My dad grew up on homemade bread. Even though my grandparents could have easily bought bread from the store, my grandma chose to bake her own. Definitely a Depression Era survivor. I remember eating sandwiches made from that delicious bread when I was younger. She would even occasionally save the heels, break them into small pieces, then let them dry out. These would become tidbits that we would take to a local park to feed the geese and ducks with. One of those geese once decided to show its appreciation by biting me in the butt. You know, roast goose makes a lovely Christmas feast.
When we would visit my mom’s family in Greece, we would often get freshly baked breads from the local bakery. The typical soft breads found in plastic sleeves here just aren’t common there. Instead they would be these wonderfully crusty breads just perfect for dipping into soups or juices from roasts, or even the olive oil laced dregs at the bottom of the bowl of Greek style salad.
When the bread machine craze hit in the 90’s, I decided I wanted to hop on the bandwagon and make bread for my family, too. The bread would turn out okay, but there was always that hole in the bottom from the mixing paddle, and the size of the bread was awkward for packing into the boys’ lunch box containers. Eventually my bread machine became one of the multitude of kitchen gadgets that people sell at yard sales or donate to charity, but not before occupying precious cabinet space for many, many years.
A couple of years ago, I decided I wanted to get back into the bread making “thing” again, but this time with an even more rustic spin. I wanted to do sourdough. After much research, I found a source of cultures that could be used and some instructions on getting going. I did a lot of experimenting with various recipes, tweaks and twists, and finally came up with a recipe of my own that I knew would be dependable. From this basic recipe I have created a handful of variations for sweet and savory breads, alike.
The sourdough starter I use is made with whole wheat flour, however starter made with all-purpose flour will work here, too. Read here (super easy, no waste sourdough starter) on how to make your own starter. It is really easy to do, and my instructions offer a zero-waste option. If you’re wondering what I mean by that, just look up instructions on making starter and you will be shocked at the fact that they all include steps throwing out part of what you made. I know… I don’t get it, either!
My Basic Sourdough Sandwich Bread
- 3 c bread flour (all-purpose can be substituted)
- 1 c whole wheat flour
- 1 ¾ tsp salt
- 1 c + 2 Tbsp warm water (about 110 oF)
- ¾ c “fed” starter
- 1 tsp caraway seed (optional)
To make your “fed” starter: remove your stored starter from the refrigerator 12-24 hours before you intend to bake your bread. Measure your reserved starter and add 1 part warm water and a scant 2 parts flour to make the amount of starter needed for the recipe, plus enough to reserve some starter for later. (For example, let’s say you have 1/2 cup of starter and you need 1 cup for your recipe. I would add 1/2 water and a scant 1 cup of flour to my existing starter. That should be enough for the recipe, plus leftovers to save for your next baking.) Mix ingredients, cover, and leave in a draft-free area until ready to use. This will get your yeasts active for your dough.
In a large bowl add all the dry ingredients and whisk together to mix. I like to add a generous tablespoon each of milled flax seed, multi-grain hot cereal, oat bran and wheat germ in order to add more fiber, texture, and nutrients to my bread. You can make a custom mix of ingredients like this using any other grain sources. If you decide to add these items, cut your whole wheat flour back to ¾ cup. I also like caraway seed as it gives a great flavor, but you can use other kinds of herbs or spices you may prefer.
If you have a stand mixer, put your water and starter in the bowl and attach the dough hook. Otherwise stir the two ingredients in another bowl. Start the mixer on low speed to blend the water and starter, then add the flour mixture in parts. Turn the mixer up a speed and allow it to knead the dough for about 10 minutes. I usually do two loaves at a time, so while the first batch is kneading I will start measuring out the dry ingredients for the next. If you are mixing by hand, add the starter/water mix to the bowl of dry ingredients and mix thoroughly. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and knead until elastic. This will take about 10-15 minutes. Try not to add too much flour to your dough. I seriously recommend getting a pastry mat to make this process so much easier to do and clean, and you will have to knead by hand even with a stand mixer.
After your dough has been kneaded, shape it into a ball and allow it to rest about 15-20 minutes. This allows the water in the dough to better hydrate the flour and any other grains, which helps to activate the gluten. The gluten is what will give your bread the elasticity it needs in order to rise properly. After it has rested, knead it by hand again for a few minutes.
Lightly oil a bowl and put your dough in. Roll the dough around in the oil to cover all surfaces. Cover the bowl with a cloth and place in a warm, draft free area to rise until double in size. An oven with the light on is a great place. Your dough will not rise as fast as that of bread made with added yeast, so allow up to 3 hours or more, depending on the temperature it is kept at. Warmer temperature = faster rise time. My dough is typically ready in three hours after being in a lit oven. I can leave it overnight if I set it on the counter if it isn’t too warm.
Once your dough has doubled in size, remove it from the bowl and knead it again for just a couple of minutes. Lightly oil an 8×4 or 9×5 bread pan, or if you can also shape it into a round, boule shape on an oiled baking sheet. Place it in a warm place to rise, uncovered. Again, the temperature determines the time needed. It takes about 45-60 minutes in the lit oven for mine to nearly double in size. Keep in mind that your bread will rise some more during the baking process until the crust hardens.
Once your dough has finished its second rise, preheat your oven to 425 oF. I actually start my oven with the pans already in it, just remember to turn off the light or your crust will get baked too much. Bake for 30 minutes.
Remove your bread from the oven and allow to sit for 5 minutes on a cooling rack. This will allow the bread to firm up a little before removing from the pan, and will also help the bread come out more easily without breaking.
RESIST THE URGE TO CUT INTO YOUR BREAD! Allow your bread to cool completely before slicing into it. This allows the steam to settle in, if you cut it now you will let that moisture escape and you will be left with tasty, but dry bread. Enjoy!