Category Archives: starter

Spicy Ginger Peanut Stew and a Soup Swap: Take That, Michigan Winter!

Actually, that's sunflower butter b/c I ran out of peanut butter. Same idea, though. Incidentally vegan (which is not incidentally my favorite kind of vegan)

Soup Season is ON

I think the worst thing about January in Michigan is knowing even after we survive it, we still have to deal with February. Would you like some soup? I would like some soup.

I first discovered this recipe sometime during the year or two I ate (mostly) vegan. In many ways, it’s just a standard vegetable soup. It starts with garlic & onion, and then you add some vegetables—it doesn’t really matter what kind. Top with canned tomatoes and enough broth to cover, cook until the veggies are done, season with salt & pepper to taste, and that should be pretty tasty, even if you don’t add anything else. But it’s probably nothing to write home the internet about.

You can add more nut butter if you want something really peanutty. I like it better with just a little.It’s the three elements in the name that make this something worth sharing—a hefty scoop of cayenne pepper, a couple of tablespoons of minced fresh ginger, and a few heaping spoonfuls of peanut butter. Together, they transform this from just your average vegetable soup into a spicy, hearty, creamy stew. A hint of coconut, which you can get either by sweating the veggies in coconut oil, adding some coconut milk with the nut butter, or garnishing the soup with a sprinkle of unsweetened dried coconut curls adds another layer of flavor and richness, but it’s also great without the coconut.

To make it more filling, I sometimes add potatoes or rice. In this batch, I used sweet potatoes because I think they’re especially nice with ginger, cayenne, and coconut. Sometimes I throw in a bell pepper or some hearty greens. Carrots would be a welcome addition, too. I actually have a hard time thinking of anything that wouldn’t be good in this—cabbage, peas, corn, winter squash, white potatoes. And although I’ve never tried it, I imagine it would also be good with some beans, shredded cooked chicken, or diced ham if you wanted to add more protein or had leftovers hanging around that you wanted to use up. 

Apparently 2 big onions, a whole head of cauliflower, two heads of broccoli, 4 sweet potatoes, and 5 cans of diced tomatoes is kind of a lot of vegetable matter. Filled 3/4 of my biggest pot, and took over 10 cups of liquid, in addition to the tomato can juice, to cover.This is a 12-qt pot so as written below it makes ~8 quarts of soup?
Easily scaled down—the original recipe makes 4-6 servings.

Swapping Soup

I usually make a giant batch of this once a year and then freeze it in pint jars or 2-cup screw-top tupperware containers, which usually last me through the winter. However, thanks to the Michigan Lady Food Bloggers—especially Shayne of Fruitcake or Nuts who hosted the swap—this batch got magically transformed into six different kinds of soup: 

It's like a Michigan winter survival kit!

Clockwise from the top left, that’s Cheddar and Potato with Canadian Bacon (by Bee of Good Food Michigan), Curried Red Lentil Soup (by Mary of A Million Grandmas), a Potato & Sausage soup with lots of fresh dill (by Shayne of Fruitcake or Nuts), my Spicy Ginger Peanut soup, a Corn Chowder with Red and Green Bell Peppers (by Sarah of Una Buona Forchetta), and a Winter Stew with Pork, Beans, & Greens (by Yvonne of Wool and Water).

We tasted them all, along with drinks & bread provided by Shayne and mint chocolate chip cookies from Bee—all of which were delicious—and then filled the containers we’d brought with the leftovers. Kudos to whoever came up with this idea. It would be a great thing to do on a regular basis with a group of friends with similar food preferences/restrictions.

I’ll link to their recipes when/if they post them. Here’s mine:

Recipe: Ginger Peanut Stew (adapted from VegWeb)
makes enough for a crowd, halve or see VegWeb for a smaller amount

  • 4 T. coconut oil (or any neutral cooking oil)How many great recipes start just like this: mince some garlic and/or ginger, dice an onion...
  • 1 head garlic
  • a 2” piece of ginger (about 2 T. minced or grated)
  • 2 large onions
  • 1 head cauliflower*
  • 2 heads broccoli*
  • 4 sweet potatoes*
  • 5 14-oz cans of diced tomatoes, with liquid
  • 6-10 cups vegetable stock or water
  • 1 t. cayenne (depending on your heat tolerance, you might want to start with 1/2 t. and add more to taste)
  • 1/2 cup peanut butter**
  • salt and pepper to taste
  • 1/2 cup coconut milk or unsweetened shredded coconut to garnish (optional)

*can substitute any diced vegetable for the cauliflower, broccoli, and sweet potatoes; add slow-cooking things like root vegetables and winter squash first; hold back on anything you want to remain tender-crisp

**I prefer crunchy, but creamy will work too; you can also substitute any other nut or seed butter you like.

1. Heat the oil in a large stock pot over medium-low heat.

2. Peel and mince or grate the garlic and ginger finely and add them to the oil.

3. Dice the onion and add it to the pot. Stir to coat and let cook while you chop the other vegetables (or, if using pre-chopped or bite sized things, just let them cook for 5-10 minutes until they’re soft). The heat was on a little to high when I started so by the time I got done dicing the onions, some of the garlic & ginger had browned. But at least it didn't burn. Starting something over becasue you burned the garlic is so depressing.Potato cubes need not be perfect, just as long as they're all roughly the same size they should all cook through in the same amount of time

4. Peel and dice the potatoes, if using, and any other root vegetables or winter squash into 1/2”  cubes and add to the onions. Repeat with the cauliflower and broccoli, or whatever else you’re putting in the soup.

Everything chopped and in the pot--it takes me about 40 minutes to throw it together and is ready to eat in just over an hour.5. Sprinkle the veggies with cayenne, stir well, and let cook 3-5 minutes. The onions should be turning golden, if not continue cooking, stirring occasionally until they are.

6. Add the canned tomatoes with their liquid and the water or stock, using more water or stock if necessary to cover the vegetables.

7. Simmer for 20-30 minutes, or until the vegetables are all cooked to your liking. 

8. Stir in the peanut butter and the coconut milk (if using), and season with salt and pepper to taste.

Coconut oil, but no coconut milk in this batch.

Soft Pull-Apart Wheat Rolls with Sourdough-Starter and/or Active Dry Yeast

the whole sheet of rolls can be turned out onto a cooling rack, and when cool, can be stored in a 2-gallon "jumbo" zip-top plastic bag for up to 3 days before serving

Classic Do-Ahead Dinner Rolls

Here’s what I want from dinner rolls: They should be slightly sweet, perhaps with a hint of honey. They should be a little wholesome—not like a fiber supplement, but not as cake-like as brioche or challah. And they should be pillowy soft. Also, I want to be able to bake them a day or two in advance. Especially for elaborate meals like Thanksgiving, there are always more important things to do on the day of whether you’re travelling or hosting. Bread is something you ought to be able to make ahead of time.

A couple of years ago, I made the mistake of taking Rose Levy Beranbaum’s sacarduros to Thanksgiving. Sacaduros are made by wrapping small pieces of her “hearth bread” dough—which makes a rustic, crusty, free-form loaf—around tiny pieces of butter and a sprinkle of coarse salt. You gather the ends loosely together on top so they unfold a bit while they’re baking like petals, and when you rip them open, you reveal the salty, buttery core. Fresh out of the oven, they’re lovely. But like most kinds of crusty bread, they’re best the day they’re made. If you leave them out very long, they’ll get stale and if you store them in an air-tight container, the crust gets soggy so instead of being crisp and appealing, it’s so chewy it’s hard to eat. Also, when they’re cold, you lose the hot buttered roll effect and instead they just seem unevenly risen and peculiarly salty inside.

after the second rise they're often just barely touching, but they'll rise more in the oven This year, I used Martha Stewart’s “Everything Thanksgiving” rolls. They’re placed in a 9×13 pan to rise and bake, so they form two big continuous sheets. The reduced surface area means they stay fresher longer. You can pull them apart just before serving or let guests pull them apart themselves. I modified the recipe for my sourdough starter and my other dinner roll preferences—honey instead of sugar, approximately 1/3 whole wheat flour, and half canola oil instead of all butter (to help keep them soft).

These were everything I want from a dinner roll—soft and slightly sweet. They’re rich enough to eat plain, but even better with butter, and they’re perfect for mopping up extra gravy. I made two batches on Wednesday, stored them in “jumbo” two gallon zip-top bags, and they still seemed fresh and soft when we were tearing into the second batch on Friday.

See Stewart’s original recipe or the note at the asterisk if you want to use active dry yeast instead of a sourdough starter. Or, if you want to use a sourdough starter but don’t have time to wait for two rises of 3-12 hrs each, you can use both starter and active dry yeast. The starter will give the rolls a little more flavor, like using old dough, but the active dry yeast will do most of the leavening and each rise will only take a little over an hour.

Recipe: Soft Wheat Rolls (adapted from Martha Stewart)
Makes 30 rolls

Ingredients:a double-batch for 60 rolls required 2 bowls

  • 1 cup refreshed 100%-hydration sourdough starter*
  • 1 cup warm milk (100-110F)
  • 1 T. sugar (only necessary if using active dry yeast)
  • 3 cups all-purpose or bread flour
  • 2 1/3 cups whole wheat flour
  • 3 t. kosher salt
  • 1/3 c. honey
  • 1/4 cup melted butter
  • 1/4 cup vegetable oil, plus more for coating bowl
  • 1-2 t. butter for greasing pan
  • 2 eggs, lightly beaten plus 1 egg for brushing
  • 2 packages, or 4 1/2 t. active dry yeast (optional)

*If you don’t have a sourdough starter, increase the milk to 1 1/2 cups and increase the all-purpose/bread flour to 3 2/3 cups. Use the active dry yeast.

1. Heat the milk in the microwave or saucepan. If you don’t have a thermometer, test it by dabbing a bit on your wrist—it should feel hot to the touch, but not like burning. Whisk in the sugar and yeast, if using, and let sit 5-10 minutes or until frothy.

after whisking together the warm milk, yeast, and sugar, the surface will be smooth after 5-10 min it should be frothy. if not, the yeast is probably dead

2. Combine all of the ingredients except for the oil/butter and egg reserved for later, and stir until the dough begins to come together. Scrape onto a lightly-floured surface.

3. Knead for 10-15 minutes. If the dough is too sticky to knead, let it rest for 10 minutes underneath the mixing bowl and continue, adding bread flour 1/4 cup at a time until it sticks to itself more than it sticks to you.

4. Coat a mixing bowl with oil. Place the dough in the bowl and turn to coat with oil. Cover the bowl and let rise for 1 1/4 hrs (active dry yeast) or 4-12 hrs (sourdough starter).

once most of the flour is moistened, kneaded until it's a smooth ball of dough

double-batch, ready to rise you can tell when it's risen if you can make a small depression in the dough and it doesn't "heal" automatically

5. Butter two 9×13 pans.

6. Divide dough into two equal pieces. Divide each piece into 15 equal pieces, each of which should be 50-55 grams (1.75-2.00 oz). Cover with a piece of plastic wrap to prevent them from drying as you shape them.

7. Press each piece of dough into a disc, gather the edges and pinch them together. Place each ball pinched-edge down in the prepared pans, 3 x 5.

if you want to know exactly how big each ball should be, weigh the whole ball of dough and divide by 30the pinched together disc method makes a smoother ball than just rolling a lump of dough in your hands

before the second rise after the second rise

8. Cover the pans and let rise for another 1 1/4 hrs (instant yeast) or 3-9 hrs (sourdough starter).

9. Preheat the oven to 375 for 20 minutes. Before placing the rolls in the oven, brush the tops of the rolls with beaten egg. Bake for 20 min, or until the tops are golden brown and the interiors are 190-200F.

10. Let cool on wire racks for 5 minutes. Turn out of pans and serve or let cool completely (approx. 3 hrs) and store in a an airtight container.

uh...something martha stewartish. "home is calling"?

Sourdough starter-risen American pumpernickel and starter maintenance options

"red-headed stepchild" on the right split while rising and that seemed to obviate the need for slashing; "favorite child" on the left obviously got a little better shape and rise 

Devil’s Fart Bread

“Pumpernickel” has the best etymology in baking (sorry, bagel). “Pumpern” was New High German slang for flatulence, and “Nickel” or just “Nick” was a common name for Satan (e.g. “Old Nick”) as well as other off-brand goblins, demons, rascals, and bastards. So the name of the bread literally means “farting devil” or “farting bastard.” Seriously, this etymology is accepted by German philologist Johann Christoph Adelung, Merriam-Webster, the Snopes Language Database, the publisher Random House, and the Kluge, which from what I can tell is basically the German OED.

It apparently got its name because, especially in its original form, it is extraordinarily dense and full of indigestible fiber. Traditional German pumpernickel is made from un-bolted rye flour and whole rye berries, which move through the digestive system like Metamucil (which I will forever associate with Black History Month). The other reason traditional pumpernickel is so dense is that rye contains very little gluten. No matter how much yeast is in the dough, it won’t rise very much because much of the gas just escapes.

from Wikimedia commonsRye flour also absorbs a lot more moisture than wheat flour and has to be very wet in order to rise at all. A 100% rye flour that’s dry enough to be kneaded or shaped by hand will be a dense, unpleasant brick. Instead, traditional pumpernickel is made with a dough that’s almost like a batter and very sticky. It’s stirred instead of kneaded and poured into loaf pans to rise and bake. The gluten network isn’t strong or extensive enough to create the rounded top you get from wheat breads or American rye risen in loaf pans. That’s is why the German-style pumpernickel (100% rye) that you can buy at the store is perfectly square—it can only rise as high as the sides of the loaf pan.

American Deli-style Pumpernickel

The almost-black color of traditional pumpernickel is due to an incredibly long baking time (16-24 hours at 250F), which apparently causes Maillard reaction browning throughout the entire loaf. Maillard reaction is the same thing that makes toast brown, so traditional pumpernickel is sort of like bread that’s been entirely toasted from the inside-out, which gives it a deep roasted flavor reminiscent of chocolate and roasted coffee.

American bakers who didn’t want to spend the time and resources on that kind of baking process found they could mimic the color and flavor produced by a long stay in a low-heat oven using cocoa, molasses, and/or instant coffee granules. As packaged dry yeast became more widely available, that was substituted for the sourdough starter to shorten the rising time, and vinegar was often added to mimic the traditional tang. Additionally, American bakers used a high proportion of wheat flour to rye flour, which gave their version enough gluten to be shaped by hand and rise like other wheat breads. That’s the version that became popular as part of American deli cuisine. It’s still dense, richly-flavored, and dark brown or almost black, depending on how many darkening agents are used. However, the texture is much lighter and springier than traditional pumpernickel, which makes it far better-suited to sandwiches.

The Ruben: corned beef, gruyere, sauerkraut, and a dressing made of mayonnaise, ketchup, and sweet pickle relishEgg Salad: hard-boiled egg, mayonnaise, mustard, minced celery, grated onion, and a little celery salt, with a few pieces of crisp lettuceTurkey Ruben: smoked turkey, gruyere, homemade coleslaw with celery salt

Rye Sourdough Starter Conversion

I made a rye sourdough starter about six months ago, when I was under the mistaken impression that it was possible to make a 100% rye dough that would rise like wheat bread if you just added enough gluten. You can make any kind of starter with any kind of flour by following the process outlined here, but if you have a starter going already, you can also convert it to a different kind of flour by simply feeding it with the new flour. I didn’t actually want to convert Ezekiel, I wanted a separate rye starter, so I just used a tablespoon of Ezekiel and fed it with rye flour about every 24 hours as follows:

Day 1: 1 T. rye flour, 1 T. water

Day 2: 2 T. rye flour, 2 T. water

Day 3: 1/3 cup rye flour, 1/3 cup water

Day 4: 2/3 cup rye flour, 1 cup water

The reason I started giving it more water than flour is because rye flour absorbs a lot more moisture, and I realized that feeding it at a 1:1 ratio would produce something that would eventually be more like a ball of dough than a batter. That would will still work— “old dough” style starters are basically the consistency of dough and must be kneaded into new batches of bread gradually. I think wetter starters are a little easier to incorporate, and that’s what I’m used to using, so I decided to keep my rye starter at 150% hydration (2 parts flour: 3 parts water).

Day 3: a few tiny bubbles, just after feeding. Hard to tell in this shot, but the bowl was just under half-full After 8 hrs, the starter had bubbled up high enough to touch the plastic wrap covering the bowl. Done: active rye starter.

The first day, there wasn’t a whole lot of action. On Day 2, there were a few bubbles. By Day 3, the starter got bubbly within a few minutes of being fed and doubled in size within 8 hours. I used it to make a loaf with 100% rye flour, which didn’t rise much, but did get sour. Previous loaves I’d made with mostly rye flour using my wheat starter rose about the same amount, but didn’t get sour. So the rye starter clearly contains more of some strain of yeast that prefers rye flour.

this was dinner one night in February--quartered slices of a brick of traditional-ish pumpernickel with 1) hummus, cheddar, cucumber, and grape tomato, 2) apricot jam, camembert, and apple slices, 3) egg saladI thought about killing it after a few more tries convinced me that it just wasn’t possible to make a soft, sandwich-style or free-form loaf with 100% rye flour. Even after adding 1/2 cup wheat gluten, I couldn’t get enough of a gluten network going for it to rise like a wheat bread. So I can only make 100% rye as tall as my loaf pans go, basically like a traditional pumpernickel. I don’t dislike traditional pumpernickel, but it only really seems suited to being cut into canapé-sized squares and topped with canapé-style toppings, and there’s only so many of those I can eat. There’s nothing wrong with breads that contain less than 100% rye flour, but I don’t need a separate starter for that—Ezekiel will happily rise anything that contains at least 1/2 cup wheat flour.

Keeping a Once-a-Month Starter

The only reason my rye starter is still alive—although haven’t named it yet, so clearly I’m not that attached to it either—is because I’m maintaining it in a way that only requires me to bake with it about once a month instead of once a week. I only save 1-2 t. starter every time I bake, and then feed it weekly until it’s threatening to overflow its jar, which usually takes at least four weeks. I use almost all of it when I bake and save just another 1-2 t. 

You can keep any kind of starter on that kind of feeding schedule if you want to make sourdough-risen bread, but don’t want to do it every week. Once your starter is active, only save about 1 tsp. fed with 1 tsp. flour and 1 tsp. water (or 1.5 tsp. water if using rye flour). Then, about once a week, add just enough flour and water to double whatever is in the jar. A sample feeding schedule for a 100% hydration wheat starter might be:

Week 1: 1 T. flour + 1 T. water

Week 2: 2 T. flour + 2 T. water

Week 3: 1/4 cup flour + 1/4 cup water

Week 4: 1/2 cup flour + 1/2 cup water

Week 5: 1 cup flour + 1 cup water OR bake and start from the beginning again

Sometimes I forget about it for a week, and nothing bad seems to happen. Once I’ve built it up to 1-2 cups again, I make a mental note that I should bake with it sometime in the next week or two. The night before I want to bake, I “refresh” it by pulling it out of the fridge, dumping it into a bowl, adding 1 cup flour and 1 cup water and letting it sit at room temperature for at least 8 hrs before mixing the dough. The next day, I measure out as much as I need for the recipe I’m using, and if there’s a lot left over, I either add it to the recipe and reduce the amount of flour/water I use (baking really isn’t a science), double the recipe, or make another loaf. I suppose I could also just throw the extra away, but I hate to do that. I reserve just about a teaspoonful of the refreshed starter to put back in the jar with a teaspoon each of fresh flour and water, which makes a total of about 1 T. starter. Refrigerate. Repeat. 

I could also save a little more starter, say 2 T. or 1/4 cup, and feed it for just two or three weeks between baking. Not to get all self-help lit, but how empowering is that? You don’t have to be controlled by your yeast culture. You can have sourdough-risen bread as often, or infrequently as you want it. You are the master of your own sourdough starter!

Of course, you can also just use active dry yeast, too, and I’ve included modifications for that and a version that uses a wheat-sourdough below the ingredient list.

Recipe: Rye-starter-risen American Pumpernickel (makes 2 large loaves, adapted from Smitten Kitchen)

Ingredients:

  • 3 cups refreshed rye starter at 150% hydration (roughly 1.5 cups rye flour and 2.25 cups water)
  • 1 1/2 cups dark rye flour
  • 3 1/2 cups bread flour
  • 1/4 cup water
  • 1/2 cup vital wheat gluten (optional but highly recommended)
  • 1 cup rolled oats
  • 1/4 cup molasses
  • 4-8 T. butter
  • 3 t. salt
  • 2 T. malt extract, maple syrup, or sugar (optional)
  • 1/2 t.-2 t. caraway seeds (optional)
  • 1/2 t. fennel seeds (optional)
  • 1/2 t. coriander seeds (optional)
  • 1 T. shallot, fresh or dried, or onion powder (optional)
  • 2 T. cocoa (optional)
  • 1 T. instant espresso or coffee powder (optional)

Wheat Sourdough Starter Substitution: Use 2 cups of 100%-hydration sourdough starter made with all-purpose or high-gluten wheat flour, like Ezekiel (~1.5 cups flour and 1.5 cups water), increase the dark rye to 3 cups, reduce the bread flour to 2 cups, and increase the water to 1 cup. The rest of the ingredients and steps stay the same. If the dough is too sticky to knead, add more wheat flour. If it’s too dry to form a smooth ball and cracks as you knead it, add more water.

Active Dried Yeast Substitution: Combine 2 packages or 1.5 T. active dry yeast with 1/2 cup warm water (110-120F) and 1/2 cup all-purpose or bread flour. Let sit for 10 min, and then add 3 cups rye flour, 2 1/2 cups bread flour, 2 cups warm water, 1/4 cup apple cider vinegar and the rest of the ingredients from the gluten on down in the same amounts as above. If the dough is too sticky to knead, add more flour. If it’s too dry and cracks as you knead it, add more water.

Method:

1. If using fresh shallot, mince. If using dried shallot and/or any of the spices, grind them in a coffee grinder, mortar and pestle, or by putting them in a zip-top bag and crushing them with a rolling pin.

I discovered the motor in my coffee grinder was dead, so opted for the ziploc bag route Some people like the seeds whole--if you do, skip this step and just add them to the dough

2. Whisk together the flours and the gluten, if using. The gluten will start to form long sticky strands as soon as it is moistened, so you want it to be distributed throughout the flour and the dough well.

3. Combine all the ingredients in a large bowl and stir just until it starts to come together. black bread 009black bread 010

3. Turn onto a lightly floured surface or rolling mat and knead for at least 15 minutes. It should be slightly sticky, but stick to itself more than it sticks to you and you should be able to form it into a smooth ball.

4. Lightly coat the bowl with oil, put the dough in the bowl and turn to coat the whole surface lightly with oil. Cover and let rise 6-8 hours (or more) until doubled in size.

~midnight~7am

5. Punch the dough down and divide into 2 equal pieces. Shape each into a smooth round ball or oblong, or place in a loaf pan. Cover and let rise again until doubled in size (probably at least 2 hrs, perhaps as much as 6 depending on how active your starter is).

punched down as they rose, they ended up being too close to each other and too big for the same pan, so I cut the parchment in half and separated them

6. Preheat the oven to 350F about 30 minutes before you want to put them in the oven.

7. Slash with a sharp knife—diagonal cuts for oblong loaves, a cross or square for round loaves, a slice down the middle for loaf pans. You can also let the loaf split naturally—one of mine did as it was rising. There must have been a small tear in the gluten network on the outside, which grew into a massive split as it rose. They just look a little more “rustic” that way.

8. Bake for 45-55 minutes, or until the loaves sound hollow when tapped on the bottom.

The combination of caraway, fennel, chocolate, coffee, molasses, and onion or shallot probably isn't for everyone. I'm not a huge fan of caraway so I tend to use very little or leave it out. But there is something about the combination of caraway-infused American Pumpernickel, corned beef, and sauerkraut that just seems "right."

Sourdough-risen No-knead Pizza Dough

with a spicy tomato sauce, bacon, cherry tomatoes, sauteed onions, and fontina cheese

Homemade Bread When There’s No Time to Make Bread

One of the perks of being in graduate school is that I basically work from home most days, so if I want to take a break in the middle of the afternoon to knead bagel dough until there’s enough gluten to make a baker’s windowpane, I usually can. But I know that’s a luxury not everyone has, and sometimes even I can’t seem to fit all that kneading in. As much as I might like to live by some sort of mantra like, “If I’m too busy to knead bread for 15 minutes, I’m too busy,” sometimes, like it or not, busy just happens.  

Ezekiel, just after being refreshed with 1 c. bread flour and 1 c. water, already bubblingHowever, I also have this yeast creature named Ezekiel, and if I don’t bake with him at least once every  two weeks (and preferably every week—keeps him more active), he will eventually suffocate in his own excrement. That may be one of the biggest deterrents for people who might otherwise be interested in creating and maintaining their own starters—even if you’re an avid baker, a sourdough starter represents a kind of commitment. Whether or not you’re type to get emotionally invested in your fermenting flour paste, the whole endeavor is likely to seem like a waste of time and food if you’re just going to end up killing the stupid thing in a month or two anyhow.

However, thanks to the no-knead method popularized by Jim Lahey of Sullivan Bakery and Mark Bittman of the NYTimes, the inevitability of weeks when you will be too busy to knead a loaf of bread shouldn’t stop anyone from having a starter. Honestly, no-knead bread is probably the only reason Ezekiel is still alive. There are some culinary justifications for the no-knead method too—if you don’t have to knead a dough, it can be stickier and that increased moisture content is one way of producing a crackling “artisan bread” crust. Also, the long, slow rise produces the big pockets of air and uneven crumb people have come to expect and desire from “rustic” breads like ciabatta. But the best part by far is being able to make homemade bread with about as much time and effort as it takes to boil an egg.*

I’ll post my sourdough-risen adaptation of the classic crusty Dutch Oven-baked boule everyone loves eventually. But I think the best testament to the versatility and ease of the no-knead method is no-knead pizza.

The Four Keys to Great Pizza Crust

1) Gluten 

Pizza is even more reliant on gluten than most yeast breads. Without a lot of gluten, the crust will tear before you can stretch it thin enough to be a crust instead of something more like focaccia. can be rolled thinner for a true thin crust, but then it won't get those big fat bubbles, which I loveLots of gluten is also what makes pizza crusts chewier than normal bread—usually, you want something closer in texture to a bagel than sandwich bread. Normally, you produce gluten by kneading the dough for a long time, but the no-knead method uses a very long rise instead, which facilitates gluten production without any effort on your part. Time basically does the kneading for you.

However, you do need to use a high-protein flour to give time the raw material to work with. If you substitute all-purpose flour, the crust will probably tear when you try to shape it. If you don’t want to buy bread flour because you’re afraid you’ll never 5 lbs of it, but you do have access to a “natural foods” store, you can use vital wheat gluten to increase the protein content of regular or low-gluten flour—whisk 1 T. vital wheat gluten per cup of all-purpose flour or 2 T. per cup of whole wheat or cake flour into the dry ingredients before combining them with the wet ingredients.

2) Olive Oil

The traditional no-knead dough recipe contains no fat at all, like a baguette dough, but pizza dough usually contains at least a little fat both for suppleness and for flavor. So instead of using Jim Lahey’s recipe for no-knead pizza dough, I use the “Olive Oil Dough Master Version” from the book Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day, adapted to work with my 100% hydration sourdough starter (a 1:1 combination of flour and water by volume). Any kind of oil will work, but I think my favorite thing about this dough is that you can smell and taste the olive oil in the final product. 

3) Refrigeration

can be used just like the refrigerated dough you can buy at the storeMost pizzerias refrigerate their crusts for a minimum of 24 hours. The cold slows the yeast activity  down and enables even more gluten development and a lot of flavor development, which is largely due to the yeast byproducts. You can bake the crust without refrigerating it, and it will turn out okay; however, it will be way better after at least one and up to ten days in the refrigerator. While that might be a bummer for instant gratification-seekers, it actually makes this a super convenient meal. You can throw the dough together one day and then after the long rise, divide it into individual pizza-sized amounts and store them in separate ziptop bags in the refrigerator for use basically anytime in the next two weeks.

Then, whenever you want pizza, all you have to do is roll it out, top it, and bake it. Even if you grate the cheese by hand and the toppings you want to use take some prep work—like cooking bacon and sautéing some sliced onion in the rendered fat or chopping up a pear or bell pepper—you can do that in the time it takes the oven to preheat. Baking only takes 15 minutes, and if you’re of the mind that pizza alone isn’t a complete and balanced meal, you can use that to throw together a salad or cut up and steam a head of broccoli. If you use already-prepped toppings like shredded cheese, canned artichokes, and pre-sliced olives or chopped up leftovers, the whole process takes less than 20 minutes of active time. Either way, your pizza will be done in less time than it takes to get delivery.

4) Hot Oven & Stone

While the exact temperature may vary by oven, which you’ll only figure out by experimenting, you can narrow your search to 400F+. A super-hot oven is what makes the yeast go crazy, producing those great big bubbles and crisping the top of the crust. For a crisp bottom crust, you need a preheated surface—ideally a baking tile or pizza stone, but a preheated baking sheet is better than nothing.

For my oven, 15 minutes at 500F is perfect—I get a soggy crust at both 450 or 550. You’d think it would just get crisper as the oven gets hotter (or at least I did), but when I tried it at 550F, after 12 or so minutes the top was starting to burn and the bottom wasn’t totally crisp, and got softer and limper as it cooled. At 450, the bottom would begin to burn by the time the cheese on top melted and despite that, never got totally crisp.

As I’ve mentioned before, you don’t have to drop $40 on something specifically marketed as a baking tile or pizza stone at Williams-Sonoma, you can use any unglazed quarry tile that will fit in your oven, which should be available at most home improvement stores for a couple of dollars (Alton Brown claims they cost $0.99 in the 2007 Good Eats episode “Flat is Beautiful” and katie k at the Fresh Loaf recommends asking for “saltillo tiles” which ran about $1.50 in Southern California in 2006).

1 pizza serves 2-3; we usually eat 2/3 for dinner and leave the last two pieces out for a snack later that night. on rare occasions, they survive and become breakfast the bubbles inevitably collapse a little once you cut the pie

Recipe: Sourdough-risen No-Knead Pizza Dough (makes 2 12”-14” pizzas)

(adapted from Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day; for the instant yeast version, see Steamy Kitchen)

  • 2 c. refreshed starter
  • 2 t. kosher salt
  • 2 t. sugar
  • 2 T. olive oil
  • 2 1/4 cups bread flour (may substitute some or all whole wheat flour, but add 2 T. vital wheat gluten per cup)
  • parchment paper or cornmeal and additional flour for dusting baking sheet

1. Whisk the olive oil into the refreshed starter, and then add the rest of the ingredients (aside from the parchment paper and cornmeal) and stir just until combined—about 1 min.

2. Cover and let rise 8-20 hours or until the dough is more than doubled in size and there are fat bubbles on the surface.

ingredients just combined into a dough--it will be sticky about 12 hours later. also an illustration of why if i cooked more during the day, my photos would be so much nicer

3. Divide the dough into two balls. Stretch the surface of each one and pinch the edges together and then roll it around on a smooth surface to form round balls with taut surfaces. Pour some olive oil into two zip-top bags (I usually use the 1 qt. size) and spread it around a little or spray a little cooking spray into them and tuck one ball into each bag. You could also just store the whole thing in one gallon-sized bag and pull off a grapefruit-sized hunk when you want to bake, but I find the one ball, one bag method to be a little more convenient.

how dirty does "smooth, taut balls" sound? oiled bags

4. Refrigerate for at least 24 hours or up to 10 days. Alternatively, shape and bake now.

5. Remove dough from cold storage 30 min-1 hr before rolling it out to let it warm up a little. When ready to bake, preheat oven to 500F with a baking tile placed on a middle rack or a baking sheet on the lowest rack possible—or even on the floor of the oven. you can also stretch it with your hands and toss it in the air. I am not that cool.

6. Roll the dough to approximately 1/4” thickness for a chewy, bubbly crust. For a true thin crust, roll it as thin as you can make it—until you can almost begin to see light through it. The best way to create a mostly even circle is to flatten the dough into a round and then roll from the center to the top edge and then turn the circle 90 degrees and repeat—roll, turn, roll, turn, roll turn, etc. always rolling in the same direction, straight from the middle of the circle towards 12 o’clock. 

7. Cover loosely with plastic wrap or a lightly floured towel (I usually cut open the ziptop bag and use that as the oil will keep it from sticking). Let rise for 20-30 minutes while the oven finishes preheating and you finish prepping any ingredients.

8. Top as desired. Alton Brown insists that less is more. I think it’s your damn pizza and you should do whatever you want with it. Some combinations I especially like:

With no sauce, just brushed with olive oil:

  • sautéed shallots and shitake mushrooms with fontina
  • firm pears and blue cheese (with or without bacon and/or arugula)
  • lots of fresh herbs, garlic and a hard cheese like asiago

With tomato sauce:

  • eggs (either scrambled or just broken, whole, onto the pizza so they cook over easy in the oven) with peas and ham or bacon (fake bacon works just about as well) with pressed mozarella or monterey jack
  • artichoke hearts, sliced olives, and asiago
  • salad shrimp, diced green onions, blanched asparagus tips, and a hard, sharp cheese like parmeggiano-regiano grated coarsely or peeled in strips with a vegetable peeler
  • fresh tomato and garlic with slices of fresh mozzarella (basil optional)
  • leftover meatloaf with onion and sharp cheddar

With an herb or arugula pesto:

  • sautéed bell peppers and onions with pepperjack cheese
  • fresh tomato and mozzarella (a repeat, but it’s a classic)

and bacon, sauteed onions, cherry tomatoes, and fontina wasn't half bad either 

9. Bake for 10-15 min. or until cheese is melted and crust is golden-brown.

*Why this is the standard metric of simplicity, I don’t know. I mean, I had to look up how to boil an egg not that long ago. And anytime you have to drain something and then shock it in ice water, that’s probably at a level of complexity belied by the way “boiling an egg” is invoked. I mean, have you seen The Worst Cooks in America? How many of them would know how to boil an egg? I mean, I’m sure they could put an egg in boiling water—but how many of them would know when to pull it out and how to prevent that unappetizing grey outer layer of yolk from developing? Clearly a cliché from another era.

Sourdough-Risen Whole Wheat Bagels and the Sweetness of the Old World

Happy day after St. Pat's! Can I offer you some carbohydrates? Perhaps slathered in some fat?  

“Authentic” Bagels: Boil, Bake, and Bluster

There are three things that distinguish bagels from other breads:

The first, perhaps obviously, is the shape. There are at least four different theories about the origin of the word “bagel,” and all of them refer to the shape (etymology notes below the recipe for fellow word geeks). However, you can’t just make a standard bread dough into rings, throw it in a hot oven, and expect it to develop the glossy crust and dense, chewy interior that most people associate with bagels.

The second difference is an issue of method: bagels are traditionally boiled before they’re baked, which causes the surface starch to gelatinize, producing their characteristic smooth, shiny crust. The same is Or maybe the bagel married in, likely to the tacit (if not explicit) alarm of some of the older members of the Christian family.true of pretzels, which originated in the same region and, according to Maria Balinska, who wrote a 2008 book about the history of the bagel, are probably related. She specifically calls them “cousins,” whatever that means in terms of food history. She also notes that the Polish obwarzanek—another boiled, ring-shaped bread often sprinkled with sesame or poppy seeds—is an “older and Christian relative,” so perhaps that’s the spinster aunt who devoted herself to Jesus. Google translates the Polish entry on “Obwarzanek” to “Bagel,” and this travel guide refers to them as “pretzel rings.” I’m sure different people have different ways of distinguishing between the three, but the boil-then-bake method they share probably makes them more alike than different. So, for example, some people might think pretzels have to be shaped like folded arms whereas other people accept rods or rings as “pretzels,” but either way they’re formed from ropes of dough that maximize the surface area exposed to the boiling water, just like their relatives.

The third difference is an ingredient—bagels are the only bread I know of whose recipes frequently call for malt extract. Pretzel recipes occasionally include it, but not nearly as often as bagel recipes, many of which claim that the malt extract is the key to making “authentic” bagels or achieving a truly “bagel-y” flavor.

The idealized referent of bagel authenticity is usually the “New York bagel,” rather than their Polish-Jewish ancestors. However, when I lived in New York City, I ate plenty of bagels—even at delis on the Lower East Side—that were indistinguishable from the ones available at chains like Brugger’s and Einstein’s nationwide. Perhaps that’s just further evidence of the declining standard described here (accompanying a recipe that demands malt powder):

I can’t count how often expatriate New Yorkers would stop me on the street with tears in their eyes, telling me that mine were the best bagels they’d had since they left "The City," and that they were better than most in "The City" these days. The reasons are simple. I didn’t cut corners and used good ingredients. I don’t know why so many bakeries cut corners on making bagels these days, it’s really NOT that hard!

But I think it’s more likely that the idea of the superior New York bagel is primarily the product of nostalgic fantasies and social decline narratives—it’s something that never was and tells you more about contemporary anxieties and desires than anything real in the past. The tears in those expatriates’ eyes say more about contemporary feelings of depthlessness and transience, the desire for connections to the past and a sense of community, and the myriad dissatisfactions that make people want to think everything was better in the “good old days” than what makes a bagel delicious or “authentic” to anything.

Malt Extract: the Ancient Sweetener in your Bud Light

Given how the same bakers describe malted barley extract on their ingredients page, its presence is probably one of the so-infuriatingly-cut corners they’re talking about:

We wouldn’t dream of making bagels or kaiser rolls without barley malt extract, and neither should you! Barley malt extract improves the taste and texture of the breads it is used in. It goes by a number of names. barley malt extract and malt extract among them. If a malt extract doesn’t specify what grain it is made from, chances are pretty good it was made from barley. Barley is a grain used mostly in brewing beer and making Scotch Whisky. IBarley makt [sic] extract adds a nice taste to breads where it is used. For our recipes, you can either liquid or dry, diastatic or non-diastatic malt extract and not worry about changing the recipe, any combination of these will work just fine. The important things to avoid are hopped malt extract which is really only useful for making beer and the malted milk powder sold in many grocery stores as a milk flavor enhancer which has too little malt in it and too much sugar.

From an 1896 Harper's Magazine @ http://danshuihistory.blogspot.com/2009/11/li-hung-chang.htmlMalt extract is basically just sugar made from grain, usually starting with barley. According to Harold McGee, it’s “among the most ancient and versatile of sweetening agents, and was the predecessor of modern-day high-tech corn syrups.” Just like corn syrup and agave nectar, malt extract is produced by breaking starches into their constituent sugars. Rather than adding enzymes or acids, malting works by simply germinating or sprouting the grain. As a grain germinates, it produces enzymes that digest the grain’s starch to fuel its growth. Those enzymes can be dried and mixed with cooked grains (usually rice, wheat, and barley), which they can also digest, producing a sweet slurry containing lots of glucose, maltose (glucose+glucose), maltotriose (glucose+glucose+glucose), and some longer glucose chains.

It’s not as sweet as sugar, but before sugar colonialism, it was one of the primary sweeteners available in Europe and Asia (the other two were honey and molasses made from sorghum). According to McGee, it was the primary sweetener in China until around 1000 CE, and is still used in China and Korea for confections and the sweet, caramelized gloss on dishes like Peking Duck. Malt extract is also still frequently used in beer brewing—a friend who does home brewing told me recently that American brewers are especially likely to use it to adjust the alcohol content of their beers midway through the brewing process. Apparently the laws regarding how closely the alcohol percentage matches what’s on the label are fairly strict and as the sugars in malt extract are highly available to yeast, it’s a good way to increase the yeast activity quickly and reliably.

cocktails to anyone who knows the mug's year

Possibly-Heretical Baking Substitutions

I'm not 100% sure what the label means. Is it malted wheat? Malted barley that was fed with cooked wheat? Malted wheat fed with cooked wheat? McGee claims that malt extract is “frequently used in baking to provide maltose and glucose for yeast growth and moisture retention,” and that might be true for commercial bakers, but it’s not available at most grocery stores, where home bakers get their supplies (it can be found anywhere that carries home brewing supplies and many “natural foods” retailers, including some Whole Foods). However, before sugar was readily available and cheap, it seems likely that malt extract was used the way other sugars often are today—to speed up yeast activity, enhancing rise and oven spring—in many kinds of bread, not just bagels. 

Some bagel recipes call for other sugars in place of the malt extract in bagel dough—the first recipe I tried called for maple syrup, perhaps because of it’s phonological similarity to “malt syrup,” the liquid form of malt extract or because they’re both liquids, though malt syrup is much thicker—closer to unfiltered honey. Recipes that call for “malt powder” but also recommend a sugar substitution generally call for brown sugar. And I found at least one that suggests malt powder, malt syrup, honey, and maple syrup are all interchangeable. Of course, they all have slightly different flavors, but most recipes only call for 1520 g for ~8 bagels so any affect the sweetener’s flavor has on the final product is bound to be minimal.

It’s been a while since I made the maple syrup batch, but I honestly didn’t notice any major flavor difference in the batch pictured above, which used malt extract. Perhaps part of the problem was that I used a “wheat” malt, which may not have as malty a flavor as barley malt. But, again according to McGee, even when it starts with malted barley, “malt syrup has a relatively mild malt aroma because the malted barley is a small fraction of the grain mixture.” In short, despite what some recipes say, you shouldn’t let your lack of malt extract stop you from making homemade bagels.

Nonetheless, it’s still a mystery why bagel recipes would be more insistent about using malt extract than any of the other breads descended from European varieties developed before sugar colonialism. Why are people so willing to substitute sugar in everything from soft, buttery brioche to pretzels, bagels’ closest cousins, but fanatics about the importance of using this particular Old World sugar to certify the authenticity of the bagel?

A Fetish for the Old World

My theory is that it has to do with the bagel’s iconicity and association with Jewishness. One story about the origin of the bagel that seems plausible (though Balinska lumps it with the story about stirrups—explained in the etymology note at the end—as speculative at best and possibly fictitious) is that it’s another version of the ubiquitous roll-with-a-hole developed by Jewish bakers in Krakow after a decree limiting baking or trade in flour to the bakers’ guild was lifted. Even in Poland, which from its founding was more tolerant to Jews than most countries in Europe, Christian trade and craft guilds in many cities excluded Jewish merchants and artisans, who sometimes formed their own guilds. The travel guide’s description of Obwarzanek claims that King Jan Sobieski lifted the ban in 1496, but he didn’t rule until the 17th C. Other claims that Jan Sobieski lifted the ban in the late 17th C. are problematic because the Yiddish word “beygel” was already in widespread currency in Krakow by 1610. There was a different King Jan in 1496—Jan I Olbracht or John I Albert—whose reign was also notable primarily for wars against the Turks. Perhaps he lifted the ban, and Jan Sobieski’s greater fame and friendliness to Poland’s Jews sort of absorbed the earlier Jan’s bagel-inspiring or enabling acts? 

Regardless of precisely when or why Jewish bakers in Krakow started making their own version of the obwarzanek, it’s probably the strictness of Jewish dietary laws that made it so popular and caused it to spread to different Jewish communities, whereas the obwarzanek has remained basically a Krakow specialty. It’s leavened, so it’s not kosher for Passover, but it doesn’t contain any dairy so it is parve. Additionally, the thick, solid crust keeps the interior soft and moist better than a split or craggy crust would. So while bagels, like most breads, are tastier when enhanced with fatty spreads or toppings, they’re not bad plain. I suspect that’s also why the Jewish bagel is traditionally shaped into a smooth round whereas obwarzanek look like they’re usually twisted and supposedly do stale quickly:

On leaving the oven the baked goods have a sell-by date of about three hours. As such, finding a hot one is essential. Enjoyed by people of all ages, obwarzanki also feed Kraków’s entire pigeon population when in the evenings the city’s 170-180 obwarzanki carts essentially become bird-food vendors.

Of course, soft pretzels also have a smooth crust that protects the soft interior and makes them tasty with or without added fats, but the pretzel was never associated with Jewishness. The popularity of bagels in America and canonization of the “New York bagel” has everything to do with Jewishness. According to We Are What We Eat: Ethnic Food and the Making of Americans by University of Minnesota historian Donna Gabaccia:

It is true that in the 1890s in the United States only Jews from Eastern Europe ate bagels. In thousands of nondescript bakeries—including the one founded in New Haven around 1926 by Harry Lender from Lublin, Poland—Jewish bakers sold bagels to Jewish consumers. The bagel was not a central culinary icon for Jewish immigrants; even before Polish and Russian Jews left their ethnic enclaves or ghettoes, their memories exalted gefilte fish and chicken soup prepared by their mothers, but not the humble, hard rolls purchased from the immigrant baker. As eaters, Jewish immigrants were initially far more concerned with the purity of their kosher meat, their challah, and their matzos, and with the satisfactions of their sabbath and holiday meals, than with their morning hard roll….

They became firmly identified as “Jewish” only as Jewish bakers began selling them to their multi-ethnic urban neighbors. When bagels emerged from ghetto stores as a Jewish novelty, bagels with cream cheese [which, as she elsewhere notes, was initially developed by English Quakers in the Delaware Valley and Philadelphia in the eighteenth century] quickly became a staple of the multi-ethnic mix that in this century became known as “New York deli,” and was marketed and mass-produced throughout the country under this new regional identity.

As she also notes, in Israel bagels are considered “American” not Jewish. However, their widespread association with Jewishness in the U.S.—both as a marketing tool and as the basis of legit cultural practice and memory—puts greater demands on bagels and bagel bakers to legitimate their authenticity and historicity. Whether it was a continuation of the pre-18th C. practice of using malt extract in many breads to speed up yeast action or a a re-introduction of the ingredient from some centuries-old bagel recipes, using malt extract has become one way for people to differentiate their bagels and lay claim to greater “authenticity.” 

Making Your Own

Authentic or not, this recipe is delicious and fairly easy. Like most yeast breads, it takes time, but not a lot of active time. You can use any combination of flours you want, but if you want a really chewy crust and crumb, you will need a high proportion of protein. Some recipes suggest “high-gluten” bread flour, which has an even higher percentage of protein than bread flour. King Arthur claims their “Sir Lancelot” flour is the highest-protein flour currently available for retail sale at 14.2% protein. I just used regular bread flour (10-12% protein), whole wheat bread flour (up to 14% protein, although the additional fiber seems to limit gluten action which is also why I didn’t make them with 100% whole wheat flour), and added approximately 1 T. vital wheat gluten per cup of flour (including the flour in the starter). Even if you just used all-purpose flour, they would probably still be good, just less chewy.

You can add more of any kind of sugar or whatever else you might want in them—dried fruits, nuts, chocolate chips, chopped spinach, grated cheeses, etc. And you can top them however you like—I used kosher salt for some, sesame seeds for some, and a combination of bits of fried garlic, fried shallot, black sesame seeds, and kosher salt, kind of like one version of an “everything” bagel. I think they’re best fresh out of the oven, slathered with butter, but true to form, they’re also good plain (and easy to stow in a bag for a convenient snack) and on days 2 and 3, they’re great toasted.

 and all the delicious bits that fall off can be pressed into the soft side 

Recipe: Sourdough-Risen Bagels (to substitute instant yeast see this entry)

  • 2 cups refreshed starter (450g)
  • 3 1/4 cups flour with 12-14%-protein (550g) I used:
    • 4 T. vital wheat gluten (50g)
    • 1 1/2 cups whole wheat bread flour (250g)
    • 1 1/2 cups bread flour (250g)
  • 4 t malt extract (20g)—optional
  • 2 t kosher salt (15g)
  • 3/4 cup water (170g)
  • 3 T oil (35g)
  • 1 T maple syrup (20g)
  • toppings—sesame or poppy seeds, salt, fried garlic or shallots, finely grated hard cheeses, etc.
  • 1 tsp. baking soda (for poaching water, not for dough)

1. Whisk together flours, gluten, and malt extract if using. Add starter, water, salt, oil, and maple syrup.

incredients combined enough of a dough to begin kneading

2. Mix until they begin to form a dough. Turn onto a lightly floured surface and knead for about 15 minutes. If you have a mixer or processer with a dough hook, you can use it for this step. Gluten development is pretty important if you want chewy bagels, so it’s worth checking for the baker’s windowpane.

after 12 minutes of kneading, close but not quite after 15 minutes, it's smoother and stretchier

3. Cover and let rise 3-4 hours, or until doubled. You can let it rise longer and nothing bad will happen, although the sour flavor will become more pronounced over time, and positively sourdough-like after 12-15 hours. You can significantly retard the rise by refrigerating the dough.

bagels 035 bagels 036

4. Divide the dough into 8-12 equal pieces. If you want to be especially particular, use a scale. Eight will be ~155g each, ten will be ~125g each (the size I made), twelve will be ~105g each. Shape them either by poking a hole in the middle of a round and stretching it out or rolling the dough into a rope 9-12 inches long, and pinching the ends together. In my experience, the latter makes for a slightly more consistent thickness.

the poking method the rope method two lumpier ones on the top right were shaped by stretching a hole, the others were all made with the rope method

5. Let rise another 3 hours (30-45 min. if using instant yeast) or cover and refrigerate overnight or up to a week, and remove 1 hour before you’re ready to bake to let them come back to room temperature (so if you want fresh bagels in the morning, you need to make the dough by the afternoon before).

6. When ready to bake, preheat the oven to 400F, boil a large pot of water with 1 tsp. baking soda dissolved in it, and put a couple tablespoons of any toppings you want into bowls.

clocwise from the top left: kosher salt, "everything" mix of fried garlic and shallot and black sesame seeds and salt, and plain roasted sesame seeds

7. When the water is boiling, carefully place 2-3 bagels at a time (more if the pot is large enoguh that more can float in the pot without touching) and poach them for 1 minute on each side. Remove them to a colander and then, while they’re still wet, place them in one of the bowls of toppings.

poaching side 1 poaching side 2 collecting toppings

ready to bake 

8. Bake for 20-25 minutes, or until browned. Rotate pans half-way through if your oven is uneven.

Fun With Etymology

Leo Rosten’s Joys of Yiddish (1968) says the origin is “beugel,” the German word for “a round loaf of bread,” although it’s a little perplexing why that would have been used to describe a bread that, unlike the ubiquitous round loaf, is ring-shaped. And also, Wiktionary is all “beugel? I don’t know no beugel.”

Several sources, including a 1993 New York Times article and a 2006 book titled Bakery Products: Science and Technology, refer to a popular myth that bagels were invented by Jewish bakers in Vienna as a tribute either King John (Jan) III Sobieski or a King Jan (John) Cobleskill of Poland after he saved the city from Turkish invaders in 1683. The King’s favorite hobby was horse riding, so they shaped the rolls like stirrups, the German word for which is “bugel” (the Austrian word is “beugel” which may be the origin of the first faux-etymology). However, a letter to the editor demanded that “that piece of fakelore be laid to rest,” noting that Yiddish word “beygl” appears in the communal rules promulgated by the leaders of the Cracow Jewish community in 1610: “The rules stipulate that bagels are among the gifts which may be given to women in childbirth and to midwives.” Furthermore, the word appears in the rules without any definition or explanation, suggesting that it was already well-established by the early 17th C.

Two that seem more likely: According to FoodReference.com, the Oxford Companion to Food (1999) says the word comes from “bugel,” not the German word for stirrup, but the Middle High German word for “ring or bracelet.” And in Jewish Cooking in America (1994), Joan Nathan claims that the word derives from “biegen,” the verb meaning “to bend.” Both “bugel” and “beigen” are derived from the Old High German “biogan,” meaning to bow, bend, or curve and the related root “boug-,” which in turn is descended from the Proto-Germanic “beugan” (which, incidentally, also gives us the Old English root “beag” or “beah” which also refers to a ring—“usually meant for the arm or neck; but in one case at least used of a finger ring” OED). So that Germanic root for all things bendy and ring-like is likely the origin of the Yiddish word that was in wide use in Poland by 1610.

Baking Crusty Shaped Loaves at Home with Sourdough or Instant Yeast

Ezekiel vs. Red Star Rapid-Rise

The primary difference between the kind of bread that you can buy in plastic bags for as little as $.99 a loaf at most supermarkets (exemplified, of course, by Wonderbread) and “artisan” breads that go for $5+ at bakeries isn’t actually the kind of yeast or flour or any special oils or add-ins. Usually, it’s the crust. And the key to the crackling, chewy crust that says “artisan” to most people is moisture.

When a loaf is exposed to the dry heat of the oven, a couple of processes are set in motion—the yeast start to go crazy and produce gas much more rapidly, which is what creates more holes in the dough (sometimes called “oven spring”), and the starches begin to gelatinize. In a regular, dry oven, the starches on the outside gelatinize really quickly, which can retard the rise a bit and create a smooth exterior. Steam slows the gelatinization process for the crust, which changes the texture.

Bakeries usually achieve their result with special ovens that blast loaves with steam in the early stages of baking. The no-knead method popularized by the NYTimes achieves similar results with a wet dough and a preheated, covered pot, which creates a mini-sauna for the loaf. I use the no-knead method a lot, adapted for my sourdough starter, and it probably has the best reward/effort ratio of any recipe I use regularly—the only thing I can think of that would even compete is roasted garlic. But sometimes I want a shaped loaf with the same kind of crust—a baguette or something with an interesting slashing pattern. Those are hard to achieve if you’re just dumping a dough too wet to knead into super-hot pot.

Bittman makes it sound nigh-impossible to achieve bakery results in a home oven any other way:

I have tried brushing the dough with water (a hassle and ineffective); spraying it (almost as ineffective and requiring frequent attention); throwing ice cubes on the floor of the oven (not good for the oven, and not far from ineffective); and filling a pot with stones and preheating it, then pouring boiling water over the stones to create a wet sauna (quite effective but dangerous, physically challenging and space-consuming). I was discouraged from using La Cloche, a covered stoneware dish, by my long-standing disinclination to crowd my kitchen with inessential items that accomplish only one chore. I was discouraged from buying a $5,000 steam-injected oven by its price.

But I have a method that I think works pretty well. It’s somewhere between the La Cloche method and the pot of stones method—it does require specialized equipment, but a baking tile is far more flexible and affordable than a La Cloche. Alton Brown says you can use any “unglazed quarry stone” and according to this post at The Fresh Loaf, “saltillo tiles” that fit the bill were selling for $1.50 at Home Depots in Southern California in 2006. For the steam, I set a cast iron pot on the floor of the oven, and just after I slide the shaped loaves onto the baking tile, I pour 1/3 cup warm water from the tap into the pot and then quickly close the oven. Five minutes later, I pour another 1/3 cup water into the pot. None of which seems especially dangerous, expensive, space-consuming, or challenging, and gives me crusty loaves in whatever shape I please.

windows live writer's photo-editing capabilities are cool, but just short of fix-your-cockeyed-framing cool

For these loaves, I used a basic baguette recipe, which I got from Brian’s grandmother. I had some whole wheat pastry flour and medium rye flour to use up, both of which are low-gluten flours, so I added a little vital wheat gluten, which you can get at most “natural food” retailers (it’s the primary ingredient in seitan). Gluten is the protein in wheat, which creates long stretchy chains when combined with water, and those capture the gas bubbles created by the yeast. If you use more than 1 cup low-gluten flour (which includes all-purpose wheat, whole wheat, and any kind of rye or spelt) you will definitely need to add gluten to get results that look like the pictures. I also threw in some flax meal, oats, and sunflower seeds.

A few days later, I was invited to a friends’ house later that evening and decided I wanted to take them some bread, but obviously it needed to happen fast, so I used packaged yeast. The dual recipes below the jump demonstrate the interchangeability of starter/instant yeast (I also explain how to substitute either in any recipe here). There are some slight differences—the sourdough version takes longer to rise and will contain more lactic acid which gives it a slightly more sour and “bready” flavor. Since the instant yeast version rises faster at room temperature, depending on when you slash it, the oven spring might not be as dramatic so the slashes will look deeper in the final loaf (like they do in the picture on the right at the top).  But either way, I think the result is lovely—a moist, chewy interior and crisp, shattering crust, great flavor and aroma.

These recipes are also completely flexible—you could use any combination of flours and add other seeds or nuts or dried fruits or grated cheeses or cooked alliums. You could shape it differently to make a baguette or a classic boule. If you can dream it, you can bake it.

the loaf of my dreams

Recipe and instructions, with pictures, below the jump.

Recipe: Sourdough-risen Multigrain bread (1 big loaf—I doubled this to make 2)

  • 1 cup refreshed starter
  • 1 cups water
  • 3 cups flour (I used 2 cups bread flour, 3/4 cups whole wheat pastry flour, and 1/4 cup dark rye)
  • 1 T. vital wheat gluten (optional)
  • 1/4 cup oats
  • 1/4 cup sunflower seeds
  • 2 T. flax meal
  • 2 t. kosher salt
  • 1 t. sugar

Recipe: Instant Yeast-risen Multigrain bread (1 big loaf)

  • 1 2/3 cups lukewarm water (not over 115F or it’ll kill the yeast)
  • 1 package granulated yeast
  • 3 2/3 cups flour (I used 2 2/3 cups bread flour, 2/3 cup whole wheat flour, and 1/3 cup dark rye)
  • 1 T. vital wheat gluten
  • 1/2 cup oats
  • 1/4 cup sunflower seeds
  • 2 T. flax meal
  • 2 t. kosher salt
  • 4 t. sugar

1. Prepare yeast: If using sourdough starter, measure out the amount required. If using instant yeast, combine the yeast with the sugar, 1/4 cup of the water and 1/4 cup flour, creating a “sponge.” Let the sponge “bloom” for 5-15 minutes.

Ezekiel 8 hrs after a feeding, refreshedan instant yeast sponge, just mixed after 10 minutes, activated

2. Combine all ingredients. Dump it all in a bowl and stir it together until a dough begins to form.

 February bread 064

3. Knead. Dump the ingredients onto a lightly-floured surface and treat it like a muscle you were trying to massage. As Harold McGee explained in yesterday’s NYTimes, the more you knead, the more even and consistent the crumb will be (more gluten to trap the gas => more smaller holes, rather than a variety of different-sized holes). So if you want a loose dough with big pockets, all you need to do is get the dough into a vaguely coherent loaf-like object and then let it rise a long time. If you want a very even, consistent crumb or don’t have the time to let it rise, knead the dough for about 10-15 minutes or until the surface doesn’t tear anymore as you knead it—instead, it’s a smooth, round ball. If you’re going for the lots-of-kneading method rather than the lots-of-rising method, you can test the gluten formation by making a “baker’s windowpane.” Pinch off a bit of dough and stretch it as thin as you can—if you can get it thin enough to see light through it, there’s enough gluten.

4. First rise: place the dough in a lightly-oiled bowl, cover it, and let it sit for 3+ hrs (for the sourdough) or 1+ hours (for the instant yeast). You want it to be doubled in size. You can leave it alone for longer than that and nothing bad will happen—though I wouldn’t let it sit out more than, 12 hours unless I wanted a really sour, sourdough flavor. Basically, you can just let it rise until you feel like dealing with it again. One way to test if it’s risen enough: if you make a depression in it with your thumb, it should not “heal” immediately, meaning you should still be able to see the depression a minute after you made it.

Ezekiel double-batch pre-rise Ezekiel double-batch 5 hrs later

Red Star single batch pre-rise Red Star single-rise 1 hr later, the condensation on the plastic is from the yeast breathing

5. Shape: Flour your hands well and scrape the dough out of the bowl, onto a lightly-floured surface. Fold the dough over itself a few times, and then create a round, oblong, or baton. Pinch the bottom together gently—it doesn’t need to be a smooth seam.

pictured on my Silpat, which no dough, no matter how sticky, can stick to. Without one, you just have to be more generous with the dusting flour.

6. Second rise: Sprinkle a towel with flour. I generally use the towels my grandmother made from rice sacks in an act of early-20th C. frugality, but I have used pillowcases in the past. Just nothing terrycloth. Gently wrap the loaf or loaves in floured towel(s)—I generally wrap them a bit like a starlight peppermint, twisting the edges and then loosely piling them on top. If you want to bake it the same day, let it rise another 40 min (for the instant yeast) or 1-2 hrs (for the sourdough). Otherwise, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for up to 4 days and remove 1 1/2 hours before baking to let it come back to room temperature.

placed on the floured towelwrapped up like a hard candy stored in the refrigerator, next to the ketchup and pickles 

7. Pre-heat the oven and slash the loaf: 20-30 minutes before baking, preheat the oven to 450F with a baking tile on an oven rack in the middle of the oven and a cast iron pot or broiling pan placed on the oven floor. When ready to bake, invert the dough onto a baking sheet lined with parchment paper so the seam from shaping is on the bottom. The baking sheet is just used to transport the bread to the oven, like a pizza peel, so if it has edges, invert it–you want it to be able to slide the loaf onto the preheated stone. Using a sharp knife, make 3-4 cuts about 1/2” deep in the top. The slashes prevent the crust from splitting randomly during the oven spring and affects the final shape of the loaf. For oblong loaves, diagonal slashes are the norm. For a round boule, crosses, squares, or slashes like rays of light emanating from one side of the loaf seem common. Slide the loaf onto the preheated baking tile, and pour 1/3 cup warm tap water into the preheated pan.

from The Global Gourmet, picture links to source

8. Bake: Bake for 25-35 minutes, or until the crust is a deep golden brown and the bottom sounds hollow when tapped. After 5 minutes of baking, add another 1/3 cup warm tap water to the preheated pan.

9. Cool. Remove to wire racks. When you first take the loaf out of the oven, the cool air will make the crust audibly crackle, or “sing.”

it was suggested to me that these look like maggots. i disagree. you decide.

Sourdough Diaries: The Beginning—Introducing Ezekiel and How and Why to Make a Sourdough Starter

This is Ezekiel:

a grainy, cameraphone picture that would totally be his f'book profile pic if i ever got crazy enough to make him one

In some ways, naming your starter seems completely natural—it bubbles and teems with life, eats and excretes, requires maintenance, and, if neglected, will die. It’s a little like a very quiet, low-maintenance pet. I named the other two starters I cultivated, too: Isaiah, who I converted from an Amish friendship bread starter which probably initially included sugar and milk to a far more Spartan diet of whole wheat flour and water and then killed because I suspected the friendship starter relied on active dry yeast and I wanted a “wild” starter (I’ll explain the scare quotes in a minute) and Esther, who I stopped baking with and eventually let suffocate and die in her own excrement.

It’s not just me. I also know of a Lisette, a Philemon, and a Mr. Googly (gluten free). And Amish friendship bread starters, which are a kind of sourdough starter, were so often called  “Herman starters” or simply “Hermans” that there are still dozens of recipes out there that call for “1/2 cup Herman.” I really tried to figure out why and for a minute, this wiki page made me think it was something German passed down through the Pennsylvania Dutch that just happened to be a common name…until I noticed that even “Herman-Teig” has only been well known since the “1980er.” Which is about when most people’s fond memories of their mothers or aunts caring for and baking with “Hermans” date from (likely influenced by the 1970s Earth Mother vogue and what Warren Belasco has called the “countercuisine”). Also challenging the Pennsylvania Dutch theory: the English-language wiki claims that Elizabeth Coblentz, author of “The Amish Cook” said the rich cinnamon coffeecake that people sometimes flavor with instant pudding mix was nothing like Old Amish “friendship bread.” So while I’m skeptical, I have nothing to definitively dispute stories like this one from Uncle Phaedrus, Finder of Lost Recipes:

"Herman is a name that was given to a sourdough starter many years ago when a young girl (probably in San Francisco) watched her mother making sourdough. The mother explained that the sponge was a living thing and needed to be feed and watered. The little girl, in the way of little girls everywhere and everywhen, decided that it needed a name like everything else that was alive, and some things that weren’t. After due consideration, she bestowed the name "Herman" upon it.

Like most good things the mother wanted to share the starter with her friends. Along with the starter went the anecdote of her daughter’s naming the sponge. As friends gave this starter to other people, they also received the story of the little girl. To this day "Hermans" seem to pop up among sourdough aficionados everywhere, all due to a little girl and her need for everything to have a name. "

Phaed

But the sad stories of Isaiah and Esther start to suggest some of the ways the “pet” analogy breaks down: it’s a pet that you routinely kill and eat every week or so, but that nonetheless can live for centuries in the right conditions—something between Rose Nyland’s pet cow and octogenarian Penn State football coach Joe Paterno. There are websites that will sell you starters that supposedly have special historical/regional pedigrees, and even one with information on how to get a starter that was carried west on the Oregon Trail in 1847 for free (in memory of Carl T. Griffith who, as the site claims, “gave a sourdough starter to anyone who asked, or who sent him a self-addressed stamped envelope.”) [A minor aside to the two people who’ve landed on this site in a google search for “oldest verified sourdough starter,” if you didn’t leave in a huff at my blog’s irrelevance never to return: I’m sorry to say I have no idea.]

Furthermore, I’m not totally sure what I’m referring to when I talk about “Ezekiel.” Is he (or should that be “it” or “they”? Is it totally perverse to assign my starter a linguistic gender?) just the particular strain(s) of yeast I’ve cultivated or is/are he/it/they the fermenting flour and water paste? The problem with the former is that I can change the kind of yeast living in the culture by changing how I feed him/it/them or what temperature I store (oh hell with it, if it’s perverse, it’s perverse:) him at. The problem with the latter is that I add about 1 1/2 cups of fresh flour and water every week, and remove about the same amount. I could convert him almost entirely to a new kind of flour in about a week’s time, in which case almost none of the original Ezekiel would be left. The compulsion to assign your starter a unique name seems, instead, like a symptom of the being-a-foodie-makes-me-special nature of most contemporary sourdoughing. No offense meant—I’m clearly guilty of it, too.mid-refresh

Anyhow, I won’t deny that I’m fond of Ezekiel, and maybe sometimes even a little stupidly proud in what only a non-parent could call a “maternal” way: My yeast culture! He’s 19 months old! And already he’s leavened everything from naan to chocolate cake! So, below the jump, instructions for one way to make your own little mason jar full of joy and fermented flour paste…oh, and an explanation about what a sourdough starter is in the first place.

dry and cake yeast, from the excellent Cooking for Engineers: http://www.cookingforengineers.com/article/213/Bakers-YeastBread at its most broadly defined is some combination of powdered grains or legumes and moisture, usually water, heated (Harold McGee offers a much better explanation of what actually happens to the proteins and starch and gas cells in the dough if you’re into that sort of thing). There are two basic kinds of bread: unleavened and leavened, a distinction relevant mostly to observant Jews who don’t eat leavened, or risen, bread during Passover (“the festival of unleavened bread”) to commemorate the exodus of Israelites from slavery in Egypt, when supposedly they had to leave so quickly, they didn’t have time to let their bread rise. There are multiple ways of leavening bread, including mechanical leaveners, like egg whites that have air literally beaten into them, chemical leaveners like baking soda and baking powder, and yeast.

from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Grapes_Angoor.JPG When using yeast to leaven bread, most contemporary bakers use active dry yeast or yeast cake purchased separately from the other ingredients in the bread. However, yeast exists…everywhere. It’s in the air, it’s in the soil, and it’s definitely present in, around, and on everything that ferments. The white bloom on grapes: yeast. The specific restrictions on what counts as “leavened” bread for observant Jews are actually relevant to the explanation of what sourdough is and how you make it: in order to be kosher for passover, bread made from wheat, barley, spelt, rye and/or oat flour must be baked within 18 minutes of being moistened with water. The reason for that is that there is yeast in grain flours, and once moistened, it will start to eat the starches in the wheat and produce gas—leavening the dough.

Some people will claim that the yeast in sourdough starters made without commercial yeast is coming from the air—and while that’s theoretically possible, it’s sort of unlikely. That’s why sourdough doesn’t rely on “wild” yeast. Yeast were probably one of the first domesticated organisms. For humans relying on agriculture for food—so basically everyone since people settled in cities, the literal dawn of civilization—fermentation made long-term food storage possible and made many nutrients more available. So yeasts likely developed in symbiotic fashion along with many agricultural products like grapes and wheat.

But there’s not enough yeast in most flour or in the air to leaven bread much, at least not before other kinds of bacteria and mold begin to grow. So that’s where the sourdough starter comes in handy—it’s a yeast culture developed specifically for the kind of flour you use and the specific conditions of the kitchen where you bake. And once you get that much yeast going in a flour-water paste, they produce a lot of byproducts like ethanol and lactic acid, which prevent other things from growing.

There are lots of reasons besides foodie cred or lack of access to active dry yeast why you might want a sourdough starter—1) it’s cheaper, because yeast is basically the most expensive part, per weight, of bread baking (unless for some reason you’re baking with saffron or vanilla beans), 2) the byproducts are flavorful, so while you have to let it rise a long time to get something that will taste like a real sourdough, you’ll still get more-bready breads with a sourdough starter compared to packaged yeast, 3) it may be healthier? There have been at least a few studies suggesting that fermentation makes the nutrients in flours more available and moderates the effect carbohydrates have on your blood sugar—I’ll look into this more some other time, this entry has already gotten a little out of hand and I haven’t even started explaining the process yet and 4) it will compel you to bake weekly or at least semi-weekly, which I know has improved my quality of life.

Also, it’s really easy, or at least it was for me (a friend in Australia has had some issues, and I wonder if there are some more aggressive molds there…). Anyhow, theoretically, all you have to do is combine some flour and water and then let it ferment. It usually takes somewhere between three days and a week to be strong enough to leaven bread, which might happen naturally if you just leave it alone, but most methods I read about before I created Ezekiel suggested that you feed your proto-starter approximately every twenty-four hours. That said, my starters all seem to “die” after a couple of days, and I’ve only gotten them to dough-leavening strength by leaving them alone for a little while. So the whole process, which I learned here, goes something like this:

Day 1: Combine 1 cup flour and 1 cup water in a plastic or glass container and cover loosely (cloth or plastic wrap with 2-3 holes punched in it)

Day 2: Stir well, discard* half of the mixture, add ½ cup flour and ½ cup water, stir and cover

Day 3: Stir well, discard half of the mixture, add ½ cup flour and ½ cup water, stir and cover

Days 4-10: If it’s beginning to bubble and smell yeasty, continue the routine for days 2 & 3 until it will rise a small amount of test dough.

If it isn’t bubbling and instead just separating into liquid and paste, stop feeding it and just leave it alone for 3-4 days; eventually, you should begin to see bubbles forming in the bottom of the paste mixture. At that point, without stirring it, pour off all but ~1/4 cup—you want to get rid of the liquid on top which will probably be greyish or brown, and the paste closest to it, but keep a few tablespoons of the clean, bubbly stuff at the bottom. Then, add 1 cup flour and 1 cup water, stir and cover. Then return to the routine for days 2-4 until it reliably gets frothy after feedings and will rise a small amount of test dough.

*I’ll post recipes for the “discard” in another entry.

What to look for:shortly after refreshing, getting all bubbly

A starter that’s ready to bake with will become frothy on top after feeding, sometimes bubbling instantly and definitely within 8 hrs. It will stay frothy until about 18 hrs after a feeding, when the bubbles may subside as it separates into a thick layer of flour-water paste underneath a layer of clear or yellowish liquid (a combination of water, ethanol, and lactic acid called hooch).

To test a starter for rising power, combine 1 tsp. starter with 2 T. flour, a pinch of sugar, and enough water to make a little ball of dough. Cover that and let it sit—you can put it on parchment or wax paper and mark its dimensions if you’re not sure you’ll be able to tell whether or not it has grown. Within 4-8 hrs, your little ball should double in size. If it can do that, it’s ready to make bread.

Troubleshooting:

Starters are resilient—the yeast tend to beat out other competitors because most bacteria aren’t very good at digesting starches and the acid and alcohol create an inhospitable environment. However, if your starter ever grows pink, purple, or dark brown things, throw it out and start over (the smell will also turn from pleasantly yeasty and beerish to rancid and foul).

If you leave it too long between feedings and aren’t sure if it’s alive, try pouring most of it out, leaving just a few tablespoons and feeding it with a whole new batch of flour and water (1 cup each).

at home in the refrigerator

 Storing:

If you keep it at room temperature, you’ll have to feed it almost every day, so I choose to keep it in the refrigerator. You can even freeze a starter for up to 3 months, or pour it onto parchment paper, let it air dry, and then crumble it into powder, which is a good method if you want to mail starter to someone, or if you’re moving and won’t have reliable refrigeration for a while. Once thawed or reconstituted in some water, a frozen/dried starter should work just like it did before.

Refreshing and maintaining:measuring out refreshed starter for baking

Basically all sourdough recipes call for “refreshed” starter, which means the yeast are good and active—to refresh, I usually pour my starter into a glass bowl, add 1 cup water and 1 cup flour, cover it with plastic wrap and let it sit overnight or for 6-8 hrs. When I’m ready to make the dough, I measure out as much starter as I need into a liquid measuring cup, add ½ cup water and ½ cup flour to what remains in the bowl, mix well, and then pour it all back into the quart-size canning jar I store the “mother” in (which I cover with plastic wrap secured with the canning jar ring, poke 2-3 holes in the plastic, and return to the refrigerator). For me, it works best if I’m using 2 cups of starter to bake with, because I’m basically adding 1 ½ cups water and 1 ½ cups flour to the starter every week, which creates about 2 new cups of starter

The more often you use it/feed it, the quicker your rising time will be. If you don’t feed it at least once every 2-3 weeks, it may produce too much ethanol or lactic acid and/or start to run out of food, and get sluggish or die. If you don’t have time to bake, you can just stir it well, pour half of it off, and feed it with ½ cup flour and ½ cup water to keep it going in the meanwhile. Again, I’ll post recipes soon for what to do with the “discard” if you don’t want to throw it out.

If I need ½ cup or less for something, instead of refreshing the whole jar, I’ll usually just stir the starter well and measure out half as much starter as I need. Then I feed both the jar and the small portion I’ve poured out—e.g. if I need 1/2 cup starter, I’ll take the jar out of the refrigerator and and mix it well, and then measure ¼ cup into a bowl. I’ll add ¼ c. flour and ¼ c. water to the jar, mix well, and return it to the refrigerator. Then, I’ll add ¼ c. flour and ¼ cup water to the starter in the bowl (to refresh it), cover it with plastic wrap and let it sit at room temperature for 6-8 hrs. There will be a little extra, but I’ll either put that in the dough anyway or just throw it out, or make a tiny griddle cake with the leftover.

Using starter in other recipes:

These instructions produce a 100% hydration starter—meaning it has equal parts flour and water. A 50% hydration starter would have twice as much flour as water, and be more like a dough than a batter. Most recipes I’ve come across call for 100% hydration starters, but if you’re handy with a calculator you can adjust the flour/water ratios in recipes for other % hydration starters as necessary.

To substitute for 1 package of yeast, you need to use about 1 cup of 100% hydration starter. 1 cup of starter = ¾ cup flour and ¾ cup liquid. So, for a typical 1 or 2 loaf yeast bread recipe, you would use 1 cup of starter and subtract ¾ cup flour and ¾ cup liquid. Unless your starter is very active, you should also assume it will take about twice as long as packaged yeast to rise. For chemically-leavened breads (quick breads like muffins, biscuits, sweet breads, cookies, etc.), you can use 1 cup of your starter to replace ¾ cup flour and ¾ cup liquid.

Choosing flour:

Use whatever flour you want to bake with. As far as I know, any kind will work, but wheat and rye are by far the most common. Starters will develop the kind of yeast that works best for the flour they’re fed and the temperature of your kitchen. However, you can convert any starter to another kind of flour by feeding it with the new kind of flour for about a week. Also, a starter made with any kind of flour can be used to raise bread made with other kinds of flour. I feed my starter with high-gluten white flour (regular “bread flour”) but often add whole wheat flour for flavor and fiber. You can always use rye, whole wheat, spelt, corn, oat, garbanzo or other flours for part or all of the flour in most bread recipes. Low or gluten-free flours may not perform as well for some breads—especially ones that rely on gluten for their light, airy textures (crusty boules, baguette, ciabatta).

Stovetop sourdough naan

naan, anon!

I mostly chalked up my seeming inability to make decent naan to my lack of a tandoori oven or any other means of emulating solar fusion in my kitchen. non-naan non-naan, non-naan non-naan, hey hey hey...

Not that I didn’t try. I’d crank the oven as high as it goes and preheat it forever with a baking stone inside seeming to absorb and radiate all the heat my kitchen could muster up. But my little circles of dough would just poof up like pitas, and brown modestly and taste, unsurprisingly, like pita bread. Which is fine and all, it’s just nothing like the pillowy soft, flaky wedges of seared, blistering flatbread that’s basically the best part of eating at Indian restaurants.

Every time I have naan like that, I’m reminded of the first time I ate in the Desi corridor on Devon Ave in Chicago with my friend Rachel. A minute or two after we sat down with plates loaded from the buffet, she started nodding as she chewed—not looking at anyone or anything, just: yes. Then she stopped eating for a minute, turned to me and said, "This bread is pretty awesome."

I finally achieved what I consider to be "pretty awesome" naan by baking it on the stovetop in a dutch oven. I’d tried that before—both in a normal nonstick skillet and in a dutch oven–but it just ended up underdone in spots, sometimes burning but not blistering, and chewy instead of pillowy. It was also always, for lack of a better way to describe it, too bready. Apparently the problem goodbye, pastry brushwas that I was just too shy about letting the dutch oven get hot enough to melt my pastry brush into a solid nub of smoking black plastic. If you don’t want to sacrifice a pastry brush to the cause, the traditional way to gauge whether it’s hot enough or not is that the oil will be smoking, and not like a little modest smoking, full-on, disable-the-smoke-alarm-and-turn-on-any-fans-available smoking. My mistake, it turns out, had been turning the heat down when the oil started to smoke, thinking it would impart an unpleasant burnt flavor to anything cooked in it. I was obviously forgetting that naan often has a quite pleasant burnt flavor.

The recipe I sort-of used, which I found at Porcini Chronicles (and which they credit to Yamuna Devi’s book The Art of Indian Vegetarian Cooking) was was also slightly different than the ones I’d tried before. If I’d actually looked at the recipes I’ve used before—not just for naan, but any bread I’ve ever made with my sourdough starter, I would have known right away that there was no way it was going to work as written. My starter is roughly equal parts flour and water by volume, so it’s about the consistency of a thick pancake batter. The one they used must have been 90% water–or they just copied the amounts wrong. (Notes below about how to substitute for starter if you don’t have one, and a post soon about how I cultivated mine).

To explain, the ratio of starter:flour for a typical, slightly sticky dough is 2:3. This recipe called for 1/2 cup starter and half cup yogurt for 3 cups of flour, or a liquid:dry ratio of roughly 1:3. Instead of thinking about that for the ten seconds or so it would have taken for me to figure that out, I just dumped all the ingredients into the bowl. Whee! I am so smart.

sticky like a ninja

There was obviously too much flour. Scraps were flying out of the bowl as I mixed. I had doubled the recipe, so I checked again to make sure I hadn’t done it wrong…and I hadn’t. So, I just kept mixing and then started kneading it into a dough the best I could, but, I mean, the recipe actually said you could add flour if the dough was too sticky.

your face is sticky. wait, what?

I did manage to get it to start to come together like a dough, but too sticky? It wasn’t even sticky enough to keep the seeds in the dough—they were scattering all over the place. And it was so stiff it was almost impossible to knead.

There was a moment when I wondered if maybe this was the key to delicious, soft, flaky naan: a super stiff dough that only a real Indian grandma would know how to handle. Maybe, I thought, I should just go with the recipe no matter how crazy it seemed.

But the recipe was telling me two different things: on the one hand there were the amounts, on the other the suggestion that it might be sticky.

I choose sticky. I ripped a gap in the dough and poured some more sourdough starter into it. And I kneaded that in. And then I did that again. And a third time. I probably added another cup of starter, and none of the flour I’d left out. Eventually I had a supple, smoothstrangely looks like biscuits and gravy dough.

Each time I added more starter, the ball would initially be a big sticky mess. Rolling up the stray nigella seeds, I felt like a giant with a tiny katamari. This, I thought, is not "a science." The whole idea that cooking is "an art" and baking "a science" relies on so many flawed assumptions: the idea that science can’t be improvisational and cooking is, the idea that art isn’t often extraordinarily, painstakingly precise, the idea that you can’t just throw some flour and water and yeast together and come up with great bread.

So, I think the following is roughly what ended up in my dough, but if you’re looking to recreate it, just aim for something dough-like, get a pan really, really hot, and don’t get too caught up in the details.

Recipe: Sourdough Naan

  • 1 c. sourdough starter*naan6
  • 5 T. ghee or vegetable oil, divided**
  • 1/2 c. yogurt
  • 2 1/2 c. bread flour
  • 2 t. sugar
  • 1/2 t. baking soda
  • 1/2 t. baking powder***
  • 1 1/2 t. kosher salt (1 t. reg)
  • 1/2 t. kalonji/nigella/black onion seeds, or poppy seeds (optional)

Combine everything but 1 T. of the ghee or oil and knead until it forms a smooth, elastic dough (at least 6-8 minutes). Place in an oiled bowl, turn to coat, cover and let rise 4 hrs. or until a depression doesn’t heal immediately.

Preheat a cast iron pot on high with the lid on. Add about 1/2 t. ghee or oil and spread around a little—I recommend a spatula rather than a pastry brush. The oil will smoke. You want it to smoke. You probably also want to use the kitchen exhaust fan if you have one.

Divide the dough into 6 pieces, and roll into a circle approximately 1/4" thick—you can roll them all first or roll each one as the others bake. Either way, keep the on deck balls/circles covered with plastic wrap so they don’t dry out too much.

Remove the lid of the pot and drop the dough flat onto the bottom. Cover and bake for 30 seconds. Flip and bake 30 seconds more. Remove, and repeat with the remaining circles.

You could try baking it super hot too, but don’t blame me if it comes out like pita.

naan8 naan9 naan7

I also threw half of the dough in an oiled zip-top bag and left it in the refrigerator for a week, removed it an hour before baking so it could warm to room temperature, and made another batch that was just as great. A little more sour, because my yeast were faithfully producing acid and alcohol the whole time, although slowly because of the cold temperature. You could probably let it go up to 10 days, or maybe more, which means you can make the dough anytime and have beautiful, fresh naan with very little immediate effort any night of the week.

*You can always substitute equal parts flour and water and some instant yeast. For 1 cup of starter, use about 2/3 cup flour, 2/3 cup water, and 1 t. yeast.

**Don’t substitute butter or olive oil. The milk solids in the butter will burn and olive oil has a lower smoke point than vegetable oil.

***The original recipe called for 1 t. baking soda, but I’ve had too many bad experiences with my acids not being adequate, especially when doubling recipes so I used half baking powder. Chemical leavening isn’t strictly necessary in yeast breads, but I think it’s part of what made this recipe so soft and light. I nearly forgot it in a second batch I made—I had already started kneading, and as soon as I sprinkled the soda and powder on and kneaded it in I could feel the change in the dough. I imagine much of the chemical leavening is lost in the kneading, shaping, and rolling and in the long rise, but I’m sure there’s still some left by the time you bake.