The origin of sourdough bread in America is a three-hour car ride along I-80 west, from Truckee to San Francisco’s famed Fisherman’s Wharf. There, you can go to hell in a handbasket — or in this case, a bread bowl — and indulge in a steamy serving of New England clam chowder in a hollowed-out round loaf of sourdough.
This mildly tangy-tasting bread was introduced to Americans during the Gold Rush in the mid-1800s, although its origin can be traced back thousands of years to the Fertile Crescent, a region in the Middle East named after its shape, where agriculture thrived. A result of the fermentation of dough using naturally occurring bacteria (Lactobacillus) and yeast, the process begins with a sourdough starter, commonly referred to as a “mother dough” or “sponge,” which can feed a family and be shared with friends for years as long as it’s maintained under the right conditions.
Slow Food Lake Tahoe recently partnered with Stella restaurant to hold two sourdough bread baking workshops, run by retired baker Amanda Contreras, paired with a sourdough-themed three-course meal. “Starting with a well-cared-for starter from someone who makes bread often is a more reliable way for immediate bread success, as making it from scratch may or may not give you the bacteria you need from the ambient environment,” Slow Food’s Andrea Schaeffer told Moonshine Ink. Contreras was kind enough to share her recipe, adapted from Jeffrey Hamelman’s Vermont Sourdough. Check out an extended version on our website, which includes helpful tips for starter care and baking. Note that all ingredients, wet and dry, should be weighed on a kitchen scale, not measured by volume, with the scale being zeroed-out between each addition.
136 g (1 cup) all-purpose or bread flour
171 g (¾ cup) water
28 g (2 Tbs) starter (fed and at room temperature)
Mix water and starter until well blended. Add flour and mix until thoroughly wet. Cover and let stand at room temperature for 12–16 hours or until very active.
454 g (3¾ cup) white bread flour
227 g (1¾ cup) spelt or whole wheat flour
91 g (7/8 cup) whole rye flour
420 g (1 7/8) cup water
17 g (1 Tbs) non-iodized salt
306 g active levain (all, less 2 Tbs to be saved for future starter)
1) Mix all ingredients except salt (in a mixer or by hand) until uniformly wet but still a bit shaggy. Cover; let stand 30–60 minutes.
2) Sprinkle salt over the top. Mix with a mixer for about 2–2 1/2 minutes or knead by hand, 4–5 minutes, or until smooth. The dough will be sticky; don’t add extra flour. By end of kneading it will not stick to your hands.
3) Place dough into a lightly floured bowl or container. Cover and let stand for approximately 2–3 hours, folding one to two times.
4) Divide into two equal pieces. Shape into rounds or loaves; place on a parchment-covered, semolina-dusted pan if you will be baking the same day. Place into a flour-dusted banneton or a cloth-lined colander or bowl if you will be retarding overnight. Dust the tops with a little flour and cover with a cloth, then plastic until just about doubled (1–4 hours depending on room temperature). If retarding, take out of the fridge and let come to room temperature, then place on prepared pan.
5) Set oven to 460 degrees. Place an empty (heavy) pan in the bottom of the oven. As it gets close to temperature, put 4–5 cups of water on to boil and slash your loaves. Put loaves into hot oven; carefully pour hot water into the empty pan and quickly close oven door to keep the steam in. Bake 20 minutes; turn pan and bake another 15–20 minutes. The loaves should register at 200 on an instant read thermometer or sound hollow when tapped on the bottom. Cool on a rack for 1–2 hours before slicing.