It's hard to beat sourdough bread made from wild yeast you collect yourself.
I love baking with the sourdough starter I made by collecting local wild yeast. Not only does it allow me to feel more self sufficient, it also allows me to feel more connected to my food source (read no corporate involvement). Yeast free from the air instead of the store? Heck yeah! There are no downsides.
A maintained sourdough starter can literally live for hundreds of years; families around the world may treasure the sourdough starter that an ancestor made long ago as much, if not more, than a material heirloom that might have more “appraisal value.” But just think of being able to use the same wild yeast used by your great, great grandmother to bake a loaf of bread for your family? What a gift!
As you know if you’ve followed my videos on collecting wild yeast for your own sourdough starter, the exact character of wild yeast varies by region. The wild yeast sourdough starter I had in Kansas acted much differently than the one I now have in Colorado. It’s important that you use your sourdough starter and get to know how it behaves; given time it will be like an old friend. But you need to adjust expectations and stop imagining that your bread will mimic the texture, color, and flavor of the famed San Francisco sourdough bread — unless you live in San Francisco your wild yeast will produce a very different texture and flavor. It doesn’t mean it’s bad (personally I prefer the wild yeast in my area), it just means you need to accept your wild yeast for what it is.
If you haven’t done so already, check out our Spin on collecting and maintaining wild yeast sourdough starter here. And if you already have your starter working for you, here is a basic sourdough bread recipe with which to start. You can also check out our video of this process using this recipe here:
- 4 cups starter from first proof (see below)
- 2 tablespoons olive oil (you can also use vegetable oils, bacon grease, butter, coconut oil, or whatever you have on hand)
- 1 cup warm milk (about 85F)
- 1 tablespoon salt
- 2 tablespoons sugar
- 5 to 6 cups flour (I use half-and-half wheat and white, but you can use whatever proportions you wish)
ACTIVATING YOUR STARTER
This jar of starter is on its way to being activated enough for the first proof. Bubbles are forming in the starter, indicating that the yeast is waking up.
If you do not use your starter often, or it’s been sitting in your refrigerator for the past two weeks or so, you’ll need to activate your starter so it’s “awake” enough for the first proof (below). To do this, remove your jar of starter from your refrigerator the morning before you bake your bread. Add a cup of flour and a cup of warm (85F) water, stir briefly, and let the jar sit out for the day. You’ll see the activity in the jar start to increase as the yeasts warm up and start to feed on the new flour. After about 3 to 6 hours your starter will be ready for the first proof.
How can you tell if you starter is active? Again, you need to get to know your starter. But you’ll see the starter form bubbles, increase in size in your jar, and perhaps even foam a bit. The total time needed depends upon how warm it is in your kitchen and the nature of your wild yeast, but between 3 and 6 hours is normal.
If your starter is used regularly (once or twice a week) you can skip the formal activation process. All you need to do is take the jar out of the refrigerator, let it sit to warm up a bit, then move on to the first proof.
THE FIRST PROOF
The first proof is where you really get your yeast active and hoppin’ enough to raise some tasty bakery items. At this point it’s called the sponge (there are many who call the starter itself the sponge and this would be correct, but to me this first proof turns the raw starter into a true sponge). It’s easy to make the sponge because 95% of the time needed is the yeast bubbling away while you’re sleeping (you do this the night before you plan on baking your bread).
Take your sourdough starter and dump it all into a bowl large enough where it has the chance to double in bulk. Add a few cups of flour and an equal amount of warm water (about 85F), then stir briefly. How many cups of flour you add depends upon how much starter you have. You want about 5 cups total from the first proof: 4 cups for the bread and 1 cup to go back into your cleaned starter jar and back in the fridge for your next baking. For this reason it’s very important to not add anything to your first proof besides flour and water.
Cover your bowl with a towel and place it in a warm spot to sit overnight. In the summer I just leave my bowl on the kitchen counter. In the winter when it’s cooler, I turn my oven on and leave it warm for a minute or two, turn it off, then pop the bowl in the oven for the night. If you have a warm spot, like next to a radiator, make it do double-duty and let it warm your starter for bread bakin’.
Will your yeast double in bulk during the first proof? Maybe…maybe not. Mine does not quite get that active, but it still makes killer bread! But until you get to know your sourdough starter, it’s better to start with a larger bowl and see how your wild yeast reacts.
Here is a very active first proof! But don't be discouraged if your first proof doesn't look this bubbly in the morning; all wild yeasts are different and you just need to get to know yours.
The next morning, remove the towel from the bowl and see what you’ve got. Don’t be disappointed if your sponge doesn’t have tons of bubbles when you see it–it is not uncommon for most of the real activity to take place in the middle of the night while you’re asleep, only to have things calmed down a bit when you see it the next morning.
MAKING THE BREAD
Take about 4 cups of your sponge and put it in another large bowl. Take the rest of the sponge and place it back in the starter jar, which you’ve cleaned thoroughly using hot sudsy water. Then put your starter back in the refrigerator until you bake again.
Take a cup of milk and warm it to about 85F. Add to the milk your olive oil, salt, and sugar. At this point you can also add things like dried herbs if you want to turn this into an herb bread. I do this often and my favorite mix if herbs is 2 tablespoons of basil, 2 tablespoons of thyme, and 2 tablespoons of oregano. Yep, I pack in the dried herbs. I figure if I’m going to eat herb bread, I want it to be full of herbs!
Pour your milk mixture into your large bowl along with your sponge and stir it well. You want to do this to really incorporate the wild yeasts into your liquids. Then start to add your flour to the bowl. Add about 3 cups at first, and stir until it is well mixed. Then add the flour at about 1/2 cup increments until you can’t stir it any more. At that point you’ll continue to add the flour in smaller increments, but you’ll be kneading the flour in.
Add flour until the dough reaches the proper consistency. What is that, you ask? Well, you want the dough to no longer be really sticky. I think most people add too much flour when baking bread, which causes them to give up on bread-baking. Just err on the side of 1/2 cup less flour than 1/2 cup too much. How much flour you add depends upon things like your elevation, how dry the air is outside, and the kind of flour you are using. Go by feel first and foremost; there are times when I will use not even 5 cups of flour for this recipe, and other times when I need more. This is why it’s so important to get used to baking bread; it can be variable. But don’t be afraid! It’s fun to experiment, and very gratifying to know you can whip up your own awesome bread. But this isn’t a McDonald’s mentality…you need to practice and invest some time to get quality results, and believe me you’ll be glad you did!
Knead the bread for several minutes, adding a dusting a flour here and there if it feels like a portion is starting to stick to your fingers too much. You’ll notice that the dough will become almost springy in how it bounces back while kneading — this is my favorite part of bread baking!
After your dough is kneaded, take the ball and divide it into two portions. At this point you can decide whether you want to have two loaves of bread, or save half for another use. I like to save half of the dough and use it for pizza crust. You can also use it to make small rolls, or just use it for a second loaf.
Take your dough and form it into a rectangle. You want it to be about as wide as a loaf pan (if you’re using a loaf pan), and about a 10″ to 12″ long or so. After your dough is flattened, roll it up from one end to another, pinching the seams closed. At this point you can place your loaf into an oiled loaf pan, or directly onto an oiled baking sheet if you want your bread to be more free-form. It’s up to you!
Next, it’s time to let your bread rise until it’s about double in bulk; you do this by covering the dough with a towel and leaving it sit in a warmish spot. The rising can take anywhere from two to three hours. Again, keep an eye on things and see how your local wild yeast reacts. It might not even double in size fully; the yeast in Kansas formed a denser loaf of bread (still awesome!) so it did not rise as much as the yeast here in Colorado, which forms a lighter loaf.
OMG! Sourdough bread made with wild collected yeast. Seriously yummy!
After your bread has risen, preheat your oven to 375F and place your bread in the oven to bake. Check your bread after 30 minutes to see how it’s progressing, then check more often for the last 15 minutes. You know your bread is done when it has a nicely browned top and has a hollow sound when you tap on it. However, this can be variable. The best way to determine if your bread is done is to take an instant read thermometer and stick it in your loaf. At 200F internal temperature, you can call your bread done.
Remove your bread from the oven and the loaf pan if necessary. Let it cool if you have the patience (we don’t), or do as we do and rip into it right from the oven, fresh butter at the ready. This bread is so good, it might last for a day or two….