To start this little tale, I should first say that I've struggled with sourdough for a couple of years now. I know, you'd think after you'd fought with something for that long, you'd just give up. But after a number of failures, it became a mission to get it right.
Easier said than done. I produced a number of bricks from my oven, and a number of mushy blobs. I can't tell you how many pounds of breadcrumbs it all made. So, so many. But, I am pleased to announce that I finally have got it right!
YEAY! I have been nurturing a starter now since mid-July. It's still alive! It's a miracle! Not only that, but I can actually make a really nice loaf (or two) of bread from it. There's a secret to it, do you want to know what it is? Don't knead it!
I know, I'm crazy. Almost every recipe that I have ever read says "knead the dough until it windowpanes", meaning you knead it for like 10 minutes straight until you can stretch it thin enough to see light through it. That has only ever produced either a brick of bread so hard you couldn't cut it, or a blob of mush that overproofed. So I stopped that. And I do this instead:
First, take your mushy dough out of the mixer when it's ready, and only when it's fully incorporated. How do you know when that is? It sticks to everything in sight, but then it peels off the things really easily when you go to move it. It's an odd thing it does, but it's alive, so just go with it. I almost want to say it's got a texture like that green goo stuff they used to sell for kids. My brothers used to have it, back in the day. Sticky, but you can scrape it up and move it without leaving residual bits. Weird.
Anyway, take out the dough, put it on a WELL floured mat, and knead it for a minute or two, just so it feels cohesive and looks a little smoother. It will NOT pass the "windowpane test", but that's good. Then flatten the dough out.
Then here's the tricky part. Stretch it and fold it.
Fold one side:
Then the opposite side:
Then another side:
(make sure you stretch it each time, that's important)
Then the last side:
Then stop touching it, and cover it up and put it to bed for an hour:
After your hour is over, do it again. Flatten it out, stretch and fold, stretch and fold, stretch and fold. Put it back to sleep for a second hour.
I will add here, that I do this all at room temperature. I don't put it anywhere near a warm surface to rise. I have found that putting it somewhere warm speeds up the proofing process and I get a flat, gooey mess. So it just sits on the counter and does it's thing.
After hour two, uncover it and poke your finger in it, kind of hard, but not very hard. If the indentation disappears, you can do this process a third time. If the indentation is very deep, you've overproofed and the bread will come out weird. Next time try just one folding and then do the finger test to see. Either the starter was very active, or the room was very warm, so it got happy. What you're really looking for here is for the indentation your finger left to slowly receed, but you can still see it in the dough, shallowly. When you do, it means your baby is ready to bake.
At this point, I split my dough into two loaves, because that's just the kind of girl I am, and I score the top, because it's nice.
It's still alive here, and somewhat active, so the slashes you make will grow. Do it right before you put it into the oven so they don't grow too much.
Bake the bread at 400F with a pan of water in the bottom, and in 30 minutes (that's what works for me, it may be different for you), pull a loaf out and knock on the bottom. If it's hollow, it's done.
This is fabulous bread and totally worth the time and effort it takes. If you've ever had trouble with sourdough (like I have), try this technique. I was surprised, but it really does work. Try it and see!