Baking for Bookworms: Making Sourdough from Sourdough by Robin Sloan

“I needed a more interesting life.

I could start by learning something.

I could start with the starter.”

― Robin Sloan, Sourdough

Sourdough bread has become something of a fad these days, so much so that there have been flour shortages as everyone else has discovered the benefits of baking on the soul, if not the waistline. I’m not going to lie to you, what I’m about to share with you is a process. But it’s also rewarding, and the end result is worth the effort. When you buy sourdough bread from the store, it’s often a little dry, but when you make it yourself it’s chewy and stays fresh so much longer.

I jumped on the sourdough bandwagon a little late. In fact, I decided to create my own starter after reading Sourdough by Robin Sloan.

Sourdough is central to understanding this book. I mean, it’s the title. But it’s also very much alive in the book, and not just with microorganisms. It acts and has agency, which is a product of the book’s magical realism, and this agency lets an inexperienced baker create some of the best bread she’s ever had. The bread is so alive that when it’s baked where normally you would see the bread’s marks, she sees faces in the bread instead.

The book’s protagonist is an electrical engineer in San Francisco who is getting burnt out. Her stress translates to her stomach and everything she eats is upsetting her system until she finds a little takeout place that makes a spicy soup and sourdough bread combo. The relationship she develops with the brothers that run this underground restaurant leads to a gift of the starter, which she uses to transform her life.

“Baking, by contrast, was solving the same problem over and over again, because every time, the solution was consumed. I mean, really: chewed and digested. Thus, the problem was ongoing. Thus, the problem was perhaps the point.”

― Robin Sloan, Sourdough

Making bread becomes a therapeutic process for her and allows her to find more fulfillment by repeating and refining processes. This book definitely emphasizes craftsmanship, but it doesn’t totally reject technology either, which I found really refreshing. There is a call for reason and moderation, and there are consequences when this idea is violated. And this moderation must be constantly managed because the starter wants to eat; it’s hungry and wants more. Entire civilizations are living and dying within the flour and water mixture. The book explores this way of viewing cultures as a drama taking place on an extremely different scale.

Sourdough also provides a connection to San Francisco, a city that is known for its bread. Thus the newly arrived protagonist is able to connect with the new city she lives in and with herself through the medium of baking bread.

“I have come to believe that food is history of the deepest kind. Everything we eat tells a tale of ingenuity and creation, domination and injustice-and does so more vividly than any other artifact, any other medium.”

― Robin Sloan, Sourdough

So how do you achieve a magical, life-sustaining, delicious loaf of sourdough bread? It’s as simple as mixing flour and water. And waiting. And feeding. And waiting. And feeding. And waiting…

This is the guide I used to make my starter, but there are many more on YouTube.

I’m not going to walk through the entire process of making a starter when Joshua Weissman can do it for me, but it’s super simple. You just need flour (I’ve used all purpose, bread flour, and rye flour. You can use whatever you prefer, but unbleached bread flour will work just fine) along with tepid water (85 degrees F), a glass jar, a scale, and some sort of mixing implement. You can also buy a starter online and have it shipped to you, then you only need to maintain it.

Sourdough is comprised of:

“yeast, which is a fungus, and lactobacillus, a bacteria. They eat flour—its sugars—and poop out acid—thus, sour—”
― Robin Sloan, Sourdough

The yeasts that are in your starter come mostly from the flour you use, which is why so many people use rye flour to make starters because they have a lot of natural yeasts in the flour. This is not essential though. I didn’t use rye flour in my starter until it was already quite active. It does like high quality flours more though… but don’t worry. You’ll get good results with unbleached bread flour of any brand or variety.

Once you have your starter going, you might wonder, what can you do with the starter you have to discard every day while feeding it?

These are my three favorite recipes:

Honestly, there are so many things you can do with sourdough besides make sourdough bread… it is astounding.

But say you actually want to make bread with your starter. That’s perfect. That’s what we’re here for. Here’s how to do it. You know that scale that you purchased for your starter? That’s going to be really helpful here. You may also want to learn about other things like DDT (desired dough temperature), but that’s optional. Also, I won’t lie to you, you’ll get decent results if you bake on a baking steel/stone, but the best sourdough bread at home is going to come from a Dutch oven which helps trap steam and delivers that delicious crust…

This recipe is from Thomas Charles Mathiassen’s Skillshare course on Sourdough bread.

Note: This is not exactly the same recipe as I’m using, but the process is super similar, and I think the visual really helps.

Ingredients for two small loaves

  • 200 g starter (also, you should name your starter! Mine is named Bernadette)
  • 400 ml water
  • 600 g bread flour (unbleached!)
  • 12 g salt

Step 1: Autolyse. Mix the starter with the room temperature water. Add flour and mix with your hand until combined. Let rest covered with a clean tea towel for 45 min.

Step 2: Bulk Fermentation. Add salt and mix thoroughly. Clean the sides of the bowl with a spatula and cover with a towel for 30-45 min.

Step 3: Lift and fold. Since we’re not kneading the bread, this is what helps develop the gluten structures in the bread. Lift and fold, firmly but without ripping the bread, lifting the dough towards the center. Turn and do about 8 folds. Cover and rest 30 min. Do this whole process 3 more times.

Step 4: Preshape. Using a dough scraper or your hand turn the dough onto a lightly floured counter. This recipe makes two small loaves, so divide into two. Now pull and turn the dough so that it folds under itself and creates a bubble shape (see video). You’re trying to create tension in the bread. Cover loaves with a towel and let rest 30 min.

Step 5: Shape. Turn the dough balls over. Lift the corners towards each other top to bottom, side to side, and then diagonal to diagonal. Lift into prepared banneton if you have one or use glass bowls lined with tea towels (this is what I use). Sprinkle flour into your chosen mold. Then plop the dough in (so that the folded side is face up). Now cover with a towel and put in the fridge for 6-12 hours.

Step 6: Bake! Preheat the oven to 475 F with the baking vessel in the oven. I use a deep cast iron skillet with a lid, but a Dutch oven is perfect or you can use a loaf pan. Carefully! Transfer your bread to the preheated vessel and score with a lame (basically a razor blade) or a very sharp paring knife. I pretty much tried every knife we own to find one that cut deep enough (the deeper into the dough you can cut the better!). Bake with the lid on 25 min and then take the lid of and bake an additional 10-15 min. And voila! Sourdough. Now take it out. Let it cool all the way and then cut it up and slather it with butter or jam because after nearly 18 hours of work, you’ve earned it.

The finished product.

Do you have your own starter? Have favorite recipes, techniques, or tools? Let me know in the comments!

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