Beard on Sourdough

This is the first in my in Beard On Bread challenge. What better bread to start with than the bread trend that has inspired and taunted so many during quarantine – sourdough.

Sourdough the infamous bread. Simple ingredients yet technically difficult. A wet dough, the lack of an airy texture, golden yet burnt crust. Getting a great sourdough eluded me so much during quarantine. After multiple attempts, different recipes, different techniques, my mom suggested that I try out James Beard’s version. As she put it, “he wrote the book on bread.” So why not!

James Beard's Sourdough Bread recipe from his book Beard on Bread.
The sourdough recipe from Beard on Bread.

Throughout this bread challenge, I will be jumping throughout his book. This is purely based on my interests at the time. What initially interested me and introduced me to Beard on Bread was a desire to finally make a nice loaf of sourdough.

Now picture this. I am settling into a comfy seat at our kitchen dining room table. I’ve tried to make sourdough so many times to no luck, and I’m edging desperation to finally get this right. I open Beard on Bread and shuffle through the book to find his sourdough recipe. My expectations are high. This is a man passionate about bread, about cooking, about baking, he must have a great recipe, something to lift me from my strand of unsuccessful sourdoughs.

When I start reading his recipe, I am immediately welcomed with James Beard’s words:

“Despite my own feeling that sourdough bread is much overrated and is difficult to perfect at home….it is a most fickle process….,and I am not sure it is worth the trouble.”

Great. A sourdough recipe by someone who doesn’t even like making it and doesn’t think it is worth the trouble. Real comforting. Thanks, Beard.

Despite his words of warning and his own aversion to making sourdough, I decided to try out his recipe.

Ingredients

When I initially skimmed through Beard’s book, many of his recipes use all-purpose flour, and so does this sourdough bread recipe. All you need for this recipe is all-purpose flour, active dry yeast, water, some sugar, and salt. A simple and basic bread ingredient list.

The Starter

The key to any sourdough is a healthy starter. Thankfully, Beard provides you with a recipe to create your sourdough starter using packets of active dry yeast. As I had a sourdough starter from a family friend, I skipped this step. However, if you are going to make your own starter, it will take at least 5 days. If you want to go au natural and use the wild yeast floating in your home, check out this starter recipe by Joshua Weissman (though results may vary).

The Sponge

With the starter made, now we get into baking, well making the sponge. This is the first time I have seen this in a sourdough recipe, but think of it as the first ferment, or proving, to help feed and activate the starter.

All you do is add some starter, warm water, sugar, salt, and 4 cups of flour into a bowl and mix. Once well mixed, you leave covered at room temperature for several hours. I started it in the morning and left it until the late afternoon giving it at least 6 hours on the counter. This mixture had like cottage cheese. It rose and you could smell that sweet sourness from the starter. You will definitely know if your starter is happy and active after this step. 

Making the Bread

Now, I could finally start to make the loaf. The starter is proofed, and it is time to get to work on the dough. Interestingly, Beard includes more yeast into the equation by adding a packet of dry active yeast with the additional warm water and flour.

Unlike other sourdough recipes, you knead the dough in this recipe and create a very stiff dough. It was so stiff that I  worried it wouldn’t rise, so I added a bit more water. I figured that Los Angeles is much drier than New York City, where James Beard lived, and the dough would benefit from a splash more water.

Then I let it rise covered in a buttered bowl for a couple of hours as per his instructions. What I have begun to notice is that he likes to let his bread rise in buttered bowls. If you are vegan, you could opt to use oil instead. I think his use of butter to prevent sticking is an homage to the time, a time when butter was a delicious and useful kitchen staple, not a bad fat. But let’s be honest, it’s still a delicious kitchen staple that makes nearly everything taste better.

After a couple of hours, the dough rose beautifully. In fact, because of the butter, it had a bit of shine to it, a unique feature.

Then interestingly, after this first rise, I had to punch the dough down. This felt counter-intuitive to what I have learned about sourdough, do not punch out the air bubbles. Yet, I still gave it a try, only to punch out the air and to let it rise for a second time.

After letting it rest, I suppose the light knead allowed the dough to be worked with easier because next was shaping it into loaves. I took the easy route and made a single round country loaf and then let it rise with a few slashes. Easy.

After an hour of rising, the size of the loaf didn’t change much. I think because it uses a starter, it needs a longer rise and ferment. However, the slashes grew to reveal a slight webbing like texture, and the loaf expanded a bit, ready for baking.

Baking Time

The baking for this was interestingly on a baking tray, no Dutch oven, in a 400F oven, not 500F or 450F. (I wonder if American household ovens didn’t get that hot back in the days.) To help mimic a brick oven, one could place heated tiles on the rack above the loaf along with a pan of water underneath the loaf.  I opted for just the pan of water below.

The bake was of standard length if not slightly shorter at 35-40 minutes. Perhaps this is a shorter bake because the instructions did not include covering the loaf, interesting.

The Results….

After it baked, it came out with a slightly golden-brown color, not that deep, dark, almost burnt color we usually associate with sourdough. I think this is because the loaf was baked at a lower temperature. It didn’t get hot enough, fast enough to caramelize any remaining sugars in the loaf. Also, it did not rise much. It more or less kept the same size as when it went in. 

Now, the part that we all love to see on Instagram, the cross-section. And let me tell you, it was okay.

It was quite dense with a few small air pockets, no irregular crumb structure with gaping air holes. I think this is because the air was knocked out after the first rise, and the dough didn’t have enough time during the second rise to create more air bubbles. 

Taste-wise, it tasted like sourdough. It didn’t have the crunchy crust I associate with sourdough, but it did have that tangy taste. It was a strong sour tang, but it didn’t bite the tongue, nor was it overpowering. It was a great tang that would go great with soup, butter and jam, or sandwiches. Overall, I really enjoyed the flavor I got. It was so far my best tasting sourdough.

The Final Verdict

If I had to rate this out of 5 stars, I would give it 3 stars.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

It was an average loaf of bread and makes sense given that Beard himself thinks sourdough is overrated. So not a great introduction. Still, It is an easy recipe to create a starter and to get a great-tasting sourdough loaf.

This was one of my best tasting sourdough attempts, and it was far less work than any other sourdough recipe I tried. However, if you want to get an Instagram worthy loaf with that dark crust and super airy texture, this is not the recipe for you. I think you are better off using a recipe from Buzzfeed, Bon Appetit, Joshua Weissman, or the Pro Home Cook. Pretty much any recipe where you have a really wet dough, and you have to gently fold the dough rather than knead it will likely create a more beautiful loaf.

I think the downfall was kneading. All those air bubbles from the first ferment were lost. For next time, skip the kneading and punching after the dough has its first rise. Just let the dough rise and let the gluten in the dough capture all those sweet, sweet air bubbles.

If you can, bake the loaf in a Dutch oven or something similar. It is really helpful in trapping steam to help you get that crusty, crunchy exterior associated with sourdough.

But if you’re looking for taste and an easy recipe, jump on and try out this sourdough. It made for a fun and chill weekend afternoon.

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