I recently got THE best birthday present everr! My sweet, sweet friend Eliza (who does all the baking and desserts for both A Tavola and The Huguenot in New Paltz, NY) taught me how to bake a damned good loaf of bread. I finally feel I can die an accomplished woman. And it’s not just any loaf, but a wild fermented, completely homemade, no knead, follow-the-recipe-and-you-shall-never-fail whole wheat sourdough loaf. Across many cultures the world over, bread is the sustenance of life. It’s even sparked entire revolutions. It’s about time I learned how to make it!
To get a light, fluffy bread with those delicious holes butter loves to melt down into, you need yeast. It makes the dough rise by transforming carbohydrates into bubbles of carbon dioxide (and alcohol which is cooked off when the bread is baked). This recipe harks back to the traditional way of making bread prior to the commercial production of yeast that occurred in the late 19th century. You couldn’t always walk into a supermarket and snag a few packets of Fleischmann’s dry active yeast… Here we will harness its naturally occurring, biodiverse form that surrounds us constantly in the air we breathe. It’s everywhere, and so anyone can make this bread. All you need is flour, water and salt. It’s that simple!
Wild fermented sourdough bread is much healthier and easier to assimilate than most other breads. As my guru Sandor Katz says in his famed book Wild Fermentation: The Flavor, Nutrition & Craft of Live-Culture Foods, “Wild fermentation gives the dough a chance to really ferment, breaking down hard-to-digest gluten into more easily absorbed nutrients, and adding B-vitamins.” Personally, I feel my body digests it very easily, where as most commercial breads weigh me down big time.
To begin, you need starter. This is simply a reserve of yeasty batter, comprised solely of flour and water. A starter can last a lifetime and be passed on for generations, all the while contained in the same unwashed vessel.
Here’s how to make your own starter (according to Sandor Katz):
1.Vigorously stir together 2 cups each of flour and water (fresh spring water is best) in a large jar or bowl. Feel free to add organic unwashed grapes, plums or berries to lend their chalky film of yeast (aka “bloom”) to speed up the process.
2. Cover with a cheesecloth or dishtowel to allow air flow while guarding from critters.
3. Store your batter in a warm spot, ideally 70° - 80° F, with good air circulation. Stir your batter at least once a day with a wooden spoon to distribute the yeast evenly.
4. Once you notice tiny bubbles surfacing on your batter (not ones caused by stirring!), usually after 3 or 4 days, it’s ready to feed. If this is not the case, try moving it to a warmer spot or adding a teeny bit of packaged yeast.
5. Strain out any fruit and add 1 – 2 tablespoons more flour to the batter every day for 3 days, always stirring vigorously. Though the starter will thicken, you want it to remain liquid in form, like pancake batter, so feel free to add more water if necessary.
6. Your starter is ready to use when it’s nice and bubbly and active. Pour out what you need to bake a loaf of bread, and store the rest in an airtight glass or ceramic jar in your refrigerator to slow the yeast’s activity while keeping it alive.
7. Make sure to always replenish your starter after each use! To do so, simply stir in equal parts flour and water to the amount you poured out. SO, let’s say you used 1 cup starter to bake a loaf. You should then replenish your starter batter with 1 cup flour and 1 cup water, stirring vigorously. If you like a strong sourdough flavor, you can leave your replenished starter out to ferment for 4 – 8 hours. Otherwise, simply replenish and refrigerate!
8. Make sure to feed your starter a tablespoon or 2 of flour each week that you don’t use it to keep it fresh. If you’re planning a trip, you can keep your starter unfed in the fridge for a couple weeks, or in the freezer for longer.
“If you neglect your sourdough, it may get very acidic, then eventually putrid. Up to a point, sourdoughs can be easily revived by feeding them fresh flour. Other organisms dominate after the yeast has consumed all its nutrients. But the yeasts remain present and can usually return to dominance when nourished.” -Katz, Wild Fermentation
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Wild Fermented Sourdough Bread Recipe
1/3 – 1/2 cup starter
11 oz. luke warm water (not hot!!)
2 cups organic unbleached flour
1 cup organic sprouted whole wheat flour
1.5 – 2 teaspoons sea salt
Bread flour is of course your best option, but all purpose flour is great too! My baker friend Eliza who taught me this fool-proof recipe prefers King Arthur Bread Flour. I personally love sprouted whole wheat flour.
1. Pour starter into a large glass or ceramic mixing bowl. Add water and salt and stir. Dump in all your flour and stir until well combined. Consistency should be thick and porridgey.
2. Let your batter sit in its bowl covered with a dish towel (so no flies get in) overnight or for at least 8 hours.
3. Scoop your batter out onto a floured surface and shape by pulling the edges in towards the middle of your loaf, constantly rotating. If it’s easier for you, simply roll between your palms (while still on the counter) into a ball.* There is no need to knead this bread!
4. Grease your glass or ceramic bowl with olive or coconut oil (or any preferred fat) and sprinkle with cornmeal. Plop in your loaf, and let sit in the fridge overnight or for at least 8 hours, covered. Airtight is best.
5. Preheat your oven to 425°. Grease your dutch oven (I use a cast iron pot, but enamelware works wonderfully as well) & sprinkle with cornmeal. Put your pot in the over for 20 minutes with the lid on to heat through.
6. Flip your bread into the dutch over, preferably so the loaf is upside down. I like to pinch and swirl the middle to create a little nubbin. (You can see the end result clearly in my photos!)
7. Bake for 30 minutes with the lid on.
8. Reduce heat to 350° and bake for another 20 minutes without the lid.
9. Let the loaf rest for at least 15 minutes before cutting into it.