Saturday, March 27, 2021

Second-Stab Saturday: Successful sourdough bread!

 Ever done something out of spite?

One day a cutting board may enter my life.

What you're looking at is 100% whole-wheat, 100% sourdough bread. We didn't do any of that underhanded cheating where you add a packet of yeast to your dough for insurance (although it worked last time). Because I bake a lot and therefore try to tell myself that I'm good at it, I had a minor identity crisis when the two previous attempts at sourdough bread turned into bricks of failure. (Well, the second one didn't, but only because we dumped the aforementioned packet of yeast into it.)

Look at this jar, full of foamy lies!

We've been dutifully feeding this jar of glop for a while now, so now it's time to once again try to make it work. In the comments of our previous attempt, Lace Maker recommended this video, and we were sold on it for a few reasons. First (and I know this is daft), he is French and has the accent to prove it. Multiple people who've gone abroad say that the bread in France is so amazing that they can never again be happy with the bread back home. Of course, I don't know any of those people, but I've seen their posts about it in various travel articles. 

Anyway, let's check in on our starter! We are told to do the "float test." Supposedly, if a spoonful of your starter glop floats in water, it is lively enough to raise the bread. 

Well, crumbs.

We've gotten a few new tips out of his video, and my favorite is this new way to make a happy environment for your bread to rise. We used to just turn the oven to its lowest temperature, pop the bread in, and turn the oven off as soon as it heated up. That works very well (we've been doing it a long time). But to be a bit nitpicky, it dried the bread out a bit before it's had a chance to bake. 

To try this new (to us) way, we brought a pot of water to a hard boil and put it in the oven next to the bread. It fills the oven with cozy warmth without drying anything out. Of course if you're trying this at home, you'll want to fill the pot fairly high instead of just putting a bit of water in the bottom- that way, the pot has a lot more heat in it to slowly radiate out. You should also tell everyone not to turn on the oven without first emptying it.

Here we see the starter (set on a plate to catch any spill-out as it rises) in its nice incubation chamber.

After the starter got lively with foam, we tried the float test again. It didn't float. The starter dissolved as soon as it landed on the water. But we decided that our starter must be ready anyway because it was so full of life that it oozed right out of the jar and onto the spillover plate.


As you can see, this starter dissolved right into the water before it could pass any float test. Sorry, French person with a Youtube channel, I know my float-failing baking would break your grand-mère's heart. But we still hoped that this gravy-looking mixture of sourdough starter and water would make our bread rise without one of those newfangled yeast packets. (I should note that before proceeding, I made sure we had at least one yeast packet ready for emergency action.)


And now, while we try to make bread the historic way, let's have some actual history! When I started my first baking class, the teacher reverently read out the words "Bread in its simplest form consists of flour and water leavened by yeast," intoning them like they are the first sentence of Shakespeare's diary. That is not strictly true, the simplest breads have no yeast at all and are baked flat. Sourdough breads are the oldest leavened breads, but bread in its simplest form (contrary to the textbook) consists of just flour and water.


We should first note that most cultures around the world invented boiling, frying, and other stovetop cooking techniques before they invent baking- you need far less fuel than you would to heat an empty box long enough to bake something, and you food will be ready sooner. The history of bread follows this pattern. At first, we had porridge, because we discovered that grains get a lot easier to eat if you boil them soft. At some point, the mush was spread onto pan over a hot burner (or whatever the predecessor of a stove burner was) and became pancakes. Sourdough bread came naturally after that. If you leave flour-water paste out, yeast will move in. The very air around us is always full of floating yeastie-beasties, and apparently they like carbs as much as anyone who's ordered a third plate of spaghetti. So if you mix flour and water and just set it out, in a few days you will find that it's gotten rather bubbly. Or maybe it will just grow mold, but that's a rare enough occurrence that people started cultivating bread starters anyway.


Obviously, the first bakers came a few thousand years before we had microscopes to find just what is going on that makes bread rise, but they figured out most of the basics of baking anyway. They didn't know that yeast microbes existed, but they knew something was going in their bread dough, and they soon discovered that if you set aside bread dough to add to fresh flour, the new dough would rise faster (and was a lot less likely to get moldy instead of rising at all). They also discovered that the hot mash from beer-making made bread rise better (a few thousand years later, across the BC/AD divide in 1837, Miss Leslie still told people to obtain yeast from the local brewery in Directions for Cookery). People would also add things like grape skins to bread starter to make it work better. As later scientists would discover, grape skins (and plum skins) have thriving yeast colonies on them. 

Making sourdough bread is such a finicky process, it's no surprise that the Romans had a goddess of the oven. People baking bread the old way, back when it was the only way, needed someone to pray to lest their bread fail to rise and instead become a flour brick. Her name was Fornax. Her feast day, called Fornicalia, was February 17. But before we misrepresent baking as a primitive, unreliable process throughout history and up until 1925, you should know that bakeries in Herculaneum and Pompeii had commercial-scale flour-grinding, mixing and kneading machines, cranking out bread at least 80 loaves at a time (that's how many were in one oven when Vesuvius erupted). Just like many people today set a bread machine to the dough cycle, many bakeries did nothing by hand until it was time to shape the dough into loaves and rolls. Of course, the ancient machines were often powered by livestock or slaves, neither of whom ever get much credit for anything in history books.


A lot of the science of bread hasn't been discovering new methods. Instead, it's been using science to find out why we traditionally do extremely specific things to turn your flour into bread rather than clay.  What happens in a jar of flour and water that makes it foam with life if you leave it out in the open for a few days? What makes bread dough springy when you knead it, and why does kneading make your bread better? Why do we let the dough rise, flatten it back down, shape it into loaves, and let it rise again-- couldn't we save a few hours and skip the first rise? 

Speaking of letting bread rise, we must pause to appreciate the biggest shift science brought to bread. Long after US independence from Britain, after everyone in the world spent thousands of years of carefully keeping sourdough starters alive and patiently waiting for them to raise the bread, a marvelous innovation entered kitchens everywhere: yeast in little cubes (and later in powder packets). Sourdough bread, which for thousands of years had been the only way to make bread, experienced the same fate as candlelight, stick-shift cars, and vinyl records.  

Very soon after packet yeast, an absolute miracle came to everyone: white powders you could just add by the spoonful to make bread rise without any fuss at all! Or at least, early powders worked that well in theory. In practice, many of them either didn't work right or left chemical aftertastes. But we're getting ahead of ourselves, so let's step away from baking powder and its predecessors. Let's come back to using our microscopic friends to make bread.

Look, it expanded!

Speaking of traditional bread, you may think that round loaves are only for expensive bakeries that overuse the word "artisan." I know I did until I tried to shape the dough for myself. This oval shape is easier than making a long dough snake for baguettes.


Anyone trying sourdough at home soon finds out why packet yeast, that marvel of microbiology, usurped sourdough and became the "traditional" way to make bread. Making your own bread without modern yeast (or baking powder if you're daring) feels like doing my great-grandmother's recipes from Mexico. There's a lot of "You add more of this until it looks like that" and "keep mixing until it feels right" and "I don't know how long it should rest, you'll have to see if it's ready. You should be able to tell."  While scientists have given us a better understanding how breadmaking works, you should probably still pray to Fornax. I did, and our tight little ball of dough rose into this ready-to-bake, almost foamy-light ball of sticky success.

They say if you poke the side and it stays dented, the bread has risen enough to bake. I may have finger-stabbed it a bit too hard.

After all these days of carefully feeding the bread starter, after many hours of patiently waiting for the bread to rise, the baking time was so short it almost felt disrespectful. Nevertheless, the bread was done. We leapt forward a few thousand years in technology at the end of baking time, using a modern thermometer to ensure that the bread was thoroughly baked. Of course, we also used a modern thermostatically-controlled oven. My great-grandmother refused to follow her husband into the United States until he purchased her a stove that she didn't have to light a woodfire in, and we're not about to dishonor her today.

Depending on your attitude, this loaf is either cute, or it's rustic, or else it's severely plain. I could have cut decorative patterns into it for panache before leaving it to rise. But after so many sourdough failures, I was afraid it would collapse if I touched it more than strictly necessary. Plainness aside, this bread was absolutely delicious. 

I've heard people come back from France saying that the bread there is so much better than here. It turns out that if you hop onto the internet and find the nearest tutorial from someone in France, you too can have amazing bread at home. However, as adorably artisan as these traditional round loaves look, you will soon slice one and find that you can't make much of a sandwich on bread-fingers. You can, however, immerse them in soup.

The French may be fine with narrow bread slices. But here in America, bread is a vehicle for sandwiches more often than it is something you eat on its own. These bread slices were far too small to load with a whole lunch's worth of meat and vegetables. But by cutting one of these long bread-twigs in half, a decent (if unsatisfyingly small) grilled cheese can occur.

Someone else in the house thought these tiny single-egg frying pans would be nice. We've used them more than one would expect.

Because the plague has caused to me have more free time and less income, we're not using butter on this like some normal person would. Today's grilled cheese has been spread with ham fat, which we rendered while making soup stock out of the bones and stringy bits of the hams we bought on clearance after Thanksgiving. I had high hopes for this ham-and-grilled cheese, but you couldn't taste the ham-fat difference. It's a dang good grilled cheese though, even if it's so small you can put it on a tea saucer.


 With that said, I didn't want artistic bread. I wanted something you could make a sandwich on. I didn't care about making sandwich bread very much until I kept failing at it. So, with our next attempt, we made a loaf pan that seemed about the right size for the dough ball we had so patiently kneaded. If you're going to do this yourself, fold the foil first until you have several layers of it. Otherwise, your bread may push through the flimsy sides.

You can really see how much the bread knocked out the initially-upright "pan" sides if you upend the loaf.

But with that said, it tasted so good that it did not last nearly as long as an entire loaf of bread should. We all kept randomly cutting off a slice every time we passed through the kitchen. Even if one was just passing through to get to the next room, it was hard to do so without making a bread detour. And so, we at A Book of Cookrye highly recommend trying sourdough if you like bread and have a bit of free time on your hands. It may not come out well on your first attempt (or three), but the ingredients are just flour and water. So it's not like you're out the price of an expensive beef cut or something like that every time your bread comes out lousy. And if you persist, you can have one of these in your own kitchen!


  1. I'm glad that it worked! I was intrigued by the whole process, but I never tried it. Alaska also has a big thing about sourdough bread and starters. I think it was easier to catch wild yeast and keep it going than trying to ship the packaged stuff there.

    1. It works... sometimes! I still don't always get bread out of it. I've heard sourdough is common in Alaska, but no one really talks about Alaskan food in the lower 49.

  2. Replies
    1. Apparently we have to praise Fornax a lot, for she is fickle indeed.