The alchemy of sourdough bread is a wonder. Flour and water joined, exposed to high heat, resulting in a food centuries old. I began making sourdough bread at least 15 years ago. I took a few classes and discovered Nancy Silverton’s Breads from the La Brea Bakery. The sourdough starter in La Brea begins with organic grapes. Silverton outlines a regimented feeding schedule for a 14-day period, at the end of which the starter is ready for use. I dove in.
Regular feedings are key to the proper development of the starter. This meant feeding the pancake batter-like mixture morning, noon and night, with a prescribed combination of flour and water. Before the morning feed, most of the mixture found its way down the drain. Beginning each day with a small amount of starter ensured natural yeast strength in a manageable quantity.
During this two-week period I was somewhat captive to my kitchen. I could leave home after the morning feed but needed to return at noon, and be home to feed in the evening. Baking begins when the starter is strong.
Bread making is not complicated but does require attention to the details of weight, volume, time and temperature. The healthy starter must continue feedings at least twice per day. The starter is ready for dough-formation 8 hours after the last feeding. Accuracy requires weighing or scaling the room-temperature flour, starter and water. These 3 ingredients mix for 5 minutes then rest for 10 to 20 minutes. Salt mixes in for another 5 minutes. Placed on a work surface, the dough is hand-kneaded; put into a lightly oiled bowl; covered with plastic wrap and left to sit for 3 to 4 hours.
A second kneading activates the yeasts before being formed into loaves. Sourdough needs moisture while rising. Placed into plastic bags to trap humidity, the loaves sit at room temperature for another hour, after which they go into the fridge for 8 to 24 hours. At least 3 hours before baking, the loaves leave the fridge. I remove the plastic and put a kitchen towel over the loaves.
Baking the bread is best with a hot oven, on a preheated baking stone. Score marks on unbaked loaves help release steam and aid in oven rise.
Steam in the oven gives the crust great texture. Using a spray bottle, spray a little water in the oven before the loaves enter, and 3 more times during the first 5 minutes of baking. Rotation of the loaves once during baking helps with even heating. Total baking time is 30 minutes.
As the bread cools, the smell is amazing. Hot bread does not slice easily. Allow the bread a few minutes, at least, to cool before eating.
The only real complication in making this bread is the timing. I have to feed the starter by a certain time in the morning to enable me to start the dough at a certain time in the afternoon to make sure that I go to bed at a reasonable time at night. I have to pull the loaves from the fridge at the right time to allow for baking before bedtime; I, as well as the others in my home, prefer to bake it before dinner.
Bread making: mixing, kneading, forming, baking is an ancestral and therapeutic endeavor. Eating this bread is quintessentially human.