For three years, my wife has insisted that we eat sourdough bread. That was no problem for me, I liked the taste and was happy to hunt for loaves where ever we bought groceries. For us, the best discovery was Abigail’s Bread at the farmers market.
But at the grocers, we quickly discovered that the word “sourdough” on the bag did not mean the bread would be made with real sourdough. I guess bakers can print ‘sourdough’ on a label if they can make it taste like the real thing. But, as Susie Mesure, in the Independent, warns it just dupes customers into “into buying fake versions of the real thing, with potentially serious health consequences,”
When you look at a commercial “sourdough” ingredient list like the one to the lower right, it might make you wonder. It sure did my wife and I and in fact, the list of added ingredients and preservatives is so shocking for people like us who are trying to find natural foods that we just gave up.
We could not even find a “sourdough start” listed among the ingredients on any commercial loaves we examined. Then at our local farmers market, we stumbled on Abigail’s sourdough. It was just what the doctor ordered, or so to speak. Her ingredients included a start, flour, water, and salt. That seemed perfect to us.
We dropped by every Saturday thinking the bread would not keep. (Little did we know that her “3 perfect ingredients” and sourdough start preserved the bread for weeks at a time.)
Then Martha, one of the bakers told us that it keeps for weeks and freezes well too. So I started to stock up, but as the season ended I lamented the size of my freezer to Martha. Laughing she told me that our local health food store carried their sourdough bread.
Most times when we arrived at the store there was a handsome display and we tried every kind. Enjoying them all, Abigail’s Country Loaf was the winner as far as my wife was concerned. It just agreed with her.
Getting the bread regularly, however, proved to be a real challenge. Many times the store would sell out before we stopped in. Finally, we started buying six loaves at a time and freezing five whenever we could.
Martha Levie, who is Abigail’s mother, taught the class at Abigail’s Oven in Spanish Fork, Utah. There she shared interesting health benefits of the San Francisco start she uses. Mixing just four cups of water with eight cups of flour, she dove in with her hands mixing and chatting with us. Then she let it rest for half an hour. After the rest, she sprinkled in a tablespoon of Real Salt and a bit more water and mixed again folding the dough over itself a few times. She did this folding two more times at half-hour intervals.
Then it was time to wait for the magic of the sourdough to do its thing. Naturally, she did not have us wait for 8 hours but had other dough proofed and ready. She split the dough in two, shaped each loaf, told us about using parchment in dutch ovens with some water in a very hot (465° F/240°C) oven. She closed by giving us each our own sourdough start and sent us home with a recipe and a challenge to bake.
I took the challenge that evening just four hours after feeding the start she had given us. Within a day I had made a loaf that looked a little like what Martha had taught us during class and it tasted nearly as good as hers
When I tried making the bread for the first time, I was astonished at just how easy it was. No real kneading, just four times folding to “pester” the dough, sleep on it, shape it in the morning and bake it. My total involvement with the dough was less than 20 minutes. And it was a good loaf.
With practice and after just a few loaves I was making bread that I could be proud of and this has actually become my bread making routine. In the afternoon I feed the start with 1/4 cup of water and 1/3 cup of whole wheat flour. (This was a trick Martha shared in the class). Then I dump the whole start into our very old kitchenettes mixer. To that, I add water and flour. I mix it just until combined and cover the mixing bowl for 30 minutes. Adding a bit more water and salt, I pester the dough with three pulses. I repeat this three more times before going to bed. During the night I let it rise covered, usually 8-12 hours, but just whenever I get to it in the morning. Once I am up I shape it and bake it.
Eighteen months have passed and I can say this new hobby feeds us well. My daughter likes to make sandwiches on my cheddar jalapeno loaf. I prefer my seeded rye slathered with butter, but my wife still likes the country loaf with almond butter for breakfast every day. And now when we are running low, I just start another batch before bed. By morning I am ready to shape and bake another loaf or two.
Every time I make two loaves, which is often, there is one to give away—people delight in these rustic loaves. We are fairly new in our neighborhood and bread is a great ice breaker for getting to know people. As new folks move in, I try to get them a loaf right away.
I love this new hobby. I get real personal satisfaction from making something so basic, simple and wholesome.
By the way, I still buy bread from Abigail’s when I find it and you can even buy it online. The thin slices, uniform crumb, and nutty tastes still beat mine and guess what? …theirs costs less to buy than mine does to make!
They must have a secret they didn’t share, but I’ll keep on trying.
Author: Darryl Alder, retired Scouter and outdoorsman, who spent too many hours over a campfire using a dutch oven.