My Daily (Sourdough) Bread

When I moved into my house, I decided that I would try to bake all my own bread. I had been casually baking bread for a couple years and I wanted to force myself to develop those skills. I’ve been in the house for several months now, and with the exception of a single loaf I bought to cover the first few days before I could bake, I have in fact made all of my bread. It’s been a long, but very rewarding road thus far.

A lot of people these days are on ‘low carb’ or no carb diets that seem to villainize bread. To my mind though, every culture around the world has been built on bread for centuries and I see no reason to turn my back on it now. I would argue that the bread of history bares little resemblance to the wonderful ‘bread’ most of America buys today. Bread’s journey from dense brown slabs filled with nutrition but unpleasant to eat and into the cloud like mass devoid almost any nutritive benefit that most people buy today is actually quite interesting, at least to the bread lover. You’ll be happy to know, however, that it isn’t something I’m going to get into… today. Suffice to say that delicious and easy to eat bread packed with wholesome ingredients you’re body will thank you for is available today if you look for it. It’s also becoming easier for the home baker to make, thanks to some really excellent bread books and the power of the internet.

My end goal in bread making to be able to produce several styles of bread consistently. This loaf is the building block for the others. This loaf has been teaching me a lot about the use of a sourdough starter, the benefits of kneading, and the use of time to produce great bread. Make no mistake about it, this is not a super healthy loaf. It’s simple, and it’s delicious, but it’s still ‘white’ bread. As I gain confidence in baking I will be using my lessons here to branch out until I can create the tasty, whole grain loaf of my dreams!

Ok, enough blathering on… down to the dough!

This recipe comes from ‘Bread: River Cottage Handbook No.3’ and can be purchased on Amazon for about $20. It’s called ‘My Sourdough’ in the book and could not be simpler.

The first part happens the night before. Just mix it up and leave it out all night in a covered bowl.

650ml Warm Water
500g Strong White bread Flour
A ladleful of sourdough starter

The next day the sponge should look bubbly. Mine usually has some bigger bubbles like you would see on a pancake just before the first flip as well as a bit of foam on top. I usually mix it up before bed on a Saturday and I don’t come back to it until mid-day on Sunday.

This is where the magic starts to happen. By magic, I mean what you do now will define your final loaf. For the first dozen or so times I made this loaf it was changes made at this point that have taught me so much. My current method differs slightly from Daniel’s (the author) but works well for me. He is a great baker though and I a humble amateur.

I pour my sponge into the stand mixer and, with the dough hook installed, I start the machine on low speed. While that starts mixing I measure out the remaining flour and salt into a bowl and mix them together.

For the final dough, add to the sponge:
600g Strong White Bread Flour
(plus extra for dusting)
25g salt

While the stand mixer whirs away I add the salt/flour mixture to it, literally, a tablespoon at at time. This takes quite some time and when I’m about 2/3s through adding the flour my mixer becomes overwhelmed. During this period where I’m adding flour the stand mixer is doing a lot of work developing the gluten in the final dough. Once the mixer can’t handle the dough I dump it out and knead by hand until all of the flour has been worked in. Since the stand mixer was used to do most of the hard work all you need to do by hand is knead in the rest of the flour until the dough is smooth. You can continue to knead longer if you want to but try to resist the urge to keep adding more flour. The dough is supposed to be on the wet side. It will stick to you and anything you put it on but if you keep it moving you should be Ok. The combination of the kneading and wet dough will reward you with large bubbles in the final loaf.

Once you’re done kneading, put the dough in a bowl or whatever you use to proof your dough and let it rise for two hours. I like to poke at it and sort of flip it over once every 45 minutes or so. I just us a scraper or some floured hands. You don’t want to ‘punch it down’, which I think is the wrong image. You want to help distribute the heat in the dough to allow for an even rise. You will deflate some bubbles but try to avoid that.

For rising, I usually set my oven to warm with a baking stone on the lowest rack for about 10 minutes and then switch it off when I put the proofing dough in. The warmth helps with the rise but if it’s too warm.. it will bake. Keep it loosely covered to keep the moisture in. I put the dough in it’s container on a rack above the rack with the stone, not directly on it.

Once the two hours are up, I dump the dough back out onto my table and start shaping. I like to make boules with the dough, round loaves. I split the dough in half and shape the two halves into rounds and I then place them, upside down, into a brotform (or banneton). Well, actually, I only have one brotform so the other loaf gets shaped and placed on a cookie sheet on top of a piece of parchment, right side up, of course. Brotforms are great, but they aren’t cheap. I let them rise, under a moist towel, for 45 minutes to an hour and then I preheat my oven to 450 (Do not let the towel touch the bread. It will stick and rip a chunk off).

Once the oven is warm I slash the tops in an X pattern and bake them one at a time for something like 40 minutes. When I put the first loaf in, I lower the temp down to 425. When they look golden and tasty.. they are done; a tap on the base confirms with the ‘hollow’ sound.

I also own a Cloche, an earthenware covered baker, and I usually bake the loaf risen in the brotform in that. I have too much trouble moving the loaf on parchment into the cloche to justify it. I used to preheat the cloche but by adding the loaf to the cold cloche, it seems to boost my oven spring as it slows down the heat killing off the yeast.

I’ve used this process for my past two loaves and it’s working out really well, finally. Once the bread is baked I let it cool over night and then I split them in half, and freeze them in zip top bags. Defrosted bread, even more than a month later, has the same texture as when it went into the freezer. It’s pretty amazing. I keep a 1/2 loaf on the counter, in a plastic bag, for eating and defrost more as needed.


A Hint of Spring

This past weekend the temps hit just about 70 degrees for the first time this year. Being the middle of March though, it was more a dry run than the actual arrival of spring. As I look at the extended forecast out toward this weekend, the temps will be dipping down well below the freezing mark once again.

It did serve as a reminder that spring is on it’s way and we need to start getting ready! Over at my friends garden we’ve been repairing last years draft one green house. Well.. I saw ‘we’ but really he has done a great job expanding on lessons learned last year. He’s beefed up the frame of the green house and rebuilt the end walls and doors. All I’ve done it apply a little duct tape and help drag the plastic back over the top!

Last year, once the tunnel was up we started out seedlings and things were going great. As is often the case here in New Hampshire though one day, out of the blue, the temps went from from 60s to 85 and we didn’t have a great way to vent the tunnel, beyond opening the doors. The temps in the tunnel went up to at least 120 degrees before we realized it and we ended up burning more than a few less hardy seedlings. Lesson learned. We quickly setup a way to be able to roll the sides of the tunnel up and help get some excess heat out.

The tunnel there is a standard PVC pipe affair with plastic over top and some cheap lumber to frame the front and back allowing for doors and a place to staple the plastic to. It was cheap to build and quite effective at holding in heat. It worked great getting the season started and extending it out a little longer into the fall.

This year, with me in my new house, I plan to build a tunnel of my own.. with an eye toward laziness though. While the tunnel we built last year requires you to roll the sides up and down depending on the weather, a few web searches turned up a heat actuated hinge that will do that automatically. They are called ‘Vent Openers‘. It will force me to build my tunnel from a more rigid material, in this case 2x4s, instead of the cheaper PVC tubing. It will save me having to remember to open and close the tunnel each day and it should allow me to hang some plants from the tunnel rafters. I’m not sure what yet…

I’ve not figured out a lot of the details for my tunnel yet but I know it will have standard vertical sides and a peaked roof. I need to figure out how large I want it to be this year. I have a place all picked out for it, the dirt filled former in-ground swimming pool, but I need to sort out the cost of building the tunnel and how much I can/want to afford this year.

The ground under the tunnel needs to be worked as well before it goes up. It’s a bit of a hump right now and I need to at least level it if not lower it a little bit. The tunnel will be filled with raised beds but I’d like to at least put them down on flat ground… lest they be raised rocking-beds. I don’t know what the former owner used to fill the pool in so I’d like to dig down a little to make sure nothing too horrible in there. My plants won’t be reaching down into it of course but.. what can I say.. I’m curious!

Top priority for this week though is to order seeds, trees and bushes! I don’t know why I’ve been putting it off so long…


More to Life than the Garden!

While I’m very excited about the prospects of getting the garden and livestock going at my (hopefully) soon to be homestead, I want to make my life somewhat more well rounded than that. In addition to growing my food I also want to cook and eat it! As this site progresses I hope to be adding video clips, photos, and blog posts about what to do with the end product off all this hard work.

I love to bake bread and I’ve had a few request from some friends to document my process so as winter marches on, look for a video or two about that. I bake with both yeast and a sourdough starter so I’ll try to make some videos about the processes that I use to get bread without much work or time invested. Bread flavor is all about time, but that doesn’t mean you have do anything to it. My favorite yeast bread takes about 20 minutes to make and I spread that out over three to four days!

I also recently bought a 1/8 share of a cow from a friend of mine. It’s a tremendous amount of meat and I was careful to request cuts of meat instead of ground beef wherever possible. I hope to be able to cook some cuts of meat not normally found in the grocery store, or at the very least, try some amazingly well raised, grass fed american beef. When I was filling out the paperwork for how the beef would be processed, in most cases the best parts were defaulted to be ground instead of left whole. I would rather have a piece of meat for braising or roasting then huge amounts of ground beef. When you get down to it, I can grind the meat later myself if I end up wanting it ground, but I certainly can’t un-grind those cuts later!

We even have a massive heart, tongue and pounds of liver… a friend of mine is more keen to try those cuts though so I’ll be deferring to him on that front. I’m 100% willing to try anything, I’m just not sure what to do with it! The meat only came back from processing a few days ago so I’ve only managed to eat a single steak. It was really great. It has much deeper flavor and amazing marbling. I’m going to have to find a way to sponsor a cow for a few years until I can manage to raise one myself.

So, between this post, and the last one, that’s an idea of where this blog is heading. What else would you like to see? What aspects of this project would you like me to take extra time to document and discuss? If you have some experience in this sort of thing, do you have any tips or tricks for me?


Winter is here, let’s plan for Spring!

It’s been quite a long while since I’ve updated this site, but a lot of has happened. I’ve taken a rather large step in the name of growing my food: I’ve bought a house with more than 3 acres of land. It’s winter here in New Hampshire though so it’s time to look at what is here and start to plan for how to use it.

The land is by and large wooded. I would guess the property has about 1/2 an acre of ‘open’ land on which the house, small garage and a couple ancillary structures stand. Interestingly, the previous owner bred dogs so the property does have a series of kennels both attached and detached from the main structure. The attached kennels will be ripped out and converted into a nice covered patio. The detached kennel will be customized to hold chickens. It has ample space for a chicken house and some walking area. I will then fence in a larger green space for them as well. I can’t truely ‘free range’ them here, they will be eaten in short order, but I can give them plenty of space to run around and still stay safe. I’ve yet to decided which type or types of chickens I will get or how many.

The property currently has two fruit trees out front. I’m not sure but I believe one is an apple and the other a plum tree. When I was looking at the property in the late fall, they both were fruiting. To my eyes though, they are in pretty rough shape and fairly old. They have not been pruned properly and the ‘fruit’ on them was no larger then a marble. I plan to pull them out as early in the spring as I can and replace them with some trees that I can call my own. I’m a huge fan of apples and I would love to get a few dwarf trees and maybe a pear or other complimentary fruit. The property has some other decorative bushes and things growing as well so if I pull those out and replace them with fruit trees or bushes I should be able to quickly find space to grow quite a variety. With the exception of a bit of pruning and fertilizing, fruit trees and bushes should prove to be a low maintenance way to produce food I can eat and store all year round, once established.

Hopefully sometime in the middle of February I’ll be able to start work building a greenhouse. I hope to build a somewhat robust structure out of 2x4s that I can setup just as winter starts to subside to get a jump start on the season here. The property has what used to be an in-ground swimming pool. When I bought the property it was already filled in with dirt, but the concrete walkways around it are in very good shape. I should be able to build a series of raised beds on the old pool and setup a very stable green house just outside it on the walk ways. I’ve been reading through Elliot Coleman’s books from the Four Season Farm and trying to incorporate his ideas and systems into mine. The idea of being able to keep the garden going all year round is very appealing.

All of those items would make for a very busy garden year alone, but they are just the prelude to what I hope to accomplish in this, my first season at my new home.

One of the first truths I’ve taken away from Elliot Coleman’s book ‘Four Season Harvest’ is that I need to get a good compost pile going. It’s the first of his books I’ve opened and while it arrived in the mail only yesterday, I’ve already read through half of it. He goes into some detail on how to get a pile started, what should be in it, and how to keep it running at it’s peak. It looks pretty simple and with any luck, once the snow is melted I should be able to get something going. As with most things in the garden world, you do work now for benefit later and it will be at least a year until I can start using my compost in any quantity.

From there I need to start preparing more of the land for gardening use. I need to plot out where my property lines are, where the sun is at different times of the year and make a plan for clearing more land. If I can clear a good portion of land this Spring I should be able to get it usable for next year. Perhaps getting a couple pigs to root around and break up the soil would help speed up the process. I’ll just do the clearing in blocks and clear as I need more. If I can get what I need done with just an extra 100’x100′ area, then so be it.

All of that will keep me busy for several years I’m sure! I have a lot to think about, and a lot to plan out. I didn’t have a lot of time here at the house to learn the land before the first snow of the season came so I have a lot of questions about what is where and how best to use it. Hopefully I’ll be able to get a few diagrams and layout ideas up on the site. If nothing else, it will be fun to look back at the plans a few years down the road.