With spurts of more and less intensity, I've been baking sourdough bread at home for about six years now. Last week, I made this.
I've never written it up here because I use a cookbook--Nancy Silverton's La Brea Bread Book. But my mom pointed out recently that "use" has become fairly loose for me. I open the book, or rather, I sort of tilt it around and it flops wide to exactly where I want, the binding splayed and half broken there, the pages splotted with grease marks and uneven from wet hands dribbling over them so many times. I need that recipe there as a reference point - the basic idea of how much starter, water, and flour somehow is so nicely lodged in those pages that I've found no need to also store it in my head. In fact, one of the things I love about sourdough bread is how little in my head any of it is. The feel of wet enough or dry enough under my palms, the look of flour peaks tumbling into water pools, the sense of life bubbling and bulging under plastic wrap on the countertop direct me to stop and start, add and knead, just that much just then; of course, it's just that much more or less than what Nancy Silverton suggests. All of my creativity in breadmaking is in relation to her anchor. But with her anchor solidly embedded in scientific explanations and fancy material, I can follow a whim, get delayed by poor planning or unexpected anythings, and use nothing but the most basic kitchen tools. I don't have a fancy mixer or a baking stone, and certainly nothing like a bread maker. The single greatest think I've figured out about sourdough bread is that I can shove the dough into the fridge at any stage at all for up to 2 days, and then just pull it out and pick up wherever I was, and I can do this three or four times with the same loaf. It's that forgiving. I've made bread where I forgot to add half of the water, where I added twice the salt, and where I left out the sugar alltogether, and it's still always not just edible but downright good. So this is my call for any and everyone to get a copy of the La Brea book, and start playing around.
Silverton explains how to make your own sourdough starter from scratch. You can do that. Or if you live in Somerville or nearby, ask and I can give you some of mine. That starter can last in the back of the fridge untouched for months. Like, six of them. At least. But if you want bread, you do have to take it out.
AWAKENING THE STARTER
So I start with a half cup of starter, because otherwise it takes up a lot of flour, and it really works well with that much. A day before I want to make bread, any time before noon basically, I put the half cup of starter and equal parts white flour, ideally bread flour but not necessarily and warm water into a big bowl, stir a little, and cover with saran wrap. Let it sit 4-6 hours, more or less. Add now 1 cup water and 1 cup flour, stir in, and let sit another 4-6 hours, very approximately. Then add 2 cups water and 2 cups flour, stir and cover, and let sit overnight, 8-12 hours.
STARTING THE BREAD
If you wake up and you don't really have time or energy to do anything else, make a bread that asks for a sponge, which is a little starter, a little flour, a little water, a little salt, a little sweeter and often a little dairy, that you stir together and set aside, usually on the counter for about 5 hours and then in the fridge for longer. No kneading yet. For this I use as my base Silverton's Sourdough Walnut Bread.
If you wake up and you're ready to go, go for a bread that gets kneaded right away, with the starter, some water, some flour, and some sweetener. For this I use as my base Silverton's Basic Country White.
For either bread, and you can really at this point use any sourdough bread recipe you like, the thing about the adding all the flour and water and kneading it is this: I start with about a cup less flour than is recommended, and I use whatever random combination of flours I feel like, I don't quite measure anything but the flour and water, and I start it. Kneading if it's too wet is a little messy, but in a sticky fun way, and it's really easy to add in more flour, just keep sprinkling a quarter cup at a time onto the counter and kneading into it. This kneading part is a great workout. It's a five minute intense burst, all biceps and triceps. Then, it sits. If you have time, there's this cool part where you leave it on the counter 20 minutes, knead it five minutes more, then move on. That's a great time to add in any nuts or seeds that you want to add in. You can skip that step if you don't have time.
TAKING A BREAK
Then you let it rise on the counter or in the fridge for a while. Basically, it's good to let it get a little counter time for starters 1-5 hours, and then throw it in the fridge for a minimum of whatever time is listed and a maximum of whatever fits your schedule.
QUICK LITTLE INTERVENTION, THEN BREAK AGAIN
The basic next step is to cut the dough in half, roll it gently into watever shape you'll cook it in, and "proof" it. You can just make a shape and put it on a tray, or you can make a shape and put it into a bowl that it'll kindof mold to - if you want pretty patterns on the top, use a bowl with pretty patterns. You can use wicker or rattan or something and flour it well and the dough won't stick. Then cover it and leave it on the counter 3-4 hours or in the fridge as long as you need. If you've put it in the fridge, pull it out and leave it on the coutner 3-4 hours before you bake it.
Then if it's in a bowl put it on a tray, heat the over to 500, then lower to 450 and bake for 45 minutes. For great crust, Silverton gives this formula: use a spray bottle and spray water into the over once when you put the loaves in and 3 more times in the first five minutes. Then leave it closed 20 minutes. At 20 minutes, I have to take it out, spin the loaves and switch the shelves of the two loaves because my oven is so uneven. Then bake another 20 minutes and voila.
Ok, this was a long post and bread making does all in all take a long time, but with such ability to pause and shorten or quicken it, it can fit into any schedule!