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.

Baking with Little Kids

I have always let my kids help me in baking. Part of this is the oft-cited belief that picky eaters are more likely to try what they’ve helped to create (demonstrably false in my household); part of it is just that I love to bake, and I love to please my children with unhealthy things.

Along the way, I’ve found that some projects lend themselves more easily to tiny helpers. Here are some easy starting points for even the smallest kid to take real ownership:Read More »

Commonplace Book, 55

I’m finally learning how to French braid! Like a real girl!!

What is a commonplace book? For me, this is a space where I post interesting links, reflections on what I’m reading, and the newest recipes I’ve been trying out — a collection of miscellaneous micro-posts.

What I’m fixing:

  • Do you, dear reader, find yourself possessed of the calm conviction, “This is how I die” every time you endeavor to hack up a butternut squash? This trick doesn’t work for every recipe — because cubed roasted squash is really freaking good — but sometimes you can just roast the behemoth whole and cube it later. See instructions here.

Read More »

Am I a Bad Friend to Fix Unhealthy Stuff?

My naan is always a little too small and tall and this does not stop me from eating it hot from the oven.

I’ve mentioned before that I’m a baker at heart, not a cook. My favorite things in the kitchen are caught up in the baking side of things: the feel of warm naan dough in my hands, Pippin and Scout’s help rolling molasses spice cookies in Demerara sugar.

But increasingly people I love can’t eat the things I love to make, and I find myself feeling guilty serving them even to people in the clear. Do we ever really need brownies?

Read More »

Commonplace Book, 44

What is a commonplace book? For me, this is a space where I post interesting links, reflections on what I’m reading, and the newest recipes I’ve been trying out — a collection of miscellaneous micro-posts.

What I’m fixing:

  • I love a good frittata. And I’ve only ever had one bad one — for the record, even a frittata can’t resuscitate freezer-burnt turkey. We’ve talked about my template for big frittatas, so here’s what I use as a template for a small dinner frittata for me and J with a little left over.
  • I’m dabbling in sourdough with a starter gifted me by another co op mama. I think I’m in love. I have no idea what I’m doing.

What I’m reading:

Read More »

Making It, Faking It

What do you find worthwhile to make and what would you rather buy? Let’s compare notes:

Make:

  • Stock: I like to roast a chicken whole in the slow cooker and then toss a carcass or two back in to cook on low overnight. Easy peasy.
  • Fancy bread (mostly ciabatta, 90% of the time): I will occasionally buy stuff, especially at the farmer’s market, but Pip eats almost nothing I make myself except ciabatta, so that’s a pretty strong incentive.
  • Iced tea: This is new, but J’s gotten into unsweet tea in a big way, and it’s sooooo much cheaper than buying bottles and then I don’t have to lug the bottles inside with my wimpy pregnant upper body (non)strength.
  • Pizza crust: It took awhile for me to find a bread machine recipe for the dough that I loved, but now I’m never going back.
  • Cookies, brownies, cake: I am not against a box cake (ok, I love box cake), but I recently suggested we make one and Pip was genuinely perplexed, and I realized maybe I’m doing some small part of this real foods thing right with him, even if he mostly subsists on fruit and Goldfish. He loves to bake, so I bake, and sometimes, he even eats it.
  • Cream of chicken soup: Use that stock!
  • Biscuits: These are one of the few things I can make now that are honestly my favorite way to eat them. Not that they’re objectively the world’s best biscuits, just that they’re exactly the way I like them. Do you have anything like that for you?
  • Granola: I like to mix it into my (storebought! for shame!) Greek yogurt.

Buy:

  • Bagels, sandwich bread: although I just ran across a recipe for bagel dough in the bread machine, and my brother-in-law made some beautiful bagels…
  • Pie crust: My mom makes terrific pie crust and I struggle to even work with frozen crust.
  • Pumpkin purée: Martha Stewart says this is OK.
  • Ice cream (90% of the time): It gets rock salt everywhere to make it!!
  • Pasta sauce (90% of the time): The only time I’ve routinely made it is when we’ve had a CSA, and that hasn’t been since Pip was born. Might be worth resurrecting, though, because I love the fresh taste when you puree it a bit and don’t cook it forever.
  • Yogurt: Trying to gather the discipline to do this again, because I have a yogurt maker and it saves a ton of money, but it’s so tedious.
  • Canned beans (vs cooking from dry): Why can I not make normal beans? This is supposed to be easy!!

I could list thousands of others, especially if I spent a little time looking at DIY tags on Instagram (no, I don’t make my own pickles!). Things are always in flux, of course, based on where we are in the life of our family. Sometimes it’s a struggle to make toast for the kids when I’m really morning sick, and sometimes, when the baby’s pretty old and I’m not pregnant yet and everyone’s napping reliably, I can really branch out and take on new skills and recipes.

What are your make-from-scratch priorities?

Granola for our mailperson last Christmas

Commonplace Book, 31 (Week 18)

What is a commonplace book? For me, this is a space where I post interesting links, reflections on what I’m reading, and the newest recipes I’ve been trying out — a collection of miscellaneous micro-posts.

What I’m fixing:

  • She lives! The usual brownies and this Indian stew and my go-to cobbler with my trusty cobbler sous-chef, and this cornbread which will henceforth be considered my standard cornbread recipe. (Not for those who like a nice, sweet cornbread. Also, can we agree that corn kernels in cornbread are repugnant?)

What I’m reading:

  • The Fellowship of the RingI missed the Well-Read Moms book group meeting that discussed it because we’ve had a quick progression of houseguests and all my reading time has gone to visiting — a welcome change from the slow slog of first trimester. This is, I think, my third pass, and I love it more each time. Can I confess, as a woman with a child named Pippin, that I didn’t enjoy it much the first time, reading it in high school to impress J? My love for the brave melancholy that imbues it has grown with age, though. As someone says (Aragorn?) — my notes are pretty bad — “It is a fair tale, though it is sad, as are all the tales of Middle-earth, and yet it may lift up your hearts.” Also, how is this for #homemaking goals?

“Frodo was now safe in the Last Homely House east of the Sea. That house was, as Bilbo had long ago reported, ‘a perfect house, whether you like food or sleep or story-telling or singing, or just sitting and thinking best, or a pleasant mixture of them all’. Merely to be there was a cure for weariness, fear, and sadness.”

 

She’s two tomorrow and they’re becoming friends and it makes my heart so glad