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Sourdough-n’t you worry: How to bake the most of shelter-in-place

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In this strange and confusing period of self-isolation and shelter-in-place orders, Simran Sethi of The New York Times recommends that we control our anxiety and, in some cases, panic by focusing on hobbies or finding new ways to stay busy and involved at home. Basically, anything from essential tasks like doing the dishes or cleaning laundry to more meditative, relaxing practices like reading (except the news!) or cultivating a mini garden can help keep us sane and bring a sense of normalcy to the situation. 

In my case, baking, particularly of the sourdough variety, has played a large role in reducing my stress levels, preventing me from incessantly checking my phone for news alerts or incoming grades. What’s more is that according to virtually every news source out there, this isn’t a unique method of distraction; sourdough baking requires just a few simple ingredients with which one can tweak and experiment such that each loaf is its own rewarding labor of love. 

Thus, without further ado, here are some tips on the best way to start your stress-free spring quarter — starting with a homegrown sourdough starter, of course! 

Building a basic starter

First of all, what even is a starter? Also known as a levain (French for “leaven”), a starter consists of a flour and water mixture that ferments and attracts wild yeast from both the flour and surrounding air. When infused into a bread recipe, it acts as a leavening agent, hence the origins of the word “levain.” The mixture, usually kept in a jar or other closed, sealed container, requires regular “feedings” of flour and water for healthy growth.

Generally, there are two ways to go about beginning your very first starter. If you happen to be lucky or well-connected, the easiest method is to “borrow” a small portion of an existing starter from a friend, relative or local bakery and continue developing it through regular feeding. For my Bay Area friends, both Manresa Bread and The Midwife and the Baker are currently offering sourdough starter for sale. 

Unfortunately, given the social quarantine orders currently in place, this method is likely not accessible for all. However, with a bit of patience (and ample time at home thanks to COVID-19), it’s incredibly easy and rewarding to build a basic starter from scratch.

Plenty of guides detailing the from-scratch method already exist online, so I thought it best to explain a college-student-friendly way to maintain a sourdough culture. Having begun my own starter — aptly nicknamed Leviathan for its rapid growth — back in November, I’ve since transitioned to feeding it similarly to King Arthur Flour’s recipe for a smaller starter. Leviathan generally resides in the fridge, and once per week I take it out, discard half of it and feed the remainder a mixture of 100 grams of all-purpose flour and 100 grams of 85°C filtered water. That’s all it takes on the maintenance end — flour, water and refrigeration.

I should note that both my instructions and KAF’s yield a 100% hydration starter, or one that both consists of and requires equal portions of flour and water for maintenance. Hydration as it applies to breadmaking is defined as the percentage of water to flour (measured in grams) in the starter. While percentages make it seem strict, starter hydration is really a matter of textural preference (lower hydration = less “milkshake-y” texture), as you’ll discover that you can always manipulate these ratios to achieve the desired hydration for a given recipe.

Now let’s talk about actual baking. If you plan to bake often, skip the fridge and instead leave your starter out at room temperature, maintaining it through regular feedings spaced approximately 12 hours apart. If you’re following the fridge method, to get your starter to peak activation, it must be left out at room temperature and given enough feedings (spaced 8-12 hours apart) to generate enough grams for your recipe before use.

A great, instantly gratifying recipe for a simple, crusty sourdough can be found here. Do keep in mind that it relies on a bit of commercial yeast for more rapid fermentation, though the flavor complexity is definitely enhanced by the natural starter. Also, no need to despair if you lack a dutch oven (the “recommended” brands are super expensive!); I found success using a ceramic pan with a lid, and I’m sure any covered, oven-safe pan with a lid will yield similar results.

Experimentation!

Over the past two weeks, I’ve had extra time to play around with my starter and discover some especially exciting and delicious uses for it. While I’m by no means a pro, I thought I’d share three of my favorite (more successful) recipes, all of which are sure to be beginner-friendly!

Traditional sourdough: Roasted garlic and white cheddar loaf/boule

I’m perhaps most proud of this “recipe” since it is much more my own than the rest. I improvised a lot in the making of this loaf (hence some strange measurements), but the end product was happily dubbed “my best work yet” by family members. I would describe the taste as “refreshingly cheesy” in that the flavors don’t overwhelm you like a garlic bread, but rather add some craveable savory notes that can be enhanced with a good toasting and smattering of butter. 

Prep your starter, ratios courtesy of Ken Forkish’s “Flour, Water, Salt, Yeast”:

  • 50 grams basic starter (I took mine straight from the fridge)
  • 200 grams bread flour
  • 50 grams whole wheat flour
  • 200 grams warm water (29-32°C)

Mix all of the above together and let it sit at room temperature until it looks bubbly and noticeably risen in volume. This should take about eight hours. 

For the final dough: 

  • 250 grams prepared starter mixture (above)
  • 605 grams bread flour
  • 275 grams whole wheat flour
  • 685 grams warm water (32-35°C)
  • 18 grams iodized salt
  • 160 grams white cheddar, hand-shredded (I used up an old package of Kerrygold)
  • ½ clove of garlic, thinly chopped/minced and roasted (I put mine in a toaster oven for approximately eight min at around 220°C)

Mix all of the bread and whole wheat flour together before adding the water and mixing again until just incorporated. Cover the dough and let it rest for half an hour. 

Sprinkle salt on top of the dough and add 250 grams prepared starter mixture. Mix it with wetted hands to prevent dough from sticking. (At this point, I decided to add the white cheddar and garlic through lamination, but I’d actually recommend performing that step later, after dividing the dough.)

Fold the dough three to four times, letting it rest 20-30 minutes between each fold. Leave it to rise until it nearly triples in size. This should take between 10-15 hours depending on how warm your kitchen is. I mixed the dough before bed and woke up to perfectly risen dough about 11 hours later.

Scrape the dough onto a lightly floured surface and use a knife or bench scraper to divide it as you’d like (I aimed for 50-50). Dust a proofing basket with flour if you have one — otherwise, I used a large bowl with a cloth towel inside it — and shape each piece of dough into a tight ball. Place the dough ball into your basket (or makeshift basket) with the seam side down. I made one traditional loaf (see Notes), so I only followed this process once. 

Let proof for three to four hours at room temperature until the dough no longer instantly springs back when poked. At the three-hour mark, stick a dutch oven (or ceramic-ware pan with a lid) into a 245°C oven to preheat. I had the oven on the convection bake setting, which tends to make preheating quicker. If you use the standard bake setting, you can start preheating at around 2 1/2 hours instead.

To bake, flip the proofed dough so that the seam side faces up and place it in the preheated dutch oven. Bake, covered, for 30 minutes before taking the cover off and baking for another 15-25 minutes. My oven tends to be a bit hotter than average, so it only needed 15 minutes uncovered. When the loaf is done, take the whole dutch oven out and remove the loaf, setting it on a rack to cool. To protect the texture, let it rest for about half an hour before slicing.

Finished product! Crumb shot to the right. (Photo: CARISSA LEE/The Stanford Daily)
Loaf on the left, “boule” on the right. (Photo: CARISSA LEE/The Stanford Daily)

Notes:

  1. You can tweak the amount of garlic and cheddar as you please. I wouldn’t go over 200 grams of cheddar as it could mess with the hydration, but the 160 grams I used could definitely be increased for those who prefer a stronger cheese flavor.
  2. I baked one loaf as more of a boule (my aforementioned dutch oven substitute disfigured it) and the other in a standard 9-inch loaf pan (aka your kitchen’s banana bread pan). As a family, we decided that there was no flavor or texture difference in the final products, but there were minor differences in the outer crust and ease of consumption. If you prefer a bread with a more distinct, crispy crust, go with the dutch oven or pseudo-dutch oven method. If you prefer to eat your bread as toast, the loaf pan method ensures evenly-sized slices.

Enriched bread: Naturally-leavened challah

While I’ve made challah previously using commercial yeast, I stumbled upon these instructions from The Fresh Loaf for a fluffy sourdough challah. Highlights of this slightly more advanced recipe include the perfectly soft texture of the final product (great for french toast!), its customizability (go crazy with mix-ins) and the fact that it makes not one but TWO gorgeous loaves. I gifted one loaf to a friend, whose delicious french toast photos I’ve also included below.

Photo: CARISSA LEE/The Stanford Daily

Breakfast: Apple-walnut cinnamon buns

This final recipe is a bonafide crowd-pleaser (or, well, a great quarantine-mate-pleaser). The best part about this dough is that it can technically be made with sourdough discard, so no extra starter prep required! While I relied on KAF for the base dough recipe, I changed up the filling and toppings to enhance the apple-y flavors of the whole thing. 

Photo: CARISSA LEE/The Stanford Daily

Filling additions (add these to the filling recipe linked above!):

  • ½ to 1 whole apple, any variety, chopped into bite-sized pieces
  • ⅓ cup walnuts, toasted and chopped (amount is approximate)

Topping replacements (I skipped the icing because I’m a sugar-averse monster):

  • 1 egg, beaten
  • ½ to 1 whole apple, any variety, chopped into bite-sized pieces
  • ½ to 1 tsp ground cinnamon (just enough to coat the apples)
  • ¼ cup walnuts, toasted and chopped (amount subject to preference)

Brush the prepped rolls with the beaten egg and sprinkle on topping replacements before sticking in the oven. If you did it right, the whole house should smell like cinnamon-y heaven.

In the midst of coronavirus panic and fear for the future, the comforting scent of freshly-baked bread just might be the perfect method of bringing back a sense of warmth and normalcy to this strange new lifestyle. Hopefully the tips I’ve shared here have inspired you to dust off those old bags of flour and get into the kitchen — even in these dark times, there are few things more rewarding than enjoying the fruits (grains?) of one’s labor.

Contact Carissa Lee at carislee ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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Carissa Lee '22 is a writer for Arts & Life's Culture beat, an account manager for The Daily's Ad Sales team, and a member of the Social Media team. Her primary interests include Oxford commas, visual arts, and the culinary world--hence her passion for all things Arts & Life. When she's not obsessively scrolling through "Bon Appetit's" Instagram feed or going on long runs at 6 am to feel "productive," she is studying to major in Human Biology, with the intent to pursue a medical degree. Contact her anytime at carislee 'at' stanford.edu.