I am on a quest to learn how to bake properly, specifically, to learn how to make bread. So when my husband told me that there was a beginners sourdough class going on through my local community education program, I signed up. I took a Chinese cooking class through this program last year and I loved it. This sourdough class was right up my alley. I was really excited to have someone answer my questions and show me the ropes of making sourdough bread.
I arrived a few minutes late with my prescribed materials – a large mixing bowl, wooden spoon and two containers for taking home some of the sponge. The class was small, only a dozen people, and we were all at different skill levels. Our teacher, Laury Nichols, was charming, energetic and quite funny and she started us out with the very the basics. She chatted as she raced around the kitchen classroom getting all the ovens heated up and ingredients ready. Laury’s goal was to teach us how to bake without a recipe. She showed us a huge array of cookbooks, all illustrating slight variations of the same recipes. And her words struck me like a lightening bolt: “Making bread is an ancient practice. Illiterate people have been baking for centuries without the benefit of a written recipe. If they can make bread, so can you”. Laury was playing my song I was ready to sing and dance.
Laury explained that any bread made from a sponge is considered sourdough bread and that it doesn’t always have that sour flavor we associate with classic sourdough. She discussed how bread was made before the invention of instant yeast. I didn’t realize it, but yeast is everywhere. It occurs naturally and lives on all manner of plants, fruit and vegetation. Yeast is actually in the air around us! In ancient times, flour was mixed with water and whatever naturally occuring yeast was around would find this mixture, land in it, eat it and create it’s gassy bi-products, which would cause the mixture to froth and bubble. That is how bread, beer and wine were made for centures. In fact, when you see wine grapes with a white dust on their skins, that is naturally occuring yeast. In the 1800’s, some crafty German developed a manufacturing technique that created dried, granulated yeast and thanks to his ingenuity, we have a much improved route to starting our own sponge.
Laury showed us what a wheat grain looks like and explained the different parts, such as the bran and the germ. She showed us different kinds of grain that are also used to make flour, like rye and barley. Each grain produces very different flour that yields very different textures and flavors in the bread. Laury also brought an assortmant of bread she’d made, some with dried fruit mixed in, some covered with sesame seeds and some marbled with dough that had been mixed with molasses. We tasted this variety of breads as she talked.
After our extensive lesson, we were ready to get our hands dirty. We started with the sponge, which is just flour, water and yeast allowed to sit in a warm place and become active. Laury had two bins of sponge, one made with white bread flour and one made with whatever remnants she’s scraped into the bowl. She’d had one bin of sponge for months and every time she made bread, she’d add more flour and water to the sponge to give the yeast something to eat. She referred to this as “feeding the sponge” and I imagined bakers in ancient times with a bowl of sponge in their homes that they dipped into each day to make fresh bread for their families. Laury spooned gooey blobs of sponge into our bowls. We added a little warm water to the sponge and then started mixing in handfulls of flour until it was the consistency of pudding. Laury instructed us to turn our dough out onto our plastic trays that she had dusted with flour. As we began working our dough, we added more flour and when the dough was firm enough, we started kneading. She walked around from table to table and sprinkled salt on our dough as we worked it. Everyone had their own technique for kneading, but the idea is to elongate the dough, creating stretchy strands of gluten that give your bread a chewy texture. When pizza makers throw their dough into the air, that is a form of kneading. When we were done kneading, we cut pieces of dough off and formed a couple of small doughballs. One was patted down into a disc and set aside to rise for its final destination as an english muffin. The other was turned into a small pizza crust, topped immediately and placed in a 400 degree oven.
We shaped our final pieces of dough however we wanted to and set them all aside to rise while Laury finished her lesson. We asked many questions and Laury was gracious and adept at answering everything. I learned that yeast likes a warm environment, about 75-80 degrees, and when its exposed to cooler temperatures, it goes dormant. I learned that the sponge becomes a starter when flour is added and the mixture is allowed to sit refridgerated for many hours, sometimes overnight. I learned that a piece of dough can sit in the fridge for a very long time before it goes bad. The way to tell when a starter has gone bad is to look for green or pink streaks. If there is liquid sitting on top of the dough, that is simply waste from the fermentation process and can be poured off and the dough is fine. When our mini pizzas were done, we munched as Laury talked. Then Laury took us over to an electric skillet that she’s sprikled with cornmeal. The english muffins were placed in the skillet and when they were browned on one side, Laury flipped them over and cooked the other side. Finally, we put our loaves in the oven and baked them while we cleaned up. Everyone went home with two containers of sponge.
When I got home, I fed my sponge a little flour and water and set it on the counter. But the weather turned rainy and chilly and after a couple of days, my sponge looked runny and sad. My yeast was inactive. At the end of the week, I wanted to experiment with sourdough bread, but I needed to wake that yeast up. So, on Friday evening, I added a little more flour and water to the sponge and broke out my heating pad. I turned it on high, covered it with a towel and set my tub of starter on it. A few hours later, my yeast was starting to wake up. I turned off the heating pad before I went to bed and turned it back on the next morning. By midday, my yeast was bubbling. So, I decided to give it a shot and I made my first loaf of bread without using a recipe. I let it rise for about an hour before I baked it. But the final product was less than desirable. It had the texture of playdough and it was kind of rubbery and tasteless. I also realized that I’d forgotten to add a little salt to the dough before I baked it. I was not happy but I knew what went wrong. I didn’t give my dough enough time to rise and it wasn’t in a warm enough place. So the next day, I started over. I ladled a cup of the sponge into my mixing bowl and covered it with three cups of flour and 2/3 of a cup of warm water. I also added just a touch of sugar and a pinch of salt for flavor. These were not exact measurements, I just used the measuring cup as a scoop. I used my Kitchen Aid to knead the dough for about 15 minutes. It was a sticky dough, but it felt plaible and bouncy and smooth, like some of my past bread dough. It felt right, so I used my own intuition and moved forward. I turned my oven on very low – 170 degrees – and set the dough in an oiled bowl. I covered it with plastic wrap and set it near the oven vent to rise. I gave it three hours to rise and when I came back from running errands, it had tripled in size. Eureka! I’d made bread without a recipe. I formed into two loaves, gave it another 30 minute rise, then painted the top with egg wash, sprinked it with a mixture of seeds, slashed the top and cranked the oven up to 500 degrees. Thirty minutes later, I had two fabulous loaves of bread with that slightly sour flavor that you expect to find in a sourdough loaf. This was a giant leap forward. When I was done with my baking, I fed my sponge and set it on the counter with the knowledge that I will use it to make many more loaves of delicious sourdough bread. I have become a baker!