Adventures in Sourdough, Part One

I was at an SCA event a few weekends back, and after a lovely conversation with a very passionate breadsmith, I was gifted some dried sourdough starter, a version that he called “Illinois Sweet.”

I’ve tried once before to get a wild starter going, but it was a pretty dismal failure (and possibly a source of some spectacular biotoxins). This time, I carefully woke up the starter and fed it daily. I followed the directions to the letter, and after about four days I had an overflowing little bowl of bubbly, sticky, yeasty starter… wicktory!

So I decided to try some bread with my little bowl of starter. I dug through my copies of Uprisings (from my Blue Mango baking days) and a few other cookbooks on our shelves before I settled down with the King Arthur Flour Baker’s Companion Cookbook (a gift from the luminous cheesepuppet, thank you SO MUCH!).

I decided to go with a part-whole-wheat Pain au Levain, a very basic flour-starter-water-salt hearth bread. I added some toasted pecans right at the end of the mixing, with fond memories of the Sacramento Baking Company’s sour wheat walnut bread.

When I proofed the bread, I made a guess as to the best vessel to use… and I guessed wrong. I had decided to go with a single large loaf instead of two smaller boules, and used the largest glass mixing bowl I own (my mom’s old Pyrex bowl), lined with a cotton kitchen towel (fabric, not terrycloth). The shape was too rounded, and this much dough really needed something wider. Also, when I slashed the top, only one slash was deep enough to do any good, so it only spread out along the one axis when it baked… which meant it looked like it was mooning me!

I used the wooden peel sprinkled with semolina and the preheated baking stone to bake it, and that turned out very well. I used a cast-iron pan with water to create a humid oven, but I didn’t have a spray bottle handle to spray the surface of the boule before I put it in the oven… I sprinkled it with water from my hands, but I suspect not enough.

Since it was so thick in the middle, there was a bit in the center that was still uncooked while the outer crust was very brown and hard. But the stuff that WAS done was really delicious. It’s a lot sweeter than I imagined it would be, even though I knew that the Illinois sourdoughs are never going to be as tangy as the San Francisco versions. Still, it’s a young starter and I’m new at this… I suspect I’ll be able to get it a little more sour with some age and experience.


I transferred my starter to a larger bowl… I had to use almost the entire bowl of starter for this loaf, so I clearly needed a larger amount to work with. I’ve been feeding it up, and it’s been warmer all this week, so I’ll try again this weekend and see what happens. I also went to the thrift store and got a nice wide wicker basket for proofing, and I’ll see if I can get a cheap spray bottle too.

I’m also looking forward to some sourdough waffles in the near future!

Anyway, I wanted to document this journey into the land of sourdough… has anyone else out there had a successful experience with starters and sourdoughs? I’d love to hear about it!



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5 responses to “Adventures in Sourdough, Part One

  1. Luminous! DAHHLING! 🙂

    I gotta say, one of the very few things I miss about my pre-celiac life is sourdough, especially my waffles. The two other things: quiche crust, crepes, and phyllo dough. Okay that’s three things. I guess I miss four things total. And croissants. Okay I’m going now.

    Your bread looks delicious! 🙂

    • Bill made bagels when I was trying to cut out wheat as part of testing for leaky gut… it was torture. I’m still not supposed to be doing much grains, as part of my campaign to lift my afternoon doldrums, but I figure I’ll follow Michael Pollan’s advice (eat all the crap you want, as long as you make it yourself. I may be paraphrasing a bit here).

  2. I am a bit scared of sour doughs, and haven’t wanted to take on the care and feeding of one.
    I am trying a beer bread today. I am already feeling a bit wary of the dough. I suppose, one of these days, i’m going to have to follow a recipe exactly. (The recipe called for 9 oz of beer, but its far to early in the day for me to drink the extra 3, so i half-assedly added another 1/3 recipe to the mix. We are always short on bread anyway. We’ll see.) There is a reason i am better at quick breads than yeast breads.

    • I used to be intimidated by sourdough, too, but this fellow gave me enough to redo the starter three times, and all I’m investing is a bit of flour, water and time… worst case, it goes down the drain. So I thought I’d try it again, and since you can refrigerate (feed once a week) or freeze (never feed) your starter, it seems like a pretty manageable thing now. And boy oh boy, you feel like some sort of a trailblazing pioneer when you eat your own sourdough bread!

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