OK, so it's both as easy as you are lead to believe, and also not exactly.
Several Sundays ago, my wife announced she was going to make sourdough bread starter and read me The NYTimes recipe she was going to try. From the bread guru Peter Reinhart, it begins with pineapple juice, had thought for flavor but have since learned from Ryan in a comment below and a link to thefreshloaf.com lowers the pH to the point that undesirable bacteria cannot grow and prevent yeast from growing.
It reminded me of my first time making starter using another bread guru's method (Nancy Silverton suggests putting organic grapes into the mix to increase odds of growing enough yeast to leavan the bread). Another baker I knew swore by adding organic purple cabbage to make the starter, which also worked like a charm.
Then, collaborating with Matt McDonald, head baker at the Bouchon Bakery at the time, on the Bouchon Bakery cookbook, he told me how he made a starter: combine flour and water. Putting fruits and vegetables in your starter was ridiculous, he said. There is plenty of yeast in the air and in the flour already.
My wife had gotten me all excited about sourdough, so I started my own Matt McDonald-method starter by putting equal weights flour and water together (you can also do 1 part water and 2 parts flour by volume--but to bake bread, you should really have a scale). About a quarter cup of flour to start. (I had attempted starters before that never took--it's not a given.)
Within a day I had bubbles, but my wife's seemed dormant. She accused me of starting a competition, so I threw mine out. But it was too late. I'd already jinxed her starter and it failed to thrive. So we began again. And a couple days ago, after considerable feeding, we had a starter that was ready (just) to do the job. But it really took a good week till it was strong enough. You've got to have a sense about it.
I went back to my old ratio of 2 parts flour, 1 part starter, 1 part water (500 grams flour, 250 grams each water and starter or 1 pound flour and ½ pound starter and water) plus 1.5% to 2% salt (a tablespoon or so). And after considerable folding and rising, baked something the people wanted to eat. (Remember that the starter is equal parts flour and water if you weigh, which means you can know exactly how much flour and water you have in your dough.)
Not perfect by any stretch. A little under baked, irregular and slightly dense crumb. But not bad. So I made another day before yesterday, bulk fermented it overnight in the fridge. The next day I let it warm up for an our or so, shaped it into a tight boule, and let it rise for a good 3 or 4 hours.
I baked it as is now standard: in a preheated Dutch Oven, 500˚F, 20 minutes covered 30 minutes uncovered:
And I do have to say that, while you have to feed the starter every day and it takes some work, and some bread sense which only comes from practice, it feels really good to leaven a loaf of bread with 100% wild yeast you grew yourself. Notice the rich color of the crust--this only comes from sourdough. Don't know why, but it's gorgeous.
That said, if your sourdough isn't strong enough, I'd go ahead and add ¼ teaspoon SAF dried yeast just to be sure or until you've got a thriving starter. (Don't add it to your starter or the commercial yeast will take over.) Your dough will still taste really good.
Happy bread baking all!
How To Make Sourdough Bread
- 1 pound flour (or 500 grams)
- ½ pound sourdough starter (see below) (or 250 grams)
- 8 ounces water (or 250 grams)
- 1 tablespoon coarse kosher salt (or 15 grams, about a tablespoon)
- as needed olive oil
- Combine the flour, starter and water in a mixing bowl fitted with a dough hook or in a bowl if mixing by hand. Mix till just combined and let it rest for 20 to 30 minutes (this is called autolyse, which helps the doughs structure but isn't strictly necessary).
- Add the salt and continue mixing of kneading until the bread is soft and smooth and pliable, 1o to 15 minutes.
- Cover the dough with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight or for up to 48 hours.
- Several hours before you intend to bake, remove the bread. Remove the plastic and cover the bowl with a towel. Let the bread warm up for an hour or so.
- Remove the dough from the bowl. (If you want to see how lively it is, cut it open--you should see a network of bubbles; if you don't, your bread won't rise; throw the dough at your neighbor's house as a primitive form of greeting.) Press the air out and kneed it a bit to move the yeast around to a fresh food supply. Shape the dough into a tight boule by rolling it back and forth and around between your hands.
- Put the dough in a parchment lined bowl, cover it with a towel and let it rise until you can just stick a finger into the dough and the indent is not quick to bounce back. This can take 2 to 5 hours depending on your dough (remember, it's alive, and everything alive moves at its own pace).
- Put a Dutch oven in your oven and preheat to 500˚F.
- When the ovens are hot, rub the top of your dough with some olive oil. With a sharp knife, cut a hashtag in your dough and say "hashtag sourdough!" Using good mits or hand towels put the Dutch oven on your stove top, and remove the cover. Using the parchment, lift the dough out of the bowl and rest it (along with the parchment paper) in the Dutch oven. Cover the Dutch oven (remember it's hot!) and return it to the stove.
- Bake for 20 minutes. Remove the lid and bake for another 30 minutes or so (if you want to be sure it's done, an instant read thermometer should read about 205˚F). Remove it from the rack. Resist cutting into it for at least one hour! This is much harder than it sounds.
Sourdough Bread Starter
- flour as needed (you'll want to have plenty, at least a 5# bag to be sure)
- water as needed
- Combine 100 grams flour with 100 grams water, and stir to create a paste (I use a quart deli container). Let it sit for 24 hours (you can give it a stir once if you wish).
- Add the same amounts of flour and water and stir till combined. Let sit for 24 hours. Give it a stir once or twice. Now you can cover it if you wish.
- You should be seeing bubbles by now. Pour 100 grams of starter into a fresh container and add 100 grams each of flour and water in the morning.
- That night add 150 grams flour and water and stir.
- Continue adding about equal measures of flour and water to an equal measure of starter. You'll start dumping your starter (or save it to use for pancakes or waffles--you'll have to calculate flour and water by weight if you use flour and waffle recipes, knowing it's 50% of each). You should have the hang of it by now. You'll need about 250 grams (about 8 ounces) per loaf.
- Figure out when you want to make your dough and feed your starter on last time about 12 hours before. You want that yeast nice and hungry come mixing time. If your schedule changes or you just can't deal—refrigerate it until you're ready. But I would recommend feeding it again and letting it sit at room temp for 12 hours or so.
- Sour dough should last indefinitely in your fridge. The longer it sits, though, the more refreshing it may need. (If it's moldy, of course, that would mean it's dead and should be discarded.