For a bona fide bread lover, nothing is better than baking your own bread. The smell of bread baking in the oven is possibly the sweetest perfume around.
Over the years I have experimented with assorted breads, rolls, challahs, breadsticks, bagels, pita and more, but there was one frontier I had yet to conquer: sourdough. Sure, I had looked into it, but the problems were many. First, one has to nurture a homemade starter for an untold number of days. Second, many of the blogs discuss things like soft flour versus hard, and feature mathematical curves graphing a starter’s daily progress and characteristics. In short, it was too complicated and I wasn’t going there.
But an Instagram post showing Zak the Baker evacuating his legendary Miami bakery with a baggie of starter before Hurricane Irma made me reconsider, and Google searches brought me tales of people who were using 100-year-old starter. Digging deeper, I found the King Arthur’s Flour website, which broke down the process of cultivating your own starter in fairly simple terms.
And the rest is history. But first, some science.
While most breads use commercial dried yeast to rise, sourdough uses wild yeasts that are naturally present in the air to do the same thing. A starter begins its journey to bread-dom when you mix equal weights of flour and water and leave them loosely covered, inviting those airborne yeasts to come on in and enjoy a good meal. Within a day, as the yeasts eat the natural sugars in the flour, they create carbon dioxide bubbles, causing the starter to expand. In the initial stages, it takes some serious babysitting to keep the yeast alive, including pouring off about half the starter and replenishing the mixture with fresh flour and water twice daily. It can take ten days or longer to see results, but, in time, the mixture should evolve into a bubbly batter with a pleasantly sour smell that can be the basis for plenty of carby goodness with a distinctive sourdough tang.
In theory, it all made sense. But would it really work in practice? There was only one way to find out, and while you can read endless books and articles on how to make your own sourdough starter, I share with you my own journey as I braved new frontiers in the world of baking.
Day 1: I pull out my kitchen scale and weigh out four ounces each of water and flour and mix them up in a mason jar. I leave the jar slightly uncovered and hope that the yeasts that I am told are all over my house have some kind of internal GPS that will lead them to my mason jar. As I utter a silent prayer for success, I try not to freak out over the fact that there are wild organisms floating around in my kitchen.
Day 2: In the good news department, my starter has just about doubled in size. In the bad news department, it is a rather unattractive, gloppy mess. I pour off half the starter in preparation for our first feeding, but I can’t bring myself to throw it out. I put it in a jar, stick it in the refrigerator and Google “discarded sourdough starter recipes” and get some hits. I feed my starter and leave it on the counter, hoping that nature will take its course.
Days 3 and 4: My starter is nicknamed Attila in the hopes that, like the Hun king, it will be a fearless conqueror, and will reach new heights in both size and ugliness. By now, I have enough extra discarded starter to make my first batch of pancakes, but my daughter tells me it smells like something died in our kitchen. My husband disagrees, saying it smells worse than rotting cheese.
Day 5: I wake up in the morning to find out that, like an unwieldy teenager, Attila has had a growth spurt and overflowed her mason jar. I transfer her into a roomy glass canister and look up more discarded starter recipes because I keep having more and more of the stuff and I just can’t bear to throw it out.
Day 6 and 7: A few minutes before we leave to my daughter’s house for Shabbos I realize that I am not going to be able to feed Attila until we get home, so I hope for the best. I check the jar after Shabbos and see that Attila looks completely and totally dead. Or like the aforementioned teenager, she is mad at me for abandoning her and getting her revenge.
Day 8: Sunday morning seems like a great day for pancakes, so I pull out the jar of discarded starter from my fridge and whip up a batch of sourdough pancakes. They taste like, well, pancakes, albeit with a slightly unique sourness. I offer some to my husband and daughter who both politely decline, choosing to make their own breakfasts instead. I whip up a batch of sourdough crackers later that night and they come out pretty good actually, with an oddly cheesy flavor, even though they are completely pareve. My husband proclaims it to be the worst thing he has ever smelled and I utter a silent vow to start throwing out the extra starter instead of saving it because no matter how hard I try I will never be able to use it all up. And Attila? She is still mad at me. No bubbles, no rising, nothing.
Days 9 and 10: A few bubbles here and there, but nothing significant. I Google “Dead Starter” and come up with assorted suggestions from successful sourdoughologists (yes, I made up that word) and decide to try them all. I wash out the jar and get it super clean before pouring Attila back. I use all whole-wheat flour for extra nutrients instead of my usual 50/50 white/whole wheat blend, and leave the lid ajar overnight, inviting more wild yeasts to join the party. I wake up in the morning to the sweet smell of success. Not only does Attila not reek like something the cat dragged in, she has tripled in size and is full of beautiful little air bubbles. I feed Attila again, but, by the end of the day, we are both deflated, and I start wondering if maybe making my own sourdough from scratch is beyond my pay grade.
Days 11 and 12: After seeing no activity at all after two feedings, I decide to kick things up a notch. I wrap Attila up snugly in a towel and move her from the kitchen into my hopefully warmer walk-in closet. Clearly all is forgiven by the next morning because I am rewarded with a new crop of bubbles and a gorgeously gloppy texture. I wait one more day and then drop a little glob of starter into a cup of water and it floats, a sure sign that Attila is ready to make her first challah.
Days 13 through 15: After pouring a half-cup of starter into my challah dough, I feed what is left of Attila and leave her out overnight. Now a fully ripe starter, Attila will start spending her days in my fridge instead of on my kitchen counter, and will, thankfully, only need to be fed once a week. I leave the sourdough challah rising overnight and in the morning am greeted by a perfectly risen batch of dough, which later comes out of my oven looking extremely photogenic and truly yummy. Does it taste as good as it looks? Surprisingly enough, the answer is yes. Attila rose to the occasion, providing me with appropriately textured and nicely-flavored challahs that my lunch guests rate as “five star.”
Epilogue: Making a starter is a lot like having a puppy in the house. It is a temperamental living item that needs to be fed regularly and sometimes needs extra love and attention. Yes, you could go out and just buy a loaf of sourdough bread, but nothing beats the satisfaction of putting homemade bread on the table.
Except maybe eating it.
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Sourdough Challah Bread
1 c natural yeast starter
1 c warm water
1 T real salt
⅓ c honey
6 eggs and 1 for the egg wash
½ c avocado oil
8-9 c flour (I use half whole wheat and half white unbleached all purpose)
- Combine water, starter, salt, honey, 6 eggs, and oil in your mixer.
- Add flour a cup at a time until fully incorporated.
- Continue adding flour until the dough “cleans” the sides of the bowl around the lower half. Turn off your mixer and allow the dough to rest for 20-30 minutes. This test allows the flour to soak up additional moisture and you will end up using less flour. Knead for 10 minutes or until the dough is smooth and elastic- doesn’t tear when you gently pull it apart (I use speed 2 on my bosch for kneading).
- Pull the dough out of the mixer and knead it a few times on your counter until the texture is uniform. Place in a greased bowl and cover with a damp kitchen towel. Place the dough in a warm place (I use my oven with the light on) to rise overnight or all day – at least 6 hours.
- Once your dough has risen, remove it from the bowl and divide into two portions. Place one portion back in the
bowl and cover. Take the remaining portion and divide it in thirds. Take each third and divide it in half so you are
left with six pieces. Take each piece and roll it out like a long snake.
- At this point, you need to braid your Challah. I found several excellent tutorials on youtube for 6-strand braiding, so I will refer you to those until I put my own together. Watch the video. It’s really not hard at all and once you get the hang of it, it goes quickly. My six year old was doing it for me!
- Here is a link to the video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6zqEzXjXIbo
- Once you have braided your loaves, place them side by side on a greased jelly roll pan. Take your remaining egg and whisk it in a bowl with about a teaspoon of water. Using a pastry brush, brush the egg wash all over your loaves, making sure you get all of those cracks!
- Cover the Challah with greased plastic wrap and allow to rise for 2- 2½ more hours or until the dough yields a gentle fingerprint.
- Preheat your oven to 350 degrees. While it’s heating up, go over your bread again with the egg wash. Bake for 35 minutes, or until a thermometer registers at least 180 degrees in the bottom of the loaf.
- Remove the bread from the pans and allow to cool before slicing.
Recipe by simple life by kels at http://www.simplelifebykels.com/recipe-sourdough-challah-bread/