Tuesday, April 3, 2012

The joy of baking sourdough bread and bagels

I've always wanted to work with sourdough but I was under the impression that you had to get your starter from someone older than God who lived in the back-woods of Virginia. I am happy to say that this is decidedly not true, and that creating a sourdough starter is a pretty easy thing, taking only a few minutes each day to maintain it. Once you have the starter (a seven day process outlined in my Examiner article), you can create loaves of bread and bagels rapidly. Considering my very first batch of bagels (which were somewhat misshapen and didn't puff up quite enough) was devoured within 12 hours of being finished... well, I think I've done quite well. And if I can do it, so can you!

Put one to two cups of starter in a jar in your fridge for future use, unless you plan on using your starter on a daily or close to daily basis. Cover with a lid but don't seal it. When you want to use it again, you take it out of the fridge the night before, and pour it into a clean jar. Add a cup of whole wheat flour and some water (between a quarter and a full cup, depending on your tastes) and mix it up well. Cover it with cheesecloth and set it on top of the fridge (or any other warm, draft-free place) overnight. In the morning check for bubbles and froth. If you have either or both, your yeast is active and you can continue on with the recipe below.


Sourdough Bread

  • 2-3 cups sourdough starter
  • 2 tsp sea salt
  • 1-1/2 cups COLD water
  • 4-8 cups of flour (whole wheat, rye, spelt, bread flour, etc.)

Pour the starter into a large clean glass bowl and sprinkle the salt on top. Pour in the water and stir until the salt dissolves. Stir in the flour 2 cups at a time. You may use a bit more or a bit less of the flour, depending on how liquid your starter is.

When it's ready, turn it out and get it to the kneadable stage. Knead for eight to ten minutes. You'll know it's ready when you can poke a finger into the dough and it pops right back out again (most of the way at least). Put the finished dough back into the bowl (don't have to oil or clean it like with artisan bread) and cover it with a cloth (floured is good). Let it rise until doubled in size; this can take anywhere from two to eight hours, because sourdough uses wild, untamed yeast instead of the steady, regulated yeast you purchase in jars and packets at the store. You can let it rise overnight. It will rise quicker in the summer than in the winter.

Knead the dough for another full five minutes. Using the dough cutter or a knife, slice the dough into three equal sections. Shape the dough into balls. Put the balls into NON-METAL containers, smaller is better. The dough rises and forms and bakes better if it is in a smaller container for some reason, but if you put TOO MUCH dough in it will be heavy.

I have been wondering if I could make regular loaves instead of rounds by taking two rounds and folding them into one and elongating it? If I do this, I'll try and remember to take pictures and share it!

Let the dough rise until almost doubled. Again, this can take from two to four hours. Bake in a 350F oven for an hour or until the bottom sounds hollow when you thump it. Let the bread cool for at least 30 minutes before cutting into it, as it's still cooking!

Sourdough Bagels

  • 2 cups sourdough starter
  • 1-1/4 cup water (if your starter is thick, use 1/4 cup more)
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • 5-1/2 to 6 cups of flour (I use half whole wheat and half all purpose most times)
  • 1 tablespoon salt
  • 1 tablespoon baking soda
  • milk or egg glaze (optional)
  • toppings of choice (optional: onions, poppy seeds, cheese, etc.)
Mix your starter, water, oil, and salt together, then slowly add the flour. When the flour reaches the stage of being too thick to stir, use your hands to knead it in the bowl until the minimum amount of flour is absorbed. If you want to add flavoring, this is the time to do it. Use your imagination, and add salt, or raisins and cinnamon, or poppy seeds, or oats. Make certain they are well mixed in, then let the dough rest for ten minutes.

Put the dough out on a lightly floured surface and knead it, or knead with a dough hook on low speed for about four minutes. This is a very stiff dough, so don't panic if it seems really hard to move around. 

Lightly oil (or spray) a large bowl (and yes, metal is okay here) and let it rise for at least four hours. You want it to double in size, but not TOO much. During the four hours, take it out and punch it down at least once, and better if it's twice. 

When the dough is fully risen, turn it onto a floured counter top and knead it a couple of times, then flatten it and cut it into 12 to 18 equal sized pieces.  Roll each piece into a ball and set aside. 

Shape your bagels by taking a ball and poking your thumb through the middle of it, making the traditional bagel hole. Then stretch and mold it with your hands until it's a decent size and shape. Place the shaped dough onto parchment paper or waxed paper that has been coated with no-stick spray. When all the bagels are resting, cover them with a damp towel and let them sit in a draft-free place for about an hour. They will rise a bit, but not tremendously.

Near the end of that rise time, fill a large skillet with a half to three quarters inch of water and bring it to a full boil. Add the tablespoon of baking soda (it will froth up a bit). Preheat your oven to 450F.

Drop in as many bagels as will fit comfortably into the boiling water. Use a spatula to gently make sure they don't stick to the bottom of the pan, and let them boil for one minute, then flip them and boil them for another minute. Take them out and put them onto a baking sheet. Continue until all the bagels are boiled and waiting to bake.

Brush the bagels with milk, or with an egg wash (scramble an egg and add a bit of water, mix well) and then add any toppings, if you want to. Bake them for 14 to 15 minutes. If necessary, move the bottom pan to the top rack and the top pan to the bottom rack about half way through the baking process. 

Cool on a rack for at least 10 minutes before eating. ENJOY!