The sourdough apprentice

Two weeks, five pounds of flour, one loaf

By
April 30, 2008

I’m new to the Northwest. I came to Portland from southern California, the birthplace of fast food. So before I moved here, I’d never cooked much from scratch. Well, I am a pro at Nestlé Toll House cookies, but not much else.

Still, there’s something about Portland that makes doing it all from scratch seem reasonable. I made my first pies a month after moving here. I’ve made chicken stock and mayonnaise. After six months, I realized it was time to take the true plunge and try to make bread. But not regular bread with packaged yeast — that would be cheating. No, I would make sourdough bread from scratch. That is, nothing but flour, water, and bacteria from the moist Pacific Northwest air.

I already had the equipment I needed: Peter Reinhart’s The Bread Baker’s Apprentice, and a KitchenAid stand mixer. You could make bread by hand, but did you forget that I’m from southern California? If it has a motor in it, I want it.

bread
The original slow food: Homemade bread.

I’d never actually made anything from The Bread Baker’s Apprentice, and I had a vague recollection of looking through it, deciding that the recipes were far too complicated and time-consuming, and then going to the market to buy bread. But here I was in Portland, with instructions and tools. Why couldn’t I make some bread, too?

I cracked open the book again. The recipes were still complicated and time-consuming, and I was struck this time around by Reinhart’s didactic (read: prissy) tone. On page 64 (there’s not a single recipe, or “formula” as Reinhart calls it, until page 108) we get a little scolding about chemically leavening bread: “With the exception of one formula (Corn Bread, page 151), this book is not about chemically leavened quick breads, but I think it is important to clarify a few points about chemical leavening because so many bakers use it.” Reinhart then devotes an entire essay to the pH balance of baking powder, baking soda, and double-acting baking powder. Did you know that “one form of ammonium carbonate is derived from the horn of a deer and thus is called hartshorn?” I’ll bet you didn’t.

I decided that I need not begin, as a true apprentice would, at the beginning of the book, studying the history of bread and wild yeast and whatever. Instead, I would flip all the way to the back and go for it. I’d begin with some rye flour and water and make a seed culture, then turn the seed culture into a barm, or mother starter, which would capture the wild yeast in the air. Then I’d turn the barm into a starter and the starter into dough and, finally, the dough into bread.

It all began innocently enough. I put some rye flour and water in a measuring cup and left it on my counter overnight. And then I added some bread flour and water, and did that again the next day, and the next day, and the next day. I had bubbles in my seed culture — or was it barm yet? — but nothing was doubling in size.

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Reinhart gives extremely precise directions, but nowhere does he write, “Hey, little lady, don’t worry if the bread’s not doubling. It’s all good; it’ll double soon.” I, the apprentice, find myself standing in my kitchen, staring at a white, sticky blob. It smells deliciously like beer, but looks nothing like beer or bread or anything that will become something other than paste.

So I go to my neighborhood bakery and inquire. The baker asks if I have bubbles — yes. Then he asks if it’s cold in my house — yes. (I live in Portland. I have oil heat. It’s damn cold in my house.) He then says something about stressing the dough and extra sour and organisms and something something, I don’t know — I’m an apprentice, after all. When he’s finally quiet, I ask, “So am I still good? I mean, will I get bread?”

He says yes and to move it to a different, warmer location. That would be California. But I’ll make do. I buy some bread from him and go home. I add more flour to the barm and move it near the stove. And I just march right on with Reinhart’s instructions, despite my barm not doubling in size. I have already spent more than a week on this whole thing. So on I go, adding more flour and water and discarding half of the old flour and water. Capturing more of the wild yeast, fermenting things, creating an acidic environment so the yeast will multiply.

After almost two weeks, I was ready to make bread. The day before, I put 2/3 cup barm into a bowl. I added more flour and water and let it ferment on the counter overnight. (Reinhart says to stick it in the fridge, but I figured my house was cold enough.) Next morning, I had starter. I was ready to make dough. I added more flour, nearly finishing off the five-pound bag I’d started with. I kneaded it with my KitchenAid mixer. (I have weak arms, and this might have been an opportunity to strengthen them, but as with most exercise, I took a pass.) I let the dough rise again.

After four hours, I formed two loaves. And I let those proof for two more hours. Then I was ready to prepare my oven for hearth baking. I got out a spray bottle and a cast-iron pan. I heated the oven to 500 degrees with the cast-iron pan and the baking sheet inside. When the oven was hot enough, I put the bread loaves on the baking sheet. I poured hot water into the cast-iron pan and misted the sides of the oven with water. I misted a few more times and let the bread bake, bathed in a bit of steam, for about half an hour.

At 9:30 in the evening, my family and I finally had our first taste of home-baked sourdough bread. It was brown and solid outside, but when I knocked on it, it sounded hollow — a sign that bread is, finally, done. We waited only half the required cooling time of 45 minutes before slicing into it. Steam rose from the loaf, and we slathered some butter on the white insides. It was good. Very good. Not too sour, but rather very light-tasting. It was a little dense. Well, a lot dense. There were just tiny little holes in it, which I credit to the barm not doubling in size, ever. But it was good.

Was it worth it? Was that single loaf of bread worth an entire five-pound bag of bread flour and nearly two weeks of my life stressing about wild yeast and bacteria cultures? The Californian in me says, “Ohmigod, no way!” But the Oregonian I want to be says, “Practice makes perfect.”

My barm still sits in the fridge. I’ve made a few more loaves, including a wheat bread, one slice of which would keep a family filled for a week. It was heavy. And moist. And heavy. It broke my KitchenAid, in fact.

But KitchenAid or no KitchenAid, on I march, kneading and baking my way to a master’s in bread baking. Okay, a master’s is a little much. Maybe just an apprenticeship with a gold star.

Melissa Lion is the author of two young-adult novels, Swollen and Upstream. She blogs about inappropriate things at her website.

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1. by Liz Crain on Apr 30, 2008 at 12:31 PM PDT

Thanks for this. I hope to follow suit soon. I’d really like to make sourdough but figure I’ll wait till summer b/c our Portland house still has the chill too.

2. by Cathy on Apr 30, 2008 at 4:33 PM PDT

I had a lovely sort of zen book about making bread many years ago. I enjoyed thoroughly the kneading and waiting, kneading and waiting. It was very therapeutic for me.

Thanks for your take on the subject. I suspect this book won’t make it into my kitchen.

3. by Lori on May 1, 2008 at 10:23 AM PDT

Funny article. It seems like a lot of work huh? But I think when you do it all the time it gets much easier.

If you have a microwave about your stove it is a good place to keep things like this. Make a pot of tea, it gets warm in there just from the heat rising up. No drafts either. It is my home style proofer. I heat a cup of water in it then put it to the side and put my bowls of bread in there to raise. My dough loves it. Try it.

4. by Lori on May 1, 2008 at 10:23 AM PDT

Funny article. It seems like a lot of work huh? But I think when you do it all the time it gets much easier.

If you have a microwave about your stove it is a good place to keep things like this. Make a pot of tea, it gets warm in there just from the heat rising up. No drafts either. It is my home style proofer. I heat a cup of water in it then put it to the side and put my bowls of bread in there to raise. My dough loves it. Try it.

5. by Liz Crain on May 1, 2008 at 11:26 AM PDT

That’s a great idea. I was worried about that. I was thinking I’d keep my starter near our window box where I keep my seed starts because it’s like a little indoor greenhouse -- moist and warm. But at night those windows lose a lot of heat. Seems like even if you don’t have a microwave you could do the same contained boiled water technique but maybe in a cooler? Or would that cut off too much of the air supply?

6. by tempting fate on May 6, 2008 at 7:38 PM PDT

i used to meke sourdough years ago the lazy, lazy, lazy way, by just mixing equal parts organic rye flour with spring water and leaving it on top of our gas hot water tank for the shower till it bubbled. then i’d add more flour and water and knead the whole thing (no saving a starter culture!)into a dough-like consistency, then let it rise for an hour and beat it down and let it rise again and then bung the whole misshapen thing in the oven so that 45 minutes later i had a gigantic, mutated but delicious rye loaf which we’d all eat for the next couple of days. fun. i think i’ll do it again this afternoon.

7. by Joel on Nov 21, 2008 at 3:00 AM PST

Move back to California... sounds tempting this time of year. Maybe I’ll have to wait until next summer to give this a shot. I do have some starter in the fridge, but making sourdough from scratch sounds like a lot more fun.

8. by catbird0203 on Nov 23, 2008 at 4:40 AM PST

I loved this article. I’ve never made bread this way (I’ve always cheated with yeast) but it sounds like something I would do too. I can see how once you start it you have to continue to see how it ends up. I’m going to have to try this sometime, from seed culture to barm to (hopefully) bread. I’m now inspired.

9. by anonymous on Jan 27, 2010 at 12:12 PM PST

Melissa, I can relate to every thing you wrote! I just baked my first loaf and wondered if you have figured out how to make the barm more sour? Does it come with time? I am confused on the barm.

10. by anonymous on Dec 11, 2011 at 10:20 AM PST

I don’t see any instructions about saving a starter for the next loaf. How much? In what? At what point in the process should the new starter be saved? Must I “feed” the starter if it sits for a while?

I am on Day 1 of making the Seed Starter.

Thank you!

11. by anonymous on Jan 18, 2013 at 12:51 AM PST

The only whole wheat bread recipe that works for me is Peter Reinhart’s. I don’t care how well or badly he writes. All that matters to me is that he helps me bake tasty and healthy bread.

12. by anonymous on Feb 16, 2013 at 9:58 AM PST

Wonderfully written analysis of the “bread bakers apprentice” explanation of making sourdough bread. I use his book as my only guide to making bread. I have been trying to understand his method of sourdough for a week, you explain it much better.

13. by Meg on Apr 15, 2013 at 12:41 PM PDT

I love Peter Reinhart’s book and I am using it to make some awesome bread. I’m in Charlotte and it was a cold winter. I put my fermenting dough on a cork hot pad next to the fridge with a towel over it - no sweat. I love the way his bread tastes all nutty. I add a little whole wheat and get a nice change. I was stressed out about my starter but it finally took off. What is driving my German husband crazy is discarding half the starter and refreshing it all the time. He thinks this is a waste. Hopefully, I’ll find someone to give it to and he won’t be so upset.

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