constrictions of commercial baking versus the relative freedoms of us humble home bakers. Trouble is, why don’t they tell us this? Most recipes are written as if any detour will fail. YOU will fail. Which makes for some really disappointed would-be bakers. But if *I* wrote the recipes…

    Hiya Ing. Sorry it took me so long to answer your query: it’s been a tough couple of weeks 🙂 Re: your sour bread. Sadly, that happens…it happens with my yogurt after a while, it happens with my bread. If it really is too puckery then goodness chuck half of it and start over! But what I do is I tend to vary how much starter I put in to start my loaves. For instance, my loaves 3 weeks ago were on the sour side, so I stepped down to 1/4 the starter (supplementing with commercial yeast) and the loaves were fine, verging on bland; the next week, the weekend before we went to the hospital, I did 1/2 the starter and they were tasty; the loaves this weekend were fine at nearly the full cup. It is like getting to know someone, using your sourdough starter. Trial and error, but soon you’ll be good friends.

    Shannon, hah, I had to laugh because bread is readily eaten (in any and all forms) in my house too. And yeah, tossing it: isn’t that stupid? But sure, if I had lots of money I would take a cooking class from her…it would be a good visit to the home country; my peeps are from Tipperary, really close to Cork.

    Steena, exactly! So do let me know how your efforts pan out. Sometimes a good dose of common sense is entirely necessary. And have fun, okay?

    Joel, I did check out his book too. He was one of the bigger heroes (and comely cover b0y) in the book I have on masonry ovens…I based my own oven on Alan Scott’s design. So I had hoped his book would be revelatory. I agree I like his style, but his book isn’t really a bread-baking book. Maybe bread and only bread bores him now. That’s okay. He was even featured in a recent issue of Martha Stewart…including his sourdough starter method. Anyway, thanks for your tips! My only initial reaction to your recipe was “gosh that’s a lot of salt” but maybe it works okay. And yeah, I don’t use white and/or all-purpose; I have found a source for flour from Michigan and so I have been using a mix of spring and winter wheat for a while now, sometimes subbing one out with spelt, sometimes with rye if I am feeling zippy. In other words, I had to gain a lot of confidence before I could do 100% whole wheat flour but now I won’t go back 🙂

    Ilene, well, the one thing about the no-knead bread is that it makes a really fluffy loaf with a very holely crumb and crisp crust if you follow the directions and use all-purpose flour. Me, I like the method, but I use better flour and better ingredients. And yeah, freeze the loaves, freeze the yeast! I get yeast by the 2-pound bag, isn’t that insane? Anyway, count yourself lucky, girl, that you didn’t need to “come back to” baking, that you never went through a period of rebellion against your mom’s cooking ways. Lucky you. It’s up to you, now, of course, to teach others!!!! It’s a challenge I know you do enjoy!

    Ah, Hayden, but you’re putting down roots again: can you hope you’ll be able to nurture a good ol’ starter too? But indeed, discipline. I think the simple fact that I have to cook for others keeps me disciplined: when I was single my starters died sad deaths mainly because I didn’t feel like baking every week or every month even. And then, I would go into fits of baking. Go figure. Anyway, I will have to look up your book! I don’t necessarily think new books are best of course; my faves are old, frankly.

    Aastricker, hah! Dysfunctional, no. I would simply say “distracted.” That pretty much sums up my attempts at any and all things: the only secret to my success in everything is that I spend a little time checking in on all my projects…just maybe not *enough* time, sigh! Hope you’ve started flouring up your counters and getting busy.

    That’s so cool you exchange loaves with your neighbor, Liz. A couple of people in my CSA and I have had this ongoing conversation about soup. It seems that everyone else’s soup is always better than yours: that’s just the way it is, even if you’re using the same recipe! SO now that the greenhouse is not putting out heavily, I stick a quart of soup in their shares every week at this time of year, it works well.

    Peter, I can easily see you being a yeast bully. Good for you on your ability to share, whatever your motivation. And yeah I am glad you’re baking regularly again: all those wonderful sauces you make seem to scream “bread please” to me.

    Diane, I am so sorry to hear about your health ups and downs! how scary and frustrating for you, especially since you’ve got some great cow milk at home. But yeah, baby steps: let’s see how you do with this…if nothing else it will be fun for you to get back into the dough again, right? all the best.

    Kelly, well, maybe full-kneaded bread would work better for you, get some of your frustrations out!! And making a starter, even two starters, goodness, give it a try. Are you a fan of rye breads? Rye starters are quite different but it’s something interesting to try: the loaves need to be wetter and can be a lot harder to work but it’s fun when they click…and now you’ve got the time, after all. And: nothing at all wrong with turning the compost more than once. That’s one of the ways I tend to release negative energy (mostly work-wise), just grabbing that fork and going nuts out there. Good luck with the job search though, may you look back on these days with fondness, and not remember the anxiety at all.

  17. I am late reading your posts and catching up El. Homemade bread is a wonderful thing indeed. Keith is the bread baker in our household, and although he does not make sourdough – yet! – he does use the no-knead method and a several-day old poulish – great flavor, great crust. I am myself partial to tartines slathered with homemade butter and homemade blueberry jam… And as far as the sourdough, I have shaken by head abut how wasteful it seemed, how completely against the grain of what the thrift of sourdough is… I like all your suggestion of what to do with extra starter… we’ll get there…. eventually!

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