The chance to bake sourdough bread in a 185-year-old, wood-fired brick oven is a baker’s dream. Even if you never get such an opportunity, I have some bread-baking tips that will help you create beautiful fresh loaves from your home oven.
About 5 years ago I was invited by a friend to bake at the home of an older gentleman she knew. The home was originally built in 1830 as a school. The building is now a large private residence with beautiful character, but the coolest feature of the house (in my opinion) is the wood-fired oven. In the 19th century the 7′ brick-lined oven was used every day to provide bread for 60 folks at the school.
Clearly, daily use of such an oven isn’t practical today. But every once in a while the generous homeowner fires up the oven and invites a few avid bakers to try it out.
On my previous visit to the home I baked a two loaves of bread (I can’t remember what type of bread I made) and an apple galette. The bread was good and the galette was wonderful.
When I was invited to the home again I jumped at the chance. Being a total geek, I couldn’t wait to bake in the oven again. This time I brought along a sourdough loaf and a pear galette. The sourdough loaf turned out ok (I should have left it rise a little longer) but the pear galette was a total fail. I manged to smash the tart while trying to remove it from the oven with the long wooden peel. The little bit I saved tasted good, but the rest of it was smeared over the bricks. So, yea, not my best moment as a baker.
Lunch is Served!
After baking we shared a lunch of soup, salad and freshly baked bread with cheese and Irish butter. We enjoyed a delicious herb focaccia by Christine, a lovely cayenne-spiked braided loaf by Sarah and a yummy baguette by Lisa. Baking, eating, chatting-pretty much a perfect afternoon, in my book.
If you’re not lucky enough to bake in a wood-fired oven, you can improve your sourdough bread with these tips:
- Use a pre-heated baking stone and a very hot oven for a well-browned and crisp crust.
- Pre-heat a pan with rocks to create steam. I use whiskey rocks that I stole from my husband.
- To check if the loaf is proofed, poke the dough with your finger; if dent slowly fills in the dough is ready, if it springs right back it’s not ready, if the dent stays, it’s over risen.
- If the dough over-rises you can fold it again, reshape and then rise before baking.
- Use a sour dough starter if you have one. If you don’t have one, try making one.
- The longer and slower you let the dough ferment, the more flavorful the bread will be.
- Don’t knead all the air from the dough, gently fold the dough for better texture and flavor.
I call this recipe “Cheater” Sour Dough Bread because the starter is made with a little commercial yeast. A true starter is made with no commercial yeast and depends on wild yeast to colonize the batter. A true starter can be a little fickle, so this “cheater” recipe is an easy way to make your first sourdough loaf. If you really get into it you can try making a true starter. There are loads of books and internet sites that discuss the ins and outs of sourdough bread. I have a beer mash starter that I made last year that I’ve been using, but I am planning to make a true starter soon (I’m waiting for warmer weather) and will let you know how it goes. If you make bread on a regular basis (several times per week) the starter can be kept at room temperature. Otherwise, keep it refrigerated. Whenever you use the starter replace the amount used with equal parts flour and room temperature water (e.g., If you use 1 cup of starter refresh with 1/2 cup flour and 1/2 cup water). If you don't use the starter for at least 2 weeks discard 1 cup of the starter and refresh with 1/2 cup water and 1/2 cup flour. Keep at room temperature until it's bubbly and active then place back in the refrigerator.
Sour dough Bread
To Create the Starter
To Make the Bread
To start the dough a day ahead you can place it in the refrigerator over night. If my kitchen is very cool I leave the dough out overnight. Remove from the refrigerator in the morning, allow the dough to warm to room temperature (if the room is cold I place the bowl with dough over a bowl of water water) then shape and bake as directed in the recipe.
If you make bread on a regular basis (several times per week) the starter can be kept at room temperature. Otherwise, keep it refrigerated. Whenever you use the starter replace the amount used with equal parts flour and room temperature water (e.g., If you use 1 cup of starter refresh with 1/2 cup flour and 1/2 cup water). If you don't use the starter for at least 2 weeks discard 1 cup of the starter and refresh with 1/2 cup water and 1/2 cup flour. Keep at room temperature until it's bubbly and active then place back in the refrigerator.