How to bake sourdough bread (and save a buck on every loaf)
I doubt if the cost of yeast is really breaking your household budget. If you bake a lot you probably already buy yeast in bulk, so you're not paying the per-packet price anyway. And yet, baking sourdough bread (or rolls or pizza crust) is just so cool. My wife and I haven't bought yeast for years, but we bake bread all the time. And that's what this post is about--baking sourdough bread.
Carrie wrote a great post on getting your sourdough starter going, so I'll mostly skip that step. You can catch wild yeasts in your kitchen, spend a few dollars on a packet of fancy "San Francisco" sourdough starter, or just use your last packet of store-bought yeast to kick off your starter. It doesn't matter.
I'm going to use that phrase a lot: It doesn't matter. By that I don't mean that the bread will come out the same no matter what you do. What I mean is that it will be bread no matter what you do. In fact, that's the theme of this whole post: Making bread is easy. It's possible to screw it up, but most people succeed on their first try. My wife and I have been baking bread at least once a week for years and we haven't had a failure yet.
So, assuming you have a jar of starter--even if it's just a couple cups of water, a couple cups of flour, and a packet of store-bought yeast--here's what you do. When you're done, you'll have a fresh-baked loaf of bread. You'll also once again have a jar of starter--which is why you'll never have to buy yeast again.
Whichever technique you use to create your starter, remember that it's a living thing. We think of ours as a pet. (We named her Bubbles.)
Feed your starter
Step one is to feed the starter. You have to do this every week or so whether you're going to bake anything or not, so you might as well bake something.
Feeding your starter just means putting it in a big bowl and adding some water and some flour so that the yeast have something to eat. After a week, even in the refrigerator where yeast grows pretty slowly, the yeast will have eaten pretty much all the sugar in the flour, so you have to give it some fresh flour if you want it to live.
So, how much water and flour do you need to add? It doesn't matter. What I usually do is add as much water as I want for whatever I'm baking. If I'm baking a full-size loaf of bread, that's usually two cups of water, for pizza dough, one cup. (Lately I've been using a bit less for bread, because I had a couple of loaves rise so much they didn't fit in our bread box.) I add about as much flour as I added water.
The books say to add all-purpose flour, because whole-wheat flour has oils that can go rancid.
Let your starter feast on that fresh flour for a while. How long? It doesn't matter. The yeast will start growing right away, so in as little as 20 minutes you'll have doubled the amount of yeast. You could go on to the next step as early as that, if you're in a big hurry. You could leave it over night, if you wanted to bake bread first thing the next morning. I usually feed Bubbles right after breakfast and then go on to the next step right after lunch.
The books on these things always emphasize that you should keep your starter in a glass jar, as the alcohol and acid produced can leach things you don't want to eat out of metal or plastic containers. For the same reason, they often say to use a wooden spoon rather than a metal one.
The starter won't grow very fast while it's cold, so it's good if the water you add is warm. Just make sure it isn't so hot as to kill the yeast. (The books say 110° F. I just go with "warm" and haven't killed Bubbles yet.) You can add cold water and it'll still work, it'll just take a little longer.
Save your starter
This is the only other step that's different from making bread with store-bought yeast. Once your yeast has had a chance to feed for a bit, pour some back into the jar where you keep your starter. How much? It doesn't matter. I always pour back 2 cups so that we always have the same amount. One cup would be enough. You could pour back variable amounts if you wanted.
Put something over the jar with your starter, but don't close it up too tightly. The covering is to keep dust out, keep the starter from drying out, and keep it from exchanging smells and flavors with everything else in your fridge. Since it's alive, though, it'll produce carbon dioxide, and if you have a tight lid the pressure can build up enough to break the jar.
Put your starter in the fridge. You can leave it for a week or two. If you're going to go be away from it longer than that, you can freeze it. It may not be as lively as usual the first time or two you use it after that, but it'll usually survive.
With the part of the starter that you didn't put back in the fridge, make bread dough. Making bread dough, of course, is easy--just add flour until it's dough and knead it for a while.
What flour? It doesn't matter. Whatever you like. All-purpose flour will make fine bread. I like bread made with whole wheat flour better, so I almost always use mostly whole wheat flour. I like the way the bread comes out if I use some bread flour, though, so I usually do. You can also put in moderate amounts of all kinds of exotic flours, if you want. We got a big bag of rye flour for 99¢, so I've been putting some of that in every loaf just lately. I often put in a third of a cup of rolled oats or of corn meal, just to add a bit of complexity to the bread. I don't think I've ever added brown rice flour to the bread, but I bet it would be good. I almost always add a couple tablespoons of flax seed meal for the fiber and the omega-3 fatty acids.
There's a lot of other things you can add. You can put in some oil or butter, if you want. I usually don't, because the bread is just as yummy and lower in fat without it. You can put in some sugar, if you want. That can speed up the rising a bit, by giving the yeast some simple sugars to eat. If you put in a lot, it can also make the bread a little sweet, if you like that. I've been known to add sugar in many different forms--white sugar, brown sugar, honey, molasses. Just lately we've been adding corn syrup. (We've had this bottle for years, because our previous cat had diabetes and our vet suggested we keep it on hand in case of insulin shock. Rather than throw it out, we're putting a tablespoon or so in loaves of bread here and there.)
We don't put salt in our bread, because we like it better without, but lots of people do. (If you make your bread in a bread machine, don't skip the salt. Salt retards the growth of the yeast; if you skip it, the timing in the bread machine will lead to the bread rising too quickly and then partially collapsing. If you're baking it yourself, you can just go by how the bread looks and it'll be fine.)
Add whatever flour and other ingredients you want. Once it's not too sticky, start kneading. Add flour as necessary until you get dough. That's really all there is to this step.
Let the dough rise
I usually do two risings. I form the dough into a ball, put it back in the same bowl I used to mix it, and then cover it with a piece of plastic wrap. (The tradition is to cover it with a damp cloth. It doesn't matter. The covering is just to keep dust out of the dough and to keep it from drying out.)
The traditional rule of thumb is to let the bread "double in bulk" at each rising. I usually do a short first rising--just 20 or 40 minutes--and then form the loaf and let it rise again in the loaf pan. You can also just do one rising, forming a loaf and letting it rise in the loaf pan right from the start. You get bread either way.
How you do the rising makes a difference in the texture of the bread--whether it has lots of little holes or fewer, larger holes. If your starter is a San Francisco-style culture, doing a long first rising and then a long second rising may give you bread that's more sour than you get from just one rising.
One thing about sourdough is that there's likely to be a lot of variability at this stage. Depending on a lot of different things--how long it's been since the last time you fed starter, how long you fed it this time, how much sugar you put in the dough, how moist the dough is, how much you kneaded it, and no doubt lots of other things--the bread can double in bulk in anywhere from 20 minutes to 3 or 4 hours. (This is probably the reason that people ever even invented yeast packets.)
Forming the loaf? Just knead the dough into an oblong blob that'll fit in your loaf pan. You probably want to grease the pan so the bread will come out easily. Drop the blob in the pan and let it rise.
Bake the bread
Once the bread has risen enough, turn on the oven and bake it. I bake mine at 350° F, but I'm sure you could bake it at other temperatures.
I do a couple of things to save energy, and because I like the way the bread turns out. One is to just put the dough into a cold oven and then turn the oven on. Unlike with cakes and pies, there's no need to preheat the oven. Another thing I do is to turn the oven off about 15 minutes before the bread is ready to come out--it stays hot long enough to finish the bread.
You're supposed to be able to tell of the bread is done by thumping on the bottom of the loaf and listening to the sound, so I always do that. My bread is always done, though, so I've never heard what it sounds like if it isn't done.
The bread will slice better if you let it cool some before you cut it. But who can wait that long? We always cut a couple of slices right away and perform quality control. Fortunately, it's always of high quality.
Besides just eating it yourself, you can also give bread away to friends and relations. It's always appreciated as a gift by people who imagine that it's a lot of work to bake bread. In fact, though, it isn't. The only real issue is wall-clock time. It probably only takes about half an hour of actual work to bake a loaf, but that half hour is spread over at least half a day. If you have to spend all day at work, it would require some pretty fancy scheduling to be able to be there for each step along the way. So I can see why some people buy store-bought bread.
If you can bake your own bread, though, there's only one reason not to make it sourdough bread--if you bake so rarely that your starter would die between loaves.
As I say, we haven't bought yeast in years, so baking sourdough bread does save us a bit of money--but that's not why we do it. We do it because it's fun, because we enjoy kneading the dough, because fresh bread is better whether it's sourdough or not, because we can make the bread exactly the way we like it, because we can make it different every time, because we can use premium ingredients--and still make it cheaper than store-bought bread. But mostly because it's fun.