A starter for perfect bread

A starter for perfect bread

When we all entered our confinement to avoid COVID-19 in 2020, we looked around for something to fill the time, and many of us began trying to learn serious bread baking, me included.

It proved to be such a frustrating pursuit that my interest in babysitting sourdough starter waned quickly. Using recipes from Nancy Silverton’s excellent book, “Breads From the La Brea Bakery,” I created my own starter from a bag of grapes and flour. It never got active enough to provide any rise, and feeding the dumb thing constantly in its crusty mason jar was a pain. I gave up before we even got used to wearing masks and toilet paper was again in good supply.

Since then my social media feeds have been trying to pull me back in, feeding me unasked for videos posted by bakers who did not give up in 2020. The universe was feeding me hundreds of demonstrations of how dough should look, how it should be shaped, and how to get that chewy crust and soft inside crumb. As I suspected, my starter was an anemic waste of counter space. Armed with a scapegoat to absolve me of my baking mistakes, I wanted to give it another go.

This time I ordered a starter from a well-established vendor who claims to be sharing bits of starter from a 150-year-old batch. It arrived in short order from Canada in a small plastic envelope, just a few tablespoons of white dried crumbs.

Within a few days I had a new crusty jar, this time with a bubbling, living mass that overflowed with activity most of the time.

The first two round country loaves I baked were exactly what I had been trying to achieve three years ago. They were thick, round and pretty — the latter being the result of watching people score and slash their prebaked loaves until I could do it in my sleep. Baked with unbleached white bread flour, whole wheat and rye, they were delicious. Since those first two loaves, I’ve been able to replicate my success pretty much every time.

If you also should decide to try your hand at bread baking, there are a few things you really need.

A first-rate starter is essential, obviously. There are many sources online for starters from around the world, or you can find a friendly baker and swipe some of theirs. They are pouring half of it down the drain every feeding anyway and won’t miss it.

You can’t get those pretty shapes without proofing baskets, and I wish I had a couple more. The finished dough, after all those fancy shaping maneuvers, goes into the baskets and into the fridge to finish the magic for a day or two. It’s part of the process that converts the gluten into something less likely to upset sensitive stomachs. While you’re at it, buy a couple of plastic shower caps to fit over the baskets. They’re perfect to cover the dough while it rises and ferments and are much easier than fiddling with plastic wrap and rubber bands.

You can spend a lot on baking stones, peels and other equipment, but if you already have a cast iron Dutch oven, you’re gold. I find they’re best for baking bread in a home oven because they generate steam inside the pot during the first half of baking. It makes the loaves really swell and spring up in the oven. The bread bakes with a closed lid for the first half, then without the lid for the second. This is what gives that wonderful dark and chewy crust.

Find out what a Danish dough whisk is and get one, trust me. I debated buying one forever, and now it’s a favorite tool. It makes mixing doughs and batters so easy I don’t bother with the stand mixer anymore. Best eight bucks I ever spent.

You really can get good results at home without a fancy oven. You just need to watch 8,000 videos.

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