by Dennis Weaver
When we moved from Minnesota to Idaho to start our business, our first focus was bread mixes. It wasn't just a business decision; it was a passion. We worked with bread and bread mixes for more than a year. Only then did we start the business.
I suppose the people in our new neighborhood thought we were strange. This family moves into a quiet, rural neighborhood from some place "back East.” No one seems to have a job. Apparently they spend most of their time baking.
Often, by the end of the day, we had a pile of freshly baked loaves. We would load them in the car and go through the neighborhood giving them away. Often they were crusty breads, sourdoughs, and artisan loaves. The neighbors may have thought we were strange but they answered their doorbells.
The love of bread is still evident in our business. We have over 100 bread mixes and a line of Bread Helpers©. You'll still see our love for crusty breads—like crusty French bread and sourdough breads. You'll still find our fondness for richly flavored breads with European ryes, cheesy breads, and salsa breads. And we're still developing new breads: next up is a crusty Italian bread mix and a garlic mashed potato bread.
That first winter in Idaho, we developed what is still my favorite sourdough bread recipe. It's a hard, round loaf with a deep, yeasty sourdough flavor. The inside is soft and airy but the crust is crackly and chewy. I made it dozens of times that winter.
"How do you get a crust like that? How do you get that flavor?”
There are three secrets to this bread. Yes, it's more work than throwing ingredients in your stand-type mixer but this bread will make you a celebrity.
The crust. I remember dining with a friend in a fine Italian restaurant in Minneapolis. Their crusty bread was outstanding.
"How do they make that crust,” my friend asked.
It's steam. Commercial ovens have steam injectors. They bake the bread in a hot oven with plenty of steam injected into the oven in the early part of the baking. You can mimic that process at home with a mister and a pan of hot water in the bottom of the oven. The recipe will tell you how. But be very careful; steam burns.
The sourdough. When you buy yeast in the store, you are buying thousands of tiny yeast spores aggregated together into little grains using dextrin or another additive. But the air is alive with invisible yeast spores. When they land in your culture of flour and water and if the temperature, moisture, and pH are right, they begin to grow. The gas they give off leavens your bread. The alcohol they give off provides a yeasty flavor. Wild yeast tends to give a sharper flavor than domestic yeast.
Yeast is easy to grow but sometimes tricky to start. In this recipe, we start the culture with a pinch of yeast and then let the wild yeast take over.
The flavor. The yeast in your dough is alive and growing. Realizing that and the conditions in which yeast thrives is essential to understanding bread baking. It takes a warm, wet dough—yeast thrives at about 80 degrees, stops growing at about 45 degrees, and starts to die at 130 degrees. That's why temperature is critical.
Yeast likes a slightly acidic environment. That's why your grandmother's recipe may have called for a tablespoon of lemon juice. A good dough conditioner, among other things, will provide a slightly acidic environment.
As the yeast grows, it produces carbon dioxide gas and alcohol. The gas provides leavening to raise the bread and create air pockets. The alcohol provides the flavor. At lower temperatures, the yeast creates less gas but more alcohol—enough to make dynamic changes in your bread. That's where all the rich yeasty flavors in this recipe come from—thousands of yeast cells struggling at low temperatures creating lots of alcohol but little gas.
That first winter, my garage always seemed about 40 degrees and I nearly always had bread dough in the garage. I could adjust the temperature that I wanted to use by placing the dough on shelves either up high or down close to the floor or moving the dough closer to the front or the back of the garage. It seemed that the best bread came after the dough was refrigerated in the garage for three to five days. At that point, the bread was full of alcohol. Of course, the alcohol is destroyed in baking.
Commercial bakers do the same thing with a retarder—basically a refrigerator box with a timer and temperature control—which is used to "retard” the growth of the yeast. If you don't want to use your garage, use your refrigerator.
Sourdough simply uses wild yeast in place of commercial yeast to leaven the bread. It relies on the wild yeasts that are in the air all around us and cultures those yeasts in a warm, wet environment created with water, flour, and sometimes other components.
When creating a sourdough starter, we always felt like we were on an expedition trying to trap invisible yeastie beasties with our flour and water concoctions. Because we couldn't see the beasties, we were never sure what we had captured. While usually successful, we never felt like we were in control. Maybe that is the way sourdough bread should feel, a symbiosis with nature.
But there is an easier way: use commercial yeast in the starter. I know, that's heresy to the sourdough bread zealot but we only care about the bread. Using commercial yeast is easier, it's the alcohol from the long cool fermentation that creates the sourdough-like flavor, and the wild yeasts will eventually take over the starter anyway. Because it's easy, it's no big deal if you abandon your starter after a few weeks; you can readily start another when you're back in the mood or have the time.
In this recipe for sourdough bread, a small amount of yeast is used in the starter. As the starter is used and refreshed with new feedings of flour and water, wild yeasts are introduced and cultivated.
For the starter
1 cup warm water (about 110 degrees)
1/4 teaspoon yeast
1 cup high gluten unbleached flour
For the sponge
1 cup of the starter
3/4 cup warm water
2 cups flour
A sponge is a pre-ferment, a wet mixture of flour and yeast that acts as an incubation chamber to grow yeast at the desired rate. It is added to the dough.
For the dough
All of the sponge
1 1/2 cups flour (more or less)
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
2 teaspoons Professional Dough Conditioner
Bakers note: Notice that the salt is not added until the last stage. Salt in the sponge would inhibit yeast growth.
Bakers note: You want a light dusting of flour on the cloth to be transferred to the bread, not a heavy caking. Softly sifting flour from a strainer or with a flour shaker is the easiest way to achieve an even coating. You can find both a small strainer and a flour shaker in our kitchen tool section.
If you choose to bake the bread in pans, omit this step. Instead, let the dough rise in a greased bowl covered with plastic until doubled. Form the loaves for pans, place the loaves in greased pans, and let rise until well-expanded and puffy. Bake at 350 degrees until done (about 30 minutes).
To bake crusty bread
To form the thick, chewy crust that is typical of artisan breads, follow these instructions: Place a large, shallow, metal pan in the oven on the lowest shelf. You will pour hot water in this pan to create steam in the oven. (High heat is hard on pans so don't use one of your better pans and don't use a glass or ceramic pan which might shatter.) An old sheet pan is ideal. Fill a spray bottle with water. You will use this to spray water into the oven to create even more steam.
Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. When the oven is hot and the bread is fully risen and is soft and puffy--being very careful not to burn yourself with the rising steam and with a mitted hand—turn your head away and pour two or three cups of very hot water in the pan in the oven. Quickly close the oven door to capture the steam. With spray bottle in hand, open the door and quickly spray the oven walls to create more steam and close the door. The oven is now ready for the loaves.
Work quickly to get the bread in the oven before the steam subsides. Gently invert the loaf or loaves onto a slightly greased non-insulated baking sheet on which a little cornmeal has been dusted. With your sharpest knife, quickly make two or three slashes 1/4-inch deep across the top of each loaf. This will vent the steam in the bread and allow the bread to expand properly. Immediately, put the bread in the steamy oven. After a few moments, open the door and spray the walls again to recharge the steam. Do this twice more during the first fifteen minutes of baking. This steamy environment will create the chewy crust prized in artisan breads.
Let the bread bake at 425 degrees for fifteen minutes in the hot steamy oven then reduce the temperature to 375 degrees and bake for a total of 35 to 40 minutes. Check on the bread ten minutes before the baking should be complete. If the top is browning too quickly, tent the loaf with aluminum foil for the remainder of the baking to keep it from burning. The bread is done when the crust turns a dark golden brown and the internal temperature reaches 210 degrees. It is important that the bread is well-baked to drive moisture from the loaf. If the bread is under baked, the excess moisture will migrate to the crust and you will no longer have the dry chewy crust of a great artisan loaf.
This sourdough bread is to die for. The prolonged rising gives the yeast plenty of time to convert the starch to sugars and the friendly bacteria a chance to impart their nut-like flavors.
Storing your crusty bread
Unused crusty bread should be stored in a paper bag at room temperature. If the bread is stored in a plastic bag, the crust will become soft.
Recommended Equipment and Ingredient Choices
Great bread requires good bread flour. All-purpose flour will not do. We've tried dozens of bread flours and there really is quite a difference. Find one that you love and stick with it. It should be unbleached.
We use General Mills Harvest King Flour almost exclusively for bread. Do a little research online and you'll find a nearly cult-like following. It's a wonderful commercial bread flour made to a very tight spec. But alas, it can be very hard to find. (We can sell you a 50 pound bag but the cost of shipping is a little painful.) Occasionally, you can find it in the grocery stores. General Mills Better-for-Bread Flour is purportedly the same thing if you can find that.
Once a bag of flour is opened, it will dry out if not covered. Consider pouring
it into a bin with a cover for storage. We sell
large, heavy plastic bags that are food grade and big enough for 50 pound bags.
We place opened bags of flour in these bags and close them with a twist tie. We
also place our bread dough in these bags to let it rise without drying out. The
bags act as a little greenhouse to create a warm, moist environment.
It doesn't take much in equipment. My equipment is battered and bruised and I love it. You will need a good baker's thermometer so that you can tell what's going on with your dough and test doneness. I have a battered, rusted baking sheet about an inch deep that I use as a steaming pan in the bottom of the oven. Don't use one of your good nonstick sheets. You'll need a spray mister like the one you may use when ironing clothes. I have a couple old, dark pizza pans that I bake most of my artisan bread on. Don't use a silver pan; it reflects heat. A perforated pizza pan is perfect.
For dusting your pans, use a coarse corn meal.
As you work with your dough, you'll find that you reach for a flour shaker over and over. A bench scraper is handy.
Dennis Weaver is the president of The Prepared Pantry, a full line kitchen store in Rigby, Idaho. The Prepared Pantry sells kitchen tools, gourmet foods, and baking ingredients including hundreds of hard-to-find ingredients.