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A customer emailed us and said that her mother loved sourdough bread but had trouble making it work right. We shared the following recipe with her, which is our easiest, most foolproof recipe for sourdough bread.
Using this recipe for sourdough bread, a small amount of yeast is used in the starter. As the starter is used and refreshed with new feedings of flour and water, wild yeasts are introduced and cultivated. The sour flavor typical of sourdough bread that we love comes from the action of the yeast and friendly bacteria.
The commercial yeast makes an easier starter than culturing wild yeast from the air. Because it's easy, if you abandon your starter after a few weeks, you can readily start another when you're back in the mood or have the time.
Mix the starter in a glass or steel bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and set it aside at room temperature until it is doubled and bubbly, maybe 4 to 6 hours.
For the sponge:
1 cup of the starter
3/4 cup warm water
2 cups flour
Mix the starter amount with the flour and water, cover, and set aside to ferment until it has tripled in volume. At room temperature, it will take four to eight hours. You can put it in a cool place--about fifty degrees--and let it perk all night. Your garage may be just right. You can also let it ferment in the refrigerator overnight. At temperatures of forty to fifty degrees, the friendly bacteria will be more active than the yeasts and the flavor will be more sour.
To recharge the starter, add about one cup of flour and one cup of warm water to your remaining starter. Keep it in the refrigerator and use it or recharge it every few days. After a few recharges, you will plenty of complex wild yeasts in your starter.
For the dough:
All of the sponge
1 1/2 cups flour (more or less)
2 teaspoons salt
Mix the salt with the flour. Knead the combination into the sponge by hand until you have a smooth, elastic, slightly sticky dough, adding more flour as needed. Put the dough in an oiled bowl and let it rise again until doubled, about an hour.
Form the loaves. This works best as a large freestanding round or oval loaf or two smaller loaves. Place a clean cotton cloth in a bowl or basket with which to hold the loaf. Lightly dust the interior of the bowl with flour. Place each formed loaf upside down in a bowl on top of the dusted flour. Cover the loaves with plastic and let them rise again until doubled. This rising will probably take less than an hour.
To from the thick, chewy crust that is typical of artisan breads, follow these instructions: Place a large, shallow, metal pan in the oven on the lowest shelf. You will pour hot water in this pan to create steam in the oven. High heat is hard on pans so don't use one of your better pans. An old sheet pan is ideal. Fill a spray bottle with water. You will use this to spray water into the oven to create more steam.
Preheat the oven to 475 degrees. (If your oven runs on the cool side, set it on 500 degrees.) When the oven is hot and the bread is fully risen and is soft and puffy--being very careful not to burn yourself with the rising steam and with a mitted hand--pour about two cups of very hot water in the pan in the oven. Quickly close the oven door to capture the steam. With spray bottle in hand, open the door and quickly spray the oven walls and close the door.
Gently invert the loaf or loaves onto a slightly greased non-insulated baking sheet on which a little cornmeal has been dusted. With your sharpest knife, quickly make two or three slashes 1/4-inch deep across the top of each loaf. This will vent the steam in the bread and allow the bread to expand properly. Immediately put the bread in the steamy oven. After a few moments, open the door and spray the walls again to recharge the steam. Do this twice more during the first fifteen minutes of baking. This steamy environment will create the chewy crust prized in artisan breads.
After the bread is in the oven, turn the temperature down to 450 degrees and set the timer for about forty minutes. Check on the bread ten minutes before the baking should be complete. If the top is browning too quickly, tent the loaf with aluminum foil for the remainder of the baking to keep it from burning. The bread is done when the crust turns a dark golden brown and the internal temperature reaches 210 degrees. It is important that the bread is well-baked to drive moisture from the loaf. If the bread is under baked, the excess moisture will migrate to the crust and you will no longer have the dry chewy crust of a great artisan loaf.
This sourdough bread is to die for. The prolonged rising gives the yeast plenty of time to convert the starch to sugars and the friendly bacteria a chance to impart their nut-like flavors.
Last winter, we made dozens of these sourdough loaves. Since this bread is best eaten fresh, we gave scores of loaves away-mostly to folks from church. Funny thing-we were never turned away.
Editor's Note: Dennis Weaver is the author of How to Bake, a free 250-page e-book. Which is free at The Prepared Pantry. The Prepared Pantry sells bread mixes and other baking mixes and offers a free Bread Center with recipes and techniques.