Baking Sourdough Bread with a Stiff Starter

Baking in the winter always presents problems here at my house: it’s cold! Probably not quite the cold you get in other parts of the world but it sure is cold to me, and my starter. Kitchen temperatures are consistently hovering between 68º and 70ºF which really inhibits yeast and bacteria activity. I’ll typically offset this by changing the percentage of mature starter carryover or by heating up the water used in my feedings, but you really want to try to keep your starter around 75º to 80ºF — this is not easy to do when winter is bombarding your area. You just have to make do with the warmest spot you can find in your kitchen, for me this is next to my whisky collection… almost poetic.

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Golden Raisin and Fennel Seed Sourdough

I recently had a chance to head out to San Francisco, CA for a quick vacation and now that I’m back I find myself still thinking of the ocean, Tartine bread, Napa wine, and Lagunitas brew… My brother and I met up there to spend some time with a good friend of ours and we did it right: Tartine bakery for oat porridge bread and croissants, Bar Tartine for dinner, Napa for wine, and a quick 2 day excursion to Healdsburg to explore the area on Segways while sipping wine and trying not to get run over.

We planned ahead before leaving to Napa and had a loaf of Tartine oat porridge on pre-order, picked up the night before it was in our packed bag with a charcuterie spread ready for the day. I would be lying if I don’t admit to being just as excited about cutting into that bread as I was about drinking wine and seeing the sights the next day.

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Country Sourdough with Less Levain & Longer Autolyse

I could probably pull out hundreds of gems from Hamelman’s masterpiece Bread, and each time I go back to reference something my eye catches one that strikes a chord. Attentiveness, now that is a really important thing with baking. You don’t realize just how important it is to step back for a second and observe what you, and the dough, is doing from time to time. Does it look alive and puffy? Does it look like it has enough strength? Are you mixing to sufficient development and to enough rise during bulk?

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Seeded Whole Wheat Sourdough

With the Big Move finally coming to a close I can now return to baking full-on. There are still things to do, for sure, but at least now I have some time during the day to fold dough, feed my sourdough starter, and bake in earnest. During the down time between moves I had the opportunity to bake for family but it wasn’t in my own kitchen, with my own tools and my own timing. It’s a challenge to be heaved into unfamiliar territory and expect processes to run like they have before. Regardless, I adapted and several bread bakes turned out great. It feels good to have a kitchen I know I’ll be settled into for quite a while …and with a double oven (!).

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Another year, more bread (1 year anniversary)

I started writing entries on this site exactly 1 year ago today with the hope that my posts would serve two purposes: first I wanted to try to help others out there bake the best bread possible, all with simple & easy ingredients and all at home. Second, I wanted a visual and written record of my progress through the years towards my goal of baking the best bread possible a quest for the perfect loaf, if you will.

With time and practice, and a measure of patience, you will learn all you need to. And then your experience can speak to your imagination, and you will develop new breads that suite your personal tastes. – Hamelman

Through all the comments left on each post and the staggering number of emails I like to think that I’ve helped at least a few out there step up their bread baking game. I know when I first started baking things seemed almost mystical to me: rising dough, strengthening gluten, developing flavors, the precise timetable… All with a 100% natural living organism that quickly consumed as much of my time as a household pet (albeit there’s no night time bathroom interruptions, chewed up pillows, or mess around the house actually that last one might not be true, I’ve had my fair share of wake-to-find-starter-all-over-my-counter experiences). My interaction with so many of you out there has been one of the most enjoyable aspects of each entry. It’s safe to say I’ve learned at least as much from you, if not more, than I originally intended to share with the world.

When I look back on my posts, especially this one from early on, I can see just how far I’ve come in one year. My bread tastes better, has gone through a surprising number of variations, lasts longer, and also just flat out looks nicer than when I started. I feel like I’m well on my way towards honing my skill at this most challenging of crafts. I’m not sure I’ll ever be “done” in this pursuit, but that’s probably why it’s so appealing to me.

Well, here’s to another year of successful experiments, delightful interactions with you all, and of course the occasional baking mishap we’re all accustom to.

Buon appetito!