Sourdough is having a moment. Longtime sourdough bakers may cringe at this proclamation, just as our grandparents likely roll over in their graves when they hear “toast” is a thing.
But it’s true. I cannot open a magazine without seeing a feature on a bakery and its naturally leavened loaves; I cannot scroll through instagram without seeing a crumb shot of a halved sourdough miche, a beautiful web of irregular holes, or an intricately scored, thick-crusted boule being presented like Simba to the animal kingdom.
My interest in sourdough in recent months has been spurred by a number of requests about how to make my mother’s peasant bread with a sourdough starter. Initially, I thought why? The beauty of the peasant bread is that it doesn’t require a starter or a long rise or any fussy techniques; it can be on your table start to finish in three hours. Everyone will rave.
Over the years, I’ve been able to answer questions relatively easily about how to make the peasant bread morph into something else: a boule with a thick crackling crust — thank you Jim Lahey — or a thinner round to use for pizza or something palatable for the gluten-free crowd.
But achieving that sour taste — even a subtle sour taste — is something yeast, even with a long slow rise cannot achieve. And, moreover, natural leavening is natural leavening — no yeast allowed.
So I began experimenting. I tried reviving my old starter, long neglected in my fridge, and when it proved altogether spent, I ordered one from Breadtopia via Amazon. I followed the instructions to activate it, and within a day, I had a vibrant, bubbling starter.
After a bit of trial and error, I soon found a nice rhythm, mixing the dough in the afternoon, letting it rise all evening, splitting the dough into two portions and plopping each into a buttered Pyrex bowl in the morning. By early afternoon, the bread was ready to bake. The resulting loaves looked just like the peasant bread, golden crusted, soft crumbed, but with a nice subtle sourness. (Photo below.)
Using the sourdough peasant bread proportions, I decided to make focaccia, my favorite, a bread I love for so many reasons: its versatility — sandwich bread, appetizer, dinner bread — and its flavor and texture: the oil-crisped crust, the generous amount of salt, the chewy crumb.
I also think focaccia is an ideal bread with which to begin a sourdough journey. Why?
- First, it requires no special equipment — not a Dutch oven or a Baking Steel to create a thick crust; not two Pyrex bowls to create a golden, less-thick crust. You likely have a 9×13-inch pan somewhere in your kitchen. This is all you need.
- Second, it requires no tricky shaping technique on a floured work surface. Shaping free-standing sourdough boules is an art and it takes practice and repetition. It’s a beautiful thing when you get the hang of it, but it can be frustrating until you do.
- Third, it requires no scoring. With focaccia, you don’t need a razor sharp lame — you use your fingers to dimple the dough.
Curious about Sourdough? Let’s Start From the Top.
You need a sourdough starter. If you don’t know of anyone who will share his/her starter with you, buy one. In the past I’ve purchased one from King Arthur Flour and, more recently, from Breadtopia via Amazon. Both were easy to feed and activate. There is a photo below of how the Breadtopia starter arrives. To activate, follow the instructions on this video. It’s simple.
Why Buy (or Procure) a Starter?
- First, if you’re curious about sourdough, get to it! Making a starter from scratch takes weeks. I did it once many years ago following the instructions in Tartine Bread, and after nearly losing my mind, I literally jumped for joy when I dropped a spoonful of my starter into a cup of water, and it floated. Making a starter from scratch is a really cool exercise, and it’s something to be proud of should you succeed (or not!), but why not start experimenting with an active sourdough starter while you build a starter from scratch on the side? (If you do want to build one from scratch, check out this post on The Perfect Loaf.)
- Second, feeding a mature starter will help you understand how to build one from scratch. You’ll observe how a starter rises and falls, what happens when you feed it more regularly, what happens when you neglect it, how it smells at various stages, etc.
- Third, they’re relatively cheap (or free if you get one from a friend).
- Fourth, maybe you embark on a sourdough journey and decide it isn’t for you. Why go through the trouble of building a starter till you know you enjoy the process of sourdough baking?
Begin with an Easy Recipe
As noted above, I think focaccia is a perfect sourdough-bread-baking starting point. It will teach you the fundamentals of working with sourdough without the potentially frustrating steps of shaping, scoring, and baking with a Dutch oven. The recipe below also can be baked in a loaf pan, another great option if you do not want to deal with shaping and scoring and Dutch ovens.
If, however, you are after that artfully scored thick, burnished crust, Emilie Raffa’s recipe for High-Hydration Sourdough is another great, easy recipe.
How to Make Sourdough Focaccia: A Step-by-Step Guide
Get a starter. If you don’t have a starter and don’t have a friend who can lend you one, I recommend buying one. I bought mine from Breadtopia via Amazon, and I’ve managed to keep it alive for 6 months now. Win!
I store my starter in this quart container. When I’m ready to use it, I discard some of it, and add about 45 g flour…
… and 45 g water. You don’t have to be exact, but when you’re getting started, I think it’s helpful to weigh both the water and flour. Depending on how long the starter has been in the fridge, it may need one or two feedings before use.
If you stick a rubber band around your starter vessel, you’ll know when …
… it has doubled and is ready for use.
If you need reassurance as to if it’s ready, you can do the float test: drop a spoonful of starter into a glass of water. If it floats, it’s ready.
As with all bread, when mixing sourdough doughs, it’s best to weigh everything with a digital scale. Start with 100 g starter.
Add 10 g kosher (or other) salt.
Add 440 g water. (See recipe notes: If you live in a humid environment, you may want to use less.)
Stir to combine.
Add 512 g bread flour.
Stir to form a sticky dough ball.
Cover with a towel or bowl cover, and let rise for 8 – 18 hours at room temperature (times will vary depending on the time of year and how warm your kitchen is … in the summer, this may take only 4 hours):
When it doubles …
… drizzle it with some olive oil.
Deflate the dough by pulling the sides into the center. Video guidance here. At this point, the dough can be refrigerated — just cover the bowl with a bowl cover or towel and stick in the fridge. Do this if it makes sense given your schedule. Remove 5 to 6 hours before you plan on baking.
Dough, ready to make it’s second rise, which will take 5-6 hours. Love this USA Pan.
After 5-6 hours, the dough is ready to be dimpled and stretched and salted. Bake at 425ºF for 25 minutes.
Just-baked sourdough focaccia:
Adapted from my favorite yeasted, slow-rise focaccia recipe — overnight refrigerator focaccia — this recipe replaces the yeast with a sourdough starter.
If you like video guidance, I made this in Instagram Stories.
What you need to make this recipe…:
- …a sourdough starter. I bought mine from Breadtopia via Amazon. It was easy to activate. There are no instructions on the package itself; follow the instructions on the video here.
- …time. Once your starter is ready to go, this recipe requires an initial 4- 18 hour rise, followed by a second 4- to 6-hour second rise. After the initial rise (depending on the time of year and temperature of your kitchen), you can deflate the dough, and stick it in the fridge for 8 to 10 hours (maybe longer), which might help you regarding your schedule. Keep in mind, when you remove the dough from the fridge and transfer it to a pan, it will still need to rise for another 5- to 6- hours.
- …water. Apparently, chlorine in water can adversely affect sourdough. Leaving water at room temperature for 24 hours will allow most of the chlorine to escape.When I am in the habit of making sourdough bread, I fill a large pitcher with water and leave it out at room temperature. I use this for my sourdough breads and starter. Truth be told, I’ve used water straight from the tap and have not noticed a difference.
Water quantity: Depending on where you live and the time of year, you may need to cut the water back. If you live in a humid environment, for instance, I would suggest starting with 430 g water. If you are not using bread flour, you also may need to cut the water back a bit.
The more I make sourdough, the more I realize so much depends on the time of year and the temperature of my kitchen. Recently (summer), because it is so warm, the first rise (bulk fermentation) is taking between 4 – 6 hours; in the winter the first rise was taking 12 – 18 hours. I find currently, I really have to pay attention to the dough because if I don’t, the dough will over-ferment, smell sour, and lose its strength. In the winter, I could let the dough rise all day/night without issue.
The key with this recipe is to make sure the first rise doesn’t go to long — you want the dough to nearly double. A straight sided vessel (as opposed to a bowl) makes gauging the first rise easier.
A few thoughts: If you are making this focaccia in the summer (northern hemisphere), use 50 g of starter and check the dough every couple of hours. If you are making this in the winter, use 100 g of starter, and plan for a long first rise.
- I’ve been using King Arthur Flour’s special patent flour — bought a 50-lb. bag of it at Restaurant Depot. Its protein content, 12.7%, is the same as the protein content of its bread flour. I suspect all-purpose flour (11.7%) would work fine here, but you may want to reduce the water a bit — bread flour absorbs slightly more liquid than all-purpose flour.
- 50 g – 100 g (1/4 to 1/2 cup) active starter, see notes above
- 10 g (about 2.5 teaspoons) kosher salt
- 430 – 440 g water, room temperature, see notes above*
- 512 g (about 4 cups) bread flour, see notes above
- 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, divided, plus more for drizzling
- Nice, flaky sea salt, such as Maldon
- Place the starter, salt, and water in a large bowl. Stir with a spatula to combine — it doesn’t have to be uniformly mixed. Add the flour. Mix again until the flour is completely incorporated. Drizzle with a splash of olive oil and rub to coat. Cover bowl with a tea towel or bowl cover and set aside to rise for 4 to 18 hours (the time will vary depending on the time of year, the strength of your starter, and the temperature of your kitchen — recently (summer), my sourdoughs have been nearly doubling in 6 hours).
- Drizzle dough with a tablespoon of olive oil. Use your hand to deflate the dough: pull the dough from the sides and press it into the center. Video guidance here. Turn dough over so seam-side is down.
- Place 2 tablespoons of olive oil into a 9×13-inch pan. (I have been using this USA Pan, which I love. I have had no sticking issues. If you are using a glass pan, you may, as a precaution, want to butter it it first — I have had disasters with bread sticking when I’ve used oil alone with other baking vessels.) Plop dough into the center of the pool of oil. Rub top of dough with oil. Leave alone for 4 to 6 hours or until puffy and nearly doubled.
- Heat oven to 425ºF. Rub hands lightly with oil, and using all ten fingers, press gently into the dough to dimple and stretch the dough to nearly fit the pan. Sprinkle generously with sea salt. Transfer pan to the oven and bake for about 25 minutes or until golden all around. Remove pan from oven and transfer bread to a cooling rack. Cool at least 20 minutes before slicing.
- Category: Bread
- Method: Oven
- Cuisine: Italian
Keywords: sourdough, bread, focaccia
As noted above, this same recipe can be baked, like the original peasant bread recipe, in buttered Pyrex bowls. More on this soon.
Just-baked sourdough peasant bread.
Sliced sourdough peasant bread.