Soft, Simple Sourdough Bread: More than Flour, Water, Salt
In its most basic form, sourdough bread consists of starter, flour, water, and a little salt. Simple. Yet it isn't. In my search through books and on-line sites, I've found pages and pages of instructions and advice. America's Test Kitchen, The Splendid Table, and King Arthur Flour have some great recipes and instructions. The problem is, I don't really have that much time to create and fuss with my bread.
I prefer instructions that fit on one page and that don't involve extra equipment that I don't have or tinkering with my oven to ensure a crunchy "artisan" crust on my bread. In particular, I don't relish the idea of heating up a heavy Dutch oven in a 500-degree oven, plopping the dough into the hot Dutch oven, and returning the Dutch oven to the super-hot range oven. Oh, and a pan full of boiling water needs to go into the range oven underneath the Dutch oven. Really? The only time my range oven goes up to 500 degrees is on the self-cleaning cycle (which is a contradiction in terms, because I have to clean the oven before and after the cycle, but never mind). Heating up a Dutch oven I can barely lift and baking the bread in it at an ultra-high temperature over a pan of boiling water invokes visions of severe burns.
Nonetheless, in the interest of kitchen science, I did try the technique. I cranked up the oven, popped my dough into the hot Dutch oven (very carefully, I must add), and then baked the bread for the required time (okay, I omitted the boiling water underneath because I didn't want to void the warranty on my oven, but I did spritz the top of the loaf with a little water). The bread came out with a lovely deep brown top crust and a burned bottom. I also needed a chain saw to cut it. Well, not really, but it was hard to cut with an old bread knife. I tinkered quite a bit more with the technique and variants of the dough and came up with loaves with crunchy exteriors and no burned bottoms. The loaves were quite good but needed to be eaten within a day or two or they dried out. Fortunately, we have willing neighbors and coworkers.
Even though the loaves I made were good, I was dissatisfied with the amount of fussing about involved in creating what has become known as "artisan sourdough bread." Sourdough bread has been around for thousands of years, and people have managed quite well with simple techniques. I can't imagine my ancestors in this country going to such lengths as suggested in modern cookbooks and websites to make a loaf of bread. My ancestors had to milk the cows, till the fields, and do many other things in addition to making the bread. Kind of like we have to commute, work, care for kids/adults, do the laundry, etc...
Moreover, "artisan sourdough" is hard to eat. Literally. My husband noted that the bread is really good, but he fears for his crowns and other teeth. He asked if I couldn't make sourdough that's softer. "Yes," I said, "but what about the artisan crust?" He looked rather dumbfounded and replied, "but the crust is too hard on my teeth." He also noted that he cares far more about the bread's taste than appearance. My son, who has far younger teeth than my husband and I do, also commented that the bread is good but "kind of hard."
Okey dokey. Back to the drawing board and lots of baking. Finally, I think I'm approaching a sourdough bread recipe that's reasonably simple to do, doesn't tax my oven or potholders, and that tastes good, looks good, and has an exterior that's crunchy but won't involve a trip to the dentist. So what's the secret? There isn't one. You can bake the bread at a lower temperature and brush the top with a little oil or butter to get a softer crust. Nonetheless, the bread will bake up quite chewy--which many people like, me included. If you want a softer, less chewy textured bread, you'll need to add some fat to the flour, water, salt formula for sourdough. It works, and the world won't come to an end. I strongly suspect that's what happened when my great great grandmothers started making better, softer, tastier bread in previous centuries. I also believe they would have rolled their eyes at some of the onerousness techniques modern "artisan" bakers use. After all, my great grandmothers' objectives were to feed their families well, frugally, and with minimum fuss. Not a bad thing.
So, below is the soft sourdough bread recipe that works well for me. Feel free to serve the bread with cheese or butter and/or the jam of your choice. Also, if you need a starter, see my previous posting.
Soft, Simple Sourdough -- Makes 2 Loaves
4 cups of sourdough starter (yes, really!)
1 1/2 cups of white whole wheat flour
1/2 cup of canola oil
1/4 cup of dark brown sugar
In a very large bowl, combine the starter, white whole wheat flour, canola oil, and sugar, stirring them well with a wooden spoon. Cover the mixture with plastic wrap and let it sit at room temperature for about an hour. Then add/knead in gradually:
1 1/2 - 2 cups of white flour
2 - 2 1/2 teaspoons of salt
Knead the dough for 5-10 minutes, adding 2-3 teaspoons of water if the dough seems too dry, which it may on cold, non-humid days. I knead my dough in the bowl, because I don't like to clean off the counter, but do what you like. Coat two 8 1/2 x 4-inch loaf pans with non-stick cooking spray and divide the dough into two pieces. Shape each piece into a loaf and place each in one of the prepared pans. Coat the tops of the loaves with non-stick cooking spray (or oil) and cover the loaves loosely with plastic wrap. Let the dough rise for 2-4 hours (it depends on the temperature of your kitchen) until about doubled or until it's risen up over the top of the loaf pan just a little. When the dough looks almost ready, preheat the oven to 400 degrees. When ready to bake, remove the plastic wrap and put the loaves in the oven for 15 minutes. Reduce the temperature to 350 degrees and bake about 30 minutes longer or until golden brown and the internal temperature of the bread reaches 190-200 degrees (use a cooking thermometer). Let the loaves cool a few minutes before removing them from the pans, then cool them completely on a wire rack.