Sourdough Success


Sourdough bread has always been my nemesis. I never could quite get it right. But, it pays to persevere. I finally succeeded in making a strong sourdough starter and have used it so far to make whole wheat bread and the above potato rosemary bread.

The impetus for my sourdough experiment was Michael Pollan’s Cooked. In this book, Pollan discusses the dietary importance of fermented foods (and you can read some of his thoughts on this in this NPR interview). Pollan makes some very compelling arguments for eating sourdough bread, and conveniently includes a recipe for sourdough starter and whole wheat sourdough bread at the back of the book.

Basically, to make the sourdough starter, you mix equal weights of flour and water (50 g. white flour, 50 g. whole wheat flour and 100 g. water) and then set the resulting batter aside to ferment. If all goes well, the batter will get foamy as wild yeast take over. You can help this process along by giving the batter a good stir a few times a day.

It can take as much as a week for the wild yeast to take over, but my batter starting foaming nicely after 24 hours. At this point, you need to replenish the food supply of the starter and build its strength. You discard 80 percent of the sourdough starter and add 100 g. flour and 100 g. water to the remaining amount (about 40 g. starter). Give the mixture a good stir a few times a day. Repeat the process of discarding 80 percent and adding in 100 g. flour and 100 g. water after 12-24 hours. The recipe stated to wait 24 hours between feedings, but my stater was foaming up so quickly, that I felt it would be better to have twice daily feedings. After about a week of this procedure, I had a very lively sourdough starter with a nice, but not overpowering sourness.

I used the sourdough starter to make the whole wheat sourdough in Pollan’s book and also to make a recipe which I found in a book by Dan Lepard for potato rosemary bread. The bread recipe in Lepard’s book originally came from Erez Komarovsky, who has a bakery chain in Israel. Instead of calling for a regular sourdough, Komarovsky’s recipe calls for Biga Acida, a three (or four) day preferment which uses orange juice and a bit of honey along with the flour and water.

A bit background on the people behind the bread recipe. Dan Lepard’s book, Baking with Passion, was about the recipes from the iconic Baker & Spice in London. Founded by Gail Stephens in 1995, it was the prototype for Ottolenghi in its modern Israeli food sensibility.  Stephens (also known now as Yael Mejia), was born in London, but raised in Israel. After returning to London and spending years in the food distribution business, Stephens decided to open a bakery. She hired Dan Lepard as baker/consultant and Sammi Tamini as chef. Yotam Ottolenghi eventually became head pastry chef at Baker& Spice. Later, of course, Ottolenghi and Tamimi partnered in creating Ottolenghi.

Now Ottolenghi and Lepard are famous with published books to their name and regular newspaper columns in the Guardian (Ottolenghi’s column; Dan’s). Gail or rather Yael Mejia now is the force behind a Baker & Spice in Dubai.

Erez Komarovsky, the baker behind the original bread recipe, is credited with revolutionizing the bakery business in Israel in the nineties with his chain of artisan bread bakeries. It is unclear how Stephens got the recipe from him, but he was very influential in the Israeli baking scene at the time Baker & Spice was created, and the Israeli baking scene is the inspiration behind both Baker & Spice and Ottolenghi (see this interesting article on the topic of Israel comes to London).

Now, you may be wondering: all very interesting, but how did the bread taste? The bread was fantastic, with a crisp/chewy crust and a just-sour enough flavor to the interior. Unfortunately, I have no photos of the crumb, but it quite nice looking: light texture, with some large holes. The potato and garlic flavor didn’t come through very strongly, although you could smell the potato and garlic when the bread came out of the oven. Definitely worth repeating.

Potato and Rosemary Bread
Adapted from Dan Lepard (Baking with Passion), who in turn adapted the recipe from Baker & Spice owner Gail (Yael) Stephens who got it from Erez Komarovsky’s bakery Lehem Erez. Makes 1 loaf.

Combine everything in a mixing bowl.:
8 oz biga acida, room temperature (I used 8 ounces of sourdough starter, which was 4 ounces water, 4 ounces flour)
½ cup water (4 ounces)
2 cups white bread flour (10 ounces)–I used all purpose flour and it worked perfectly
2/3 cup baked potato cut up, about half a medium potato (3.5 ounces)
2 T olive oil (1 ounce)
1 T rosemary (I left this out, just garnishing the finished loaf with a sprig of rosemary, which added subtle flavor)
1 T nigella seeds (these have a onion/garlic taste, but I didn’t have any, so I used 4 cloves of roasted garlic, chopped fine)

Using the dough hook for the mixer, mix everything on the mixer’s slowest speed for four minutes. Increase the speed to medium and beat an additional 5 minutes.The batter will get wet and sticky as it incorporates the moisture from the potato. Press on! Adding the salt will help firm up the dough.

Add salt to the dough and beat the dough for another 2 minutes:
1 T salt

At this point the dough should be easier to handle instead of being impossibly sticky. Put the dough in a greased bowl. Using greased hands, tuck the edges of the ball of dough under, the way you tuck bedsheets under a mattress. Do this all around the edges of the ball of dough five or six times. Cover the dough and let it rise for an hour.

Repeat the tucking process, and let the dough rise another hour. Then give the dough a final tucking and rising for another hour.

Shape the dough into a round ball. Place the dough ball in a basket lined with a towel dusted with semolina (I used a plastic bowl lined with a towel rubbed well with very finely ground corn meal, also known as corn flour). Let the dough rise for four hours (I let the dough rise in the fridge overnight and then let it rise at room temperature for 2-3 hours).

Put a baking stone or heavy baking sheet in the oven and preheat the oven to 500 degrees. Spray oven with water (instead of spraying the oven with water, I covered the dough with an overturned deep roasting pan to trap the moisture from the bread as it baked and then removed the pan after the first twenty-five minutes of baking–you could also bake the bread in a covered Dutch oven or covered roasting pan and remove the cover after 25 minutes of baking).

Put the dough into the oven in and reduce the temperature after five minutes to 400 degrees. Bake for additional 45-55 minutes.

Brush  the finished loaf with olive oil, if desired (I skipped this).

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4 Responses to “Sourdough Success”

  1. Leora Says:

    Yum. I’m glad you got it to work.

    I’ve made it twice, but I stopped because my bread loving child didn’t like it. Too sour for him? Maybe I should make him some yeast bread today.

    • pragmaticattic Says:

      Yes! My daughter also complained! She told me this morning that she wants to make sure that I make non-sourdough challah because “challah is supposed to be sweet and not sour.” Oh well, everyone else loved it.

      I think there is a way to make the starter less sour (more frequent feedings or something) but just as potent for rising the bread. Maybe I should figure that out.


  2. Shoshana Says:

    That is a beautiful loaf of bread! I made a starter back in college and it is sure is fun to play with. Now I want to make another one! We added everything to it to make all kinds of breads (like salsa cheddar bread) that were a bit less strong on the sourdough flavor so your daughter might like that better.

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