Monday, August 16, 2010

Stovetop Sourdough Bread

Stovetop Sourdough Bread
Copyright © 2010 Lif Strand

I love sourdough bread – what can I say? It’s bread – that’s a big plus right there, since I really love bread (especially fresh and warm with lots of butter on it). I was introduced to sourdough in San Francisco in 1968 and from that point on, San Francisco style sourdough bread was the non plus ultra of breads for me.

I’ve been trying to make my own sourdough for the last four decades with poor results. I’ve used all kinds of different types of starter and ended up with lots of hockey pucks and bread that was OK except for not being sour.

Now I’ve added another hurdle: I decided I wanted to make sourdough bread on top of the stove. I started this process this past winter when my wood stove was providing the heat in my house and it seemed natural to use that heat for something more, like bread making.

Did I mention I don’t like to cook very much, and I don’t like to knead bread? Never mind.

To cut to the chase, this is what I did to make the best sourdough bread I’ve ever produced:

1. Find some sourdough starter on the web. When it arrives, follow the directions for a few weeks till you have enough to split the starter I half. Give some to someone who actually knows how to make bread, so she will tell you if the starter’s any good. Meanwhile, keep using starter as directed (either the instructions that came with the starter, some recipe on the web or even cook book instructions) to make hockey pucks.

2. When the starter’s about half a year old, start abusing it. In the summer it’s too warm to cook anywhere much less on the wood stove, so that’s a good time to take this step. Don’t feed the starter any sooner than two weeks apart. Don’t remove some and replace with equal amounts of water and flour, just add about half a cup of water and half a cup of flour onto the old starter and mix well. Keep it in the fridge and forget it for as long as you can without it going bad. When you think you’re right on the edge, add some more flour and water to keep the starter alive.

3. When you’ve got starter that smells really, really sour and has about an inch of icky looking gray liquid on top, divide it in half and add one cup of water and one cup of flour to each batch. Mix well. Put the starter you intend to abuse forever back in the fridge, put the starter you’re going to use now on your kitchen counter with saran wrap over the top. Hopefully this starter will be in a mixing bowl (I don’t like to wash any extra dishes, myself). Let it sit there and bubble overnight and when it’s looking real nice, put it in the fridge and ignore it for a week.

4. Just when it looks like the bread starter is going to separate and make that icky water stuff, take it out of the fridge, mix it and let it warm up to room temperature. Then keep adding flour and mixing until you can’t mix without bending the spoon (or in my case, breaking a perfectly nice wooden spoon you’ve had for a long time). Oops, you should have added salt when it was still easy to mix. I don’t know how much, but the amount I added wasn’t enough.

5. Put some flour on a clean non-porous surface and scrape your dough out onto the pile and start kneading it. You don’t have to be vigorous and I do recommend having a book nearby that you can read while you’re kneading. It shouldn’t be a library book that the librarian will make you pay for when you return it with dried dough on the pages and cover. Knead till the dough is more or less not sticky or until you get tired of kneading. I don’t think you can knead too much but I wouldn’t know, as I’ve never lasted very long at the job.

6. When you’re done kneading, shape the dough into a loaf. I make a ball of it by turning under the edges so that the top looks like a loaf of bread and the seams are on the bottom. I don’t know why this is important but all the cookbooks say to do it.

7. Put the dough in the pan it will be cooked in that you’ve put cornmeal on the bottom of to prevent sticking. I was given a heavy enameled cast-iron round pan years ago that is supposed to be for bread making I think. It is now. Put the bread pan in a Dutch oven or heavy cast-iron equivalent. Put that on top of a piece of steel that itself goes on top of the gas burner. The steel could be from an old wood stove or anything that is heavy and will hold the heat. All of this goes on a medium-low flame, and the lid of the Dutch oven should be slightly ajar so the moisture from the dough can escape and you don’t end up basting the bread. Also, you can put your oven mitt or a folded dish towel on the top of the lid to hold the heat in. Just don’t let it slide over the edge and catch fire.

8. Go do something else because at that temperature and with that much iron between the dough and the flame, it takes a long time to bake. My bread took almost two hours. Maybe I could have used a slightly higher flame, but I’ve produced too many hockey pucks with scorched bottoms to try a bigger flame. When you can’t stand to wait any longer (smelling the baking bread for that long is torture) flip the bread over and tap the bottom – if it sounds hollow, turn off the heat and let the bread sit upside down for a while – it gives just a little brownness to the top that looks nice.

That’s all there is to it. If you try this recipe, let me know if it works for you.