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.
- 1/2 cup unbleached all purpose flour
- 1/2 cup stone ground rye flour
- 1 cup lukewarm water
- 1/2 tsp dry yeast
Sour dough Bread
- 3/4 cup starter
- 3/4 cup slightly warm water (about 110 degrees)
- 1 tsp salt
- 1 1/2 - 2 cups unbleached all purpose flour
To Create the Starter
- Combine all the ingredients to form a smooth batter.
- Loosely cover and allow to sit in a warm spot for 3 days.
- Each morning add 1 tablespoon of all purpose flour and 1 tablespoon of water to feed the starter.
- It will slowly rise up and collapse after each addition.
- On the 3rd day it should be active enough to use.
To Make the Bread
- Combine the starter and water in a mixer bowl.
- Add 1 cup of the flour and mix until combined
- Allow the batter to rest for 20 minutes for the flour to absorb the water
- Switch to the dough hook
- Add the salt and enough of the remaining flour until the dough comes together and gathers on the hook.
- The dough will still be slightly sticky, but not wet. You might not use all the flour.
- Transfer to a lightly floured surface
- Knead just enough to form a smooth ball
- Place the dough ball in an oiled bowl, turning once to coat the dough
- Cover with plastic wrap and leave at room temperature for 2-3 hours
- Dump the dough onto a lightly floured surface
- Pick up the top edge of the dough and fold it towards the center
- Repeat folding on the bottom and two sides of the dough ball
- Return to the bowl
- Cover and allow to rise until doubled (about 2 hours) or refrigerate over night (see note)
- Dump the dough onto a lightly floured surface and fold as before (do not knead out all the air)
- Flip the ball over and use cupped hands to form the dough into a smooth ball
- Place on a peel or baking sheet sprinkled with corn meal,
- Cover with a damp kitchen towel
- Allow to rise until the dough springs back slowly when it's poked (2-3 hours)
- Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 450 degrees
- If you have a baking stone allow at least 1-2 hours for the stone to heat up
- Place a small pan (with a few stones if you have them) onto the floor of the oven.
- When the loaf is ready, score several cuts across the top with a very sharp knife or single edge razor
- Carefully pour a cup of water into the pan on the floor of the oven. Lean away from the pan while pouring since the steam will rise up quickly.
- Immediately place the loaf directly on the baking stone or slide the sheet pan onto the middle rack
- Bake until nicely browned and the loaf sounds hollow when tapped on the bottom (about 20-25 minutes)
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.
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.