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Homestead Sourdough Bread Recipe
For centuries, people have made sourdough bread in their own homes using just flour, water, salt, and household tools. In Europe and many parts of the world, sourdough was used as a natural leaven and baking sourdough bread was integral to agrarian life as bread was the main source of energy for long days of work. Practically speaking, sourdough bread is a traditional farm and homestead food.
After several years of experimenting with sourdough, I’d like to share a sourdough bread recipe that has worked well for our family. I’m calling this a “homestead” recipe because that has been an important criteria for me. When researching recipes, I skipped anything that required meticulous measurements and fancy equipment. I looked for a process that works consistently, but also isn’t too detailed or precise.
As homesteaders, we juggle many priorities such as family, gardening, housework, office work, and so on. Finding a recipe that is flexible is important to me. I might not have time to knead the dough multiple times a day. The dough might sit on the counter longer than 24 hours. The temperature might vary from warm to cold within the same day.
I also considered factors like adaptability to other types of flours. I’ve tried this same recipe with rye, barley, and garbanzo bean flours with good results (with rye being my favorite for texture and garbanzo for flavor).
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The beginning of all sourdough bread recipes is sourdough starter. I got my first starter from a professional baker, but ended up losing it while I was traveling. My current starter comes from our dear friends and mentors at Terraflora Permaculture Learning Center, who were happy to help re-spark my interest in sourdough on one cold winter.
You just need ½ cup of sourdough starter to build your own, and most sourdough lovers will enthusiastically share a portion of theirs. You can also capture wild yeasts to make your own starter and this is easier than it seems (no stinky socks needed).
After researching about the history of sourdough, I learned that most starters are made of yeasts and bacteria growing in our environments (on our hands, kitchen surfaces, and wheat, especially whole wheat), and even “heirloom” starters are not necessarily different from a newly obtained starter as they too will eventually be inoculated by the yeasts and bacteria from your local environment. One could say, yeasts are hyperlocal!
So if you want to start your own sourdough starter from scratch, here’s what you do:
In a quart mason jar or a crock, mix together ½ cup of flour with approximately ¼ cup water (nonchlorinated, lukewarm) to form a sticky mixture with no lumps. If needed, add 1-2 tablespoons of water so no lumps remain. Cover loosely with a towel and set it in a warm location. The next day, add another ½ cup flour and ¼ cup water and mix. Repeat the process for 3-4 days.
Your jar will fill up very quickly and you’ll need to remove some to leave enough room for the starter to grow (keep the jar about ¾ full or it will ooze out making quite a mess!). When your starter gets very bubbly and smells fragrant and yogurty, it’s ready to bake!
Store your starter in the fridge until it’s time to bake bread. You only need to save about 1 cup of starter because you’ll repeat the feeding process (same as above) every time you bring the starter out of the fridge, which quickly multiplies your reserve. The process of feeding sourdough does create a lot of starter, but this is something I’ve learned to embrace by making lots of delicious food with it, like pancakes, cinnamon rolls, pie crust, to name a few. You can pretty much make any pastry or baked goods with sourdough starter and they all benefit from the extra yeast! I’ll share some of my favorite ways to use excess starter in another post.
It’s good to remember that before industrialization and refrigeration, people baked bread daily so the process of refreshing the starter happened continuously. Flour was also hard earned – often grown, harvested, and milled by hand, so wasting any flour in “excess starter” would’ve been inconceivable. If there was a long break between baking, people would use up their remaining starter and began over again with another starter. This historical perspective reminds me that losing a starter is not such a big deal and to appreciate the abundance of starter when we have it.
All Purpose White Flour vs. Whole Wheat Flour
All purpose (AP) white flour is the most commonly used flour in most bread recipes as it is the type that most people can easily access or already have in their kitchens. AP flour has a fine texture and very mild flavor that makes it versatile for a variety of uses in bread, cakes, and cookies. In contrast, whole wheat flour has 100% of the original kernel, therefore, more protein, richer flavors, and a coarser texture.
In a sourdough research project comparing whole grain to white flour, Dr. Erin McKenney put the flours side by side on separate Petri dishes and observed the cultures growing on them. Whole wheat flour were primarily inoculated with yeast whereas white flour had mostly bacteria growth.
Sourdough starter is a culture of both yeast and bacteria coexisting together, and the “sourness” of the starter actually comes from lactobacillus, the same bacteria that makes yogurt, pickles, kraut, and kimchi. The yeast arrives after the bacteria because it thrives in the acidic environment created by the bacteria. A starter is the result of both organisms, and even a few fungus, finding a happy “medium” of coexistence. However, it’s also possible for bacteria and fungus to take over (i.e. mold) before yeast has a chance, so it’s best to use whole wheat when you are starting a new culture to ensure success.
My own starter is composed of white flour and maintained with white flour because I didn’t know much about other types of flour when I began. Now I’m very curious to start my own separate starter using local whole wheat to cultivate our own local yeast. Whichever flour you choose, stay consistent with that type when maintaining your starter as the microbes can be particular to the flour.
Baking by Feel
The recipe below began as a no-knead rustic sourdough recipe that I adjusted after several years of experimenting with different processes and techniques until I got the sourdough loaf I was happy with. The original recipe was a great starting point when I was just beginning to learn about sourdough, but I didn’t always like how the bread turned out. Later, I tried various other recipes that were more complex and involved kneading, but I still struggled to create consistent results.
Then I had a major “aha” moment when I watched a video of a local bakery making their bread. I immediately noticed that their dough was much stickier and wetter than mine.
That’s when I stopped following recipes verbatim and decided to do it by feel. I started with the basic ingredients and adjusted the amount of water, flour, and kneading until I achieved the dough texture that I saw in the video. My bread changed completely. I finally got lots of air pockets, a springy, chewy crumb, and a crunchy but not hard crust.
The original recipe called for baking the bread covered for half an hour and then uncovered for half an hour and I realized this was making a very hard crust. I’ve since changed to baking the bread covered for the full hour.
I’m sharing these hard-learned lessons to help you develop your own recipe through feel. Your starter and dough will behave very differently than mine based on your environment. For example, in the summer, my dough rises very quickly overnight, but in the winter, it can take up to 2 full days. So if you follow a recipe exactly the same every time, you’ll actually get very different results.
A recipe is a place to start, but trust your senses to guide you to the perfect loaf.
Homestead Sourdough Bread Recipe
Before you begin the below recipe, first you’ll need a cast iron Dutch oven with a heavy lid. Your bread will be baked in the Dutch oven with the lid on for at least 1 hour.
- 1 cup sourdough starter (fed)
- 2.5 cups water
- 2 cups AP flour + 2 cups whole wheat (this is my favorite combination but you can experiment with varying the ratio and substitute with barley, rye, spelt, garbanzo, and other flours)
- 1 tablespoon salt
- 1 tablespoon cornmeal (for dusting the bottom of the pot)
In a medium bowl, mix the starter and water together and set aside. In a large bowl, mix the flour(s) and salt together.
Then pour the starter mixture slowly into the flour bowl, stirring with a spatula until it forms a sticky mixture.
Cover the bowl with plastic wrap or a thick towel with a lid to retain as much moisture as possible. Let this sit on the counter for at least 1 hour.
Using wet hands, knead the dough by pulling it up towards you, stretching the dough and folding it onto itself. The dough will be very sticky. I’ve found using a spatula to pull and fold the edges of the dough over onto itself is easier than using my hands. You can also sprinkle flour onto your hands and sides of the bowl to keep it from sticking. Knead for about 5 minutes or until the dough no longer sticks to the bowl.
Let rest 16-18 hours. Depending on the temperature, it will rise faster in warmth and slower in cold. Ideally, the temperature should be about 70-75 degrees. Wait until the dough more than doubles in size and poofs up like a balloon.
Punch it down and knead again. If the dough is still very sticky, let it rest another couple hours before kneading again.
The goal with kneading is to create elasticity in the dough, which helps it to maintain its shape (stay in a ball shape instead of melting into a puddle) and thereby trapping the moisture and air bubbles inside of the dough. Some people find it helpful to perform a windowpane test to gauge when kneading is complete. For me, as long as the dough forms a ball and holds the shape, it’s ready. This usually takes just 2-3 rounds of kneading.
Dust the bottom and sides of the bowl with flour to keep the dough from sticking to the edges. Set aside in a warm spot for the final rise for about an hour.
Meanwhile, turn on the oven to 495 degrees and put in the Dutch oven with lid on. Leave the dutch oven in the oven for a full hour while proofing your bread.
Once your dough has risen to roughly double in size, the final step is scoring the bread. The bread will rise quite a lot in the oven and scoring it gives it extra surface area to increase volume. Use a sharp knife or razor and slice the dough in a pattern (the simplest/fastest is a cross, but I’ve also done spirals, leaves, half moon). Scoring bread is its own art form but you’ll want to move quickly because as soon as you score it, the dough will start to lose its ball shape. Whatever pattern you choose, have your strategy ready to go.
Working quickly to retain the heat, pull out the Dutch oven, open the lid and toss in 1 tablespoon of cornmeal. This will keep the bread from sticking to the bottom of the pot. Then gently lift your dough from the bowl and place it in the Dutch oven. Put the lid on and the whole thing back in the oven.
Bake at 495 degrees for at least 1 hour. The time it takes to fully bake varies depending on your oven, so you’ll need to check by inserting a small toothpick into the center of the loaf and pulling it out. It should come out cleanly. If not, add another 10 minutes and check again.
Remove bread from Dutch oven by flipping it over onto a towel. Then put the bread on a cooling rack and let stand for at least an hour before enjoying.
Your Culture, Your Bread
I think of sourdough bread as folk food, meaning food meant to be made by home cooks. Therefore, it’s not a “one size fits all,” but rather customizable to you, your preferences, your kitchen, and your lifestyle.
This recipe is a place to start, but don’t expect it to produce a Parisian sourdough loaf the first time. As I mentioned in my last post and in this post, sourdough bread really takes a lot of patience and practice (which is what the “slow” in slow living really means). What makes sourdough so unpredictable is that you’re working with a live culture that behaves very differently based on its environment. But this is also what’s so unique and beautiful about it – that culture you’re maintaining is a reflection of the microbes living with you and within you.
Take your time to work through the recipe the first few times until you feel familiar with the process and you can do it mostly from memory. Observe the texture and scent of the starter and the dough and how these factors affect the final result of your bread. For example, is the dough dense or pliable? Is it runny or sticky? Does the dough have bubbles? Does it smell yogurty, vinegary, or fruity?
Then, I encourage you to branch out – increase or decrease the amount of starter, water, flour, rising time, kneading frequency, etc. until you reach the desired results. Pick just one thing to change at a time and take notes if you got a good result so you’ll know what to repeat. Eventually, you’ll have your own sourdough recipe that is unique to your lifestyle and your home.