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.