A Brief Recent History of Sourdough

Sourdough is all the rage today but how did we get here and what are we doing anyway?

For thousands of years bread was naturally leavened with wild yeast starters. Water and flour mixed and exposed to wild yeast spores was used to leaven bread. Two hundred years ago settlers crossing the great plains saved a little dough (starter) in their flour barrels for the next days bread. Alaskan gold rush miners would do the same. Save some dough to start a new batch tomorrow. Skip forward to modern times. About fifteen years ago the NY Times ran an article on No-Knead bread that really caught on. Novice bakers learned how to make bread with minimal effort. Skip forward to present day. Then along came Covid-19. With time on their hands people started making their own sourdough. It was and still is all the rage.

A common method people are using today to make their sourdough was derived from the No-Knead bread method of fifteen years ago. A precise amount of starter is mixed with precise amounts of water and flour. Everything is measured on a food scale in grams. This results in a wet dough (high hydration). A dough too wet to knead. In some instances an autolyse in used. (Autolyse - water and flour are mixed with or without starter and allowed to sit for a few hours.) Finally the wet dough is stretched with a scrapping tool and then refrigerated for hours and hours before final shaping and baking. The dough is so wet that it needs to be baked in a form. Otherwise the dough would spread out on a pan like a pancake. A preheated Dutch oven lined with parchment paper is used as the form to bake the loaves. The loaves are baked at high heat with the lid on to hold in moisture initially. Final baking is uncovered. The whole process takes hours and hours if not days. Yikes!

In my humble opinion we took a wrong turn. We zigged when we should have zagged. The No-Knead method was a half measure in the first place. Who does not have ten minutes to knead by hand or a bread machine to make dough or a mixing machine? How busy are you really? This current school of sourdough methodology was built on a bed of sand. It has resulted in a process with too much measuring. A process that is too time consuming. A process that requires working with a hard to manage wet dough. A process that requires endless dough stretching and folding. A process that requires a form (Dutch oven).

I use a more traditional method and make wonderful sourdough loaves. My methodology is old school. Bread is made the old fashioned way using a traditional stiff dough. The water is measured and little else. Water is the fixed in the formula. All else is variable. I do real kneading in my mixer. No autolyse. No day in the fridge. It is a fast process. As easy as making any bread. The only difference is the use of wild yeast sourdough starter in place of commercial yeast. The same way settlers made sourdough years ago. Granted I automate the process with machines. But I could make my sourdough by hand. I speed the process by turning my home oven into a proofer. I bake on an oiled cookie sheet with a little corn meal. No form/Dutch oven required. My bottoms don't burn either!

Take a look at some of my loaves at  Sourdough Central. These were all made with my traditional method. Try it. Sourdough does not need to be complicated. I don't use bannetons either. I use plastic bowls for my traditional rising.

More Tips at the following links:

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It's Always the Yeast

Using Enough Yeast?

Buying Yeast

Baking Issues & Stones

Active Dry vs. Instant Yeast

Coloring Your Loaf - Dark Bread

Artisan Sponge Starter

Wholesome Ingredients

Whole Milk Mozzarella for Pizza

Elusive Oven Shoot or Oven Spring

About Flour

Economics of Home Baking

Temperature and the Craft of Bread Baking

Pizza: Thick Crust vs. Thin Crust

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