I have been quietly going through a bit of a sourdough bread saga. When I first started my sourdough, my bread turned out pretty good every time. I always used the same simple recipe, and while it wasn't perfect it was good enough. But it eventually stopped working. I'm not sure what went wrong, but every time I tried making sourdough bread, the loaves would turn out flat and hard. I had one loaf that was supposed to be round and rustic but it ended up looking exactly like a flying saucer. And it tasted about as appealing.
So I've been trying a variety of new recipes, hoping to find one that I can count on, and hoping to improve my skills and knowledge of sourdough at the same time. I found a pretty good recipe for soft sourdough bread that I made a couple times. It worked well and gave me consistent results. Through this recipe I learned that when making bread, you have to make sure the starter is active and bubbly. Some recipes can get away with flat starter that hasn't been fed for a few days. Bread is not one of them - it needs to have been fed within 12-24 hours in order for the yeast to be active enough to make the bread rise.
I recommend the above recipe, and would continue to use it, had I not found one that works for me even better! I recently bought a book called Alaska Sourdough by Ruth Allman. It's full of stories and recipes, all hand written by the author, and is just the sort of homey, down-to-earth book that I love.
I tried the basic sourdough bread recipe and was floored by how well the dough rose. I haven't had my sourdough rise that well since I started keeping a sourdough starter. Then when we sliced into it, I was even more amazed at the softness of the bread. I was seriously running my fingers over the slice of bread, because I like soft things and this bread felt just like velvet.
I did have to cut the recipe in half. I only cook 2 or maybe 3 loaves at a time, because that's how much we can eat before it starts going stale and yucky. I also had to adjust the baking time and temperature. The recipe called for baking the bread for 10 minutes at 500 degrees, then turning it down to 400 for 45 minutes. I took the bread out when there were still 27 minutes left, because it was turning too dark on the outside. The next time I made this bread, I tried 400 for 30 minutes and it baked perfectly.
Velvety-Soft Sourdough Bread
2 cups active (recently fed, bubbly) sourdough starter
1 cup warm potato water (water from boiling potatoes, or just add 1 tbsp. potato flakes to 1 cup water)
1/4 cup sugar
3 tbsp. cooking oil
5 cups flour, approximately
1/2 tsp. salt
Make soft sponge by mixing the sourdough starter, sugar, water, and oil. Add half the flour (2 1/2 cups). Set in warm place to double in bulk.
Add salt and remaining flour to make a dough that is easy to handle, smooth, and elastic. Place in greased bowl. Cover. Let rise in warm place until double in bulk.
Knead down dough. Let rise to double bulk once again.
Form into 2 loaves. Can use loaf pan or make free form loaves. Let rise about half an hour. Slash top of loaf. It's got to be a nice deep slash, or the bread will split down the side. I might or might not know that from several instances of personal experience...
Bake in preheated 400-degree oven for 30-35 minutes. Remove from pans and cool completely on wire rack.
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