Adventures in Imperfect Sourdough

Our imperfect, reliable daily bread

Look, maybe your days are a wide vista and you welcome the complications, structure and challenge of the float test, careful ratios, and monitoring of bulk rises. That’s fine. Your sourdough will be better than mine.

But I’ve been baking sourdough for over two years, and I’ve pioneered a lean, mean Good Enough method. Care to join me for a walk through?

Here is my Good Enough recipe, Splendid Table’s Almost No-Knead Sourdough, which a friend gave me a year or so back. It makes a round, chewy loaf with enough crunch to please our grownups but not so crispy that the kids struggle to eat it. Mostly, though, I like it because its timeline is forgiving, so even when life gets in the way, you still end up with a tasty loaf.

Here are the absolute minimum supplies I need to make my loaf:

  1. a really big bowl — metal is ok, Katie of Hearts Content Farmhouse assures me; that rule about metal and sourdough is a myth, apparently.
  2. a big mixing spoon — I like wooden.
  3. liquid measuring cup, teaspoon, solid measuring cup — I feel stupid listing these things, but I learned how to cook in a very ill-equipped Ugandan kitchen, so I’m trying not to taken anything for granted here.
  4. parchment paper — I have not gotten silpat mats to work properly in a round dutch oven, please let me know if you figure something out.
  5. dutch oven — This seems to be nonnegotiable for this recipe; friends’ attempts to substitute or skip have failed. Remember, if you are also frugal, that you can probably borrow a dutch oven from someone to try out the recipe before buying one yourself for $30 or so.

If you are feeling fancy, I’ve incorporated these next-level items into my routine and appreciated the results. Notice I don’t link to where to buy them, because I’m trying to wean myself off Amazon and don’t need to hook you, too.

  • reusable shower cap for the proofing dough — I use this instead of cling film, which never sticks that well, or one of those disposable shower caps you can get from motels, which stays in place better, but still requires you throw it out.
  • bench scraper — this was a marriage saver for me, because it helps to get the counter really clean, especially after kneading or when you drip starter, which dries cement-hard. You can also use it for jobs like cutting buns.
  • grits, polenta or coarse-ground cornmeal — definitely not required, but sprinkled on the parchment paper just before you place your dough there to rise, it makes a loaf seem more artisanal — consider it just another example of one step up cooking.
  • scale — this is not even a little bit necessary, but I’ve had one for about six months now and it makes feeding your starter more precise and opens up more recipes for you, because many sourdough recipes are alarmingly fussy about measurements.
  • instant read thermometer — also not a must, but a much faster way to determine bread doneness than judging by time or color.

Beyond that, you just follow the straightforward recipe. It takes awhile to learn to plan so far in advance, but generally, I feed my starter the day before I want a new loaf of bread at dinner. I do not feed my starter except for when I’m planning a new loaf, because I bake frequently enough that this isn’t a problem.

That night of Day 1, I mix up my dough and let it sit. I do use the recommended King Arthur all-purpose flour whenever I can get it, and it’s often available in massive, inexpensive bags at my local closeout grocer. (Yes, even during a pandemic.) In the summer, when the house is warm, I need to mix the dough a bit later, say 9 or 10 pm, so it doesn’t overproof on the counter.

This lasted us about three months and cost around $20.

The next morning (Day 2, I guess), I aim to knead the dough and set it for its second rise by 8 am, but sometimes it’s later. (And honestly, even if it overproofs, it’s still going to be an edible loaf, just less pretty and harder to work with.)

So then sometime midday on Day 2, I’ll bake the bread. Sometimes I make a slice in the top but don’t find it to be all that necessary when shape is restricted by the sides of the dutch oven. Sometimes I’ll sprinkle everything bagel seasoning on top to shock and appall my kids. I usually determine doneness by temperature, and if it’s hot enough but still a bit pasty, sometimes I’ll set the loaf directly on the rack in the oven for a few minutes more.

That’s it, that’s all.

And I’d be remiss not to point you toward other guides to getting started in sourdough — Katie has a good one and has forgotten more than I’ll ever know about baking. But the important thing here is not to let all the demanding regimens and confusing terminology make this hard. In my experience, I can’t make myself care any more than I just do about the complications and challenges of a hobby; I just want to limp along and find my own way and not get fussy about any of it. So here’s one unfussy path forward, among many.

4 thoughts on “Adventures in Imperfect Sourdough

  1. I made a starter this year in my third trimester…so it’s about 4 months old and I love it! I use Farmhouse on Boone a lot for guidance and recipes. My favorites have been waffles, pancakes, crackers and english muffins…but I have yet to conquer sandwich bread. Cannot get it to rise enough!!

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    • I bought a 50 lb rolling plastic pet food bin from amazon. It’s food grade quality and was maybe $20 or $25? This seemed like the cheapest solution, rather than buying smaller more expensive bags—I can get a 50lb KA bag for under $25.

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