ChewsWise Blog

ChewsWise Blog

How to make a sourdough starter

Sourdough is basically fermented flour and water, fed with more flour and water on a regular schedule. I came cross this video which explains the process.

At this time of year, make sure your water is warm, around 80-85 F (26-29 C), and it will kickstart the process.

Another trick: rise the starter in a microwave oven or other enclosed space and place a cup of just-boiled water inside. Don't turn on the microwave: you just want to create a "proofing box" (enclosed space) that keeps the starter warm. 

You can also use whole wheat flour in place of the rye, or all rye or all whole wheat, or spike the starter with a tablespoon of honey. I've tried any number of methods. But whole grain flours tend to be much more active (which is why they're used), so keep an eye on the stuff every 12 hours or so. Another general rule: the warmer it is, the faster it ferments, unless it's so hot that the natural yeast and bacteria are killed. If the water feels warm to the touch, it should be fine.

Bread books and others for the holidays

I've been reading a lot of bread books lately -- a lot -- and each year brings more. What follows is a brief list of books that would help any aspiring baker as well as a couple of other cookbooks that have caught my eye.


Inside the Jewish Bakery, Stanley Ginsberg and Norman Berg

For anyone interested in classic Jewish American baking, this book shouldn't be missed. It has all the recipes you'd want, but what makes the book stand out are the essays about Jewish baking. Who knew, for instance, that marble rye may have evolved out of an Eastern European practice of adding light rye flour to dark loaves in an attempt to make them look less impoverished? Plus, everyone has a challah recipe, but this book has a whole chapter of them -- and nearly 15 pages of pictures on braiding, including the "eight-dollar challah" (a five-strand braid topped by a four-strand topped by a three-strand). Now that's a challah!


The Italian Baker Revisted, by Carol Field

When this book first appeared in 1985, it caused quite a stir. In fact, many professional bakers refer to it as inspiration, including Jim Lahey of Sullivan Street Bakery and Kathleen Webber of Della Fattoria. This revised edition is still chock-full of recipes, including standards such as ciabatta, but she also has unusual ones such as segale con pancetta (rye with pancetta) or pane di altamura, a famous bread from the south made with durum flour. Enriched doughs such as colomba pasquale, a panettone type bread for Easter studded with almonds and candied orange peel, are intriguing. More advanced bakers might be frustrated that Field hasn't included a true biga naturale (sourdough), instead relying on one kick-started with yeast. But in recipes that call for it, you can easily substitute your own natural leaven.


The Fundamental Techniques of Classic Bread Baking, the French Culinary Institute

This is kind of baking 101 in a well-designed, gorgeously photograhed volume. It reads a bit like a  textbook, but that's okay, because you'll find the classic preparations of classic breads. As a bonus, it includes a number of recipes from Didier Rosada, the unsung force behind a lot of artisan bread baking in this country. On my list to try, his buckwheat apple walnut bread. 


Ruhlman's Twenty, By Michael Ruhlman

OK, you've got a dog-eared copy of Bittman's How to Cook Everything, just like me -- now it's time to graduate. Michael Ruhlman has done a lot to make culinary school techniques accessible to the home cook and he does so again in this clever volume focused on 20 key techniques. Some of them are less obvious (with chapters including "Think" or "Salt" or "Water") but he elaborates on his point in the recipes. Many are the culinary standards that might have faded, such as "simple butter sauce," but then there are standbys that every omnivore needs, such as "perfect roast chicken." His argument here -- truss the bird to prevent hot air from drying out the breast meat. Point taken. 


All About Roasting, by Molly Stevens

Do we need a book about roasting, especially when Ruhlman has given you the perfect chicken? I was skeptical until I started reading this book, admitting and accepting that I've overcooked or flubbed one too many roasts. Now the reason for this is that I hardy every roast, because it's the sort of thing you do a couple of times a year, usually around the holidays. In this book, Stevens dissects the technique and offers up recipes for all cuts of meat cooked at various temperatures. For the ambitious, I recommend the oven-roasted porchetta, made with a rolled pork loin and pork belly. Needless to say, this book will be put to use this holiday season. 

- Samuel Fromartz

Thanksgiving Clinic: How to shape a loaf of bread

Maybe you've got that favorite artisan bread loaf you're making for Thanksgiving but are a bit concerned about what it will look like. You've shaped bread before but it hasn't turned out quite right. And this is Thanksgiving. You want it to look good.

So what to do? This is a difficult problem, because shaping is one of the most demanding skills of a baker. It takes a lot of reptition to get it right. You have to learn the feel of the dough, how to stretch the outside skin of the loaf taught, without compressing the interior and destroying the bubbles inside. You also need to tighten the skin without ripping it, which will disfigure the crust. 

Every bread book seems to have a slightly different method, which is not surprising. Every baker I've worked with has shaped loaves somewhat differently. There is no universal technique. Many work well.

That said, it really helps to see how others do it. I posted an earlier video on shaping baguettes, but Jeffrey Hamelman, the head baker at King Arthur Flour, has a video on shaping as well that's I've posted below. It's part of a series that's worth looking at if you're serious about bread baking, and the tips here are invaluable. 

So give it a shot. While I strongly advise against making baguettes for the first time for your Thanksgiving dinner, a simple sourdough boule would be a good goal. Mix the dough Wednesday evening, and let it rise a bit before putting it in the refrigerator overnight. I would then shape the dough around 7 in the morning and bake the loaf around 9. It will be done in 45 minutes or so, depending on the size of the loaf -- ample time for your turkey to get in the oven. (Another way to go is to use the no-knead recipe, but that dough is generally too slack for the shaping methods shown in this video). You can also find a lot of recipes that home bakers have tried at The Fresh Loaf.

As for me, I'm making several breads for Thanksgiving: a rye loaf, a wheat/rye bread and the Norwich sourdough I've linked to above (a fantastic loaf if you've got sourdough starter on hand). 

Charting corn, soy and wheat -- guess which declines?

At times, graphs can tell a story better than words, so here's a visual story of our changing agricultural landscape. Corn and soybeans are largely fed to animals, though the crops are also processed into sweeteners, oils, ethanol, even ink. Wheat goes directly to human food, except for the healthy stuff like bran which is sifted off and fed to animals. 

Wheatacres Soybeans


Sources: USDA, North Dakota State University

I'll drink to that: Beer barm bread with spent grains

image from

Ahhh, beer making. I don't partake of this sport, but my step-mom, Patty, does, with a passion. And I have to say her IPA will put rivals to shame. But here's the thing. She's been brewing this beer for a few years, and even grows the hops in the backyard. I have long wanted to make a bread with the "wort" (that is, the pre-fermented beer) and the "spent grains" (the malted barley soaked in hot water that, with hops, makes the wort). This is the ultimate beer bread and the method goes back to England and Scotland, and probably much earlier historically, considering barley beer and bread built the pyramids.

British baker Dan Lepard explains that the mildly antiseptic qualities of hops prevent the barm leaven from turning sour. This might seem odd, given that hops are bitter, but in a small dose of leaven they actually sweeten the bread.

Hops give beer its slight bitterness, and were once used by both brewers and bakers to ward off a disagreeable sourness. Bakers would use a modified beer-making process, known as "barm," beating flour into a hot, liquid mix of hops and malt, so that the starch gelatinized. This proved a perfect medium for fermentation once seeded with a little barm from the previous weeks baking. This mixture could be kept for a week, as the bitter hops would keep the mixture sweet tasting. 

Until the 20th C., when the use of commerical yeast became commplace, bakers struggled to make bread as cleanly flavored and white as they could. Sourness was considered a bad thing ... The newly available processed yeast made it possible to mix and bake dough quickly which meant that the bacteria did not have time to develop and sour the loaf. Bakers rejoiced except a few.

In Scotland, for example, the bakers weren't so taken with this new, clean-tasting bread. Comparing the two breads, one made in the old style with barm, and another with the new-fangled yeast, both bakers and customers preferred the old style. But barm-making was laborious, and the new yeast convenient. And convenience won.

That quote is from Lepard's The Art of Handmade Bread: Contemporary European Recipes for the Home Baker. He gives a simple recipe to make a barm, which involves heating beer to 158 F. Since I had an actual brewer on hand, I also had the real thing -- wort. And so I heated a cup of the wort to the appropriate temperature and whisked in one-half cup flour. Once the temperature dropped to 75 F, I seeded the leaven not with a bit of last week's barm, but with a tablespoon of ripe sourdough starter. Then I waited. 

The next morning, the barm was bubbly and alive with a foamy top. Loosely using Lepard's Barm Bread recipe, I made the loaf, but with a couple of additions: I added around a cup of the malted barely spent grains which had been strained out of the wort the day before. I also added a small amount of spelt flour (that was just sitting around and needed a use). After I mixed and folded the dough so it had developed a moderate gluten structure, I folded the grains into the dough. (You can see the flecked barley in the slice above). The bread took awhile to rise, as it was pretty cool -- three hours for the first rise with a couple of folds along the way. Then I shaped the loaf and let it rise another 3-1/2 hours covered by a towel on a sheet pan. Finally, I plopped the loaf into a hot dutch oven and baked it. The loaf rose beautifully. 

Later, when we cut into the bread, it had the feint nutty smell of roasted barley. It also had a wonderfully complex flavor, with just the mildest note of bitter hops. We buttered a couple of slices, popped open two IPAs, and enjoyed our brewers feast. 

I could see why the Scots liked a nice barm loaf. Convenience be damned. 

submitted to yeastspotting

Salt, sugar and a Berlin farmers' market

Just a few days ago, Wal-Mart announced that it would push to cut the salt and sugar content of its processed food products. In the debate over this announcement -- was it enough? -- Jane Black hit the right note. Cutting sugar and salt from foods too quickly won't work because people are hooked on them. The effort will take time and the five-year timetable doesn't seem unreasonable. However, as Tom Laskawy points out, it makes no sense to leave national nutrition policy up to companies.  

Which brings me to Berlin, where I happened to be this past week on research for my book on bread. A chef I met told me that when he visited the U.S. he found food exceedingly salty. Made me think of those restaurants which rely on specialty salts to season their dishes right before they're served: the bright note highlights certain flavors ... or does it? Salt can also be a culinary crutch, a quick fix to entice the palate. And I've got to say, in eating around Berlin, in take-away joints, pubs and sit down restaurants, the food is less salty and no one seems to have a problem with it. 

Now, back in DC, I eat most of my meals at home and don't rely on processed foods. I try to be rather judicious with salt, but even so, I've had food here that tasted under-seasoned. I had a wonderful split pea soup at the farmers' market in Prenzlauer Berg in East Berlin, for example, and found it very mildly seasoned, but it was richly flavored with spices and dill. Instead of salt there was vinegar at the tables where people stood and ate and it did the trick when I added a few drops. (Soup at a farmers' market? Actually there were few farmers here -- mostly venders selling prepared foods and drinks, from wine to olives, soups, bread and handmade Turkish flatbread with fillings). 


Smoked fish is also usually very salty when you buy it in the states but I've found it less so here (he said, just having consumed a bagel, frischkase und lachs -- cream cheese and lox). It's not that they avoid salt, but people appear to use less of it. I'm finding the same thing with sweets too. Though I haven't consumed many, the afternoon cakes I've had were not cloyingly sweet.

The thing that doesn't seem to be in short supply is fat -- butter, of course, and the fat in meat-based products like sausages and brots that are extremely popular. What doesn't seem to be served much are greens and salads. I miss them. I've had enough cabbage and root veggies for awhile.

The bread -- or, rather, I should say, the hand-made artisan breads -- are also wholly different. They are filled with hefty whole grains, which is why I'm here. Eating a slice or two in the morning (with a bit of butter) will keep you going for a long time. This isn't like the airy baguettes or ciabattas everyone seems to like these days but exceedingly dense loaves spotted with coarse grain and seeds. Mixing these doughs at the bakery where I worked was eye-opening, since they hardly appeared like wheat-flour doughs. They were like whole grain breakfast cereals shaped into loaves. In fact, my idea when I get home is to try making them with a seven-grain mix and whole grain flour and see how they turn out.

We have gotten used to a lot of sugar, salt and refined flour in the U.S. -- which contribute to many diseases. But it doesn't have to be that way. And it doesn't mean the food will be bad, or lacking in taste, if we shift away from them. But it will be different and it takes time to get used to the change. But here's the thing -- once you do change, the old stuff just doesn't taste the same any longer. Once you've crossed over, highly refined carbs taste like what they are: treats not staples, and ones that are often too salty.

- Samuel Fromartz 

Heading to Berlin

image from

As part of my book research, I am heading to Berlin for 10 days. I'll spend part of the time in a bakery trying to learn about rye and whole grain breads. If anyone out there has any suggestions for must-see, must-eat, must-do things in Berlin during this frigid month let me know. I hope to be posting at least some pictures on the blog. (The one above is just after the fall of the Berlin wall in 1989). 


Tartine Bread: the popular San Francisco bakery reveals its technique

Tartine whole wheat

Photo: My take on Tartine's whole wheat bread with natural leaven

When you ask about great bakeries in the Bay Area, one place people always mention is Tartine. The bakery makes naturally leavened bread and has the distinction of baking loaves in the late afternoon, so that you can take one home right out of the oven for dinner. Or so I hear. Years ago I tried Chad Robertson's loaves when he up in Point Reyes. At the time, he had a wood fired oven and had built a strong following (a friend took me there on a visit). In fact, a picture of him in front of the hearth with a pile of dark crusty loaves graced the cover of a timeless baking classic, The Bread Builders: Hearth Loaves and Masonry Ovens.

Many years later, Robertson now has his own book, Tartine Bread. He writes:

During those early years in Point Reyes the small bakery was a laboratory for three ingreidients and a world of possibility: flour, water, and coarse grey salt from the Guérande in southwest France. I made most discoveries by exhaustive trial and error, over time gathering each lesson into a simple approach based on what I had learned. The approach was not rigidly scientific, but results were documented by concise shorthand notes and photos of the bread on days when something notable was achieved in crust or crumb. After years of baking in Point Reyes, I made the loaf I was after.

In 2002, Chad and his wife Liz -- a pastry chef -- made the move to the mission district in San Francisco, where they opened Tartine. They baked croissants and quiches in the morning and bread in the afternoon. Although he had to trade the wood-fired oven for a gas-fired deck oven, he wasn't worried. "Any flavor imparted by the wood fire is imaginary," he writes in the book. I would tend to agree, though this is the kind of argument bakers could only settle with a blind tasting and even then would quibble with the results. 

Tartine_bread In any case, this summer, the Tartine Bread book arrived in the mail -- an event I had been eagerly awaiting because I was curious about these loaves: loose and airy, a hint of natural leaven, without the acidity common to sourdough. Could it be done at home? After baking on-and-off with the book for a few weeks, I'd say, yes, with a caveat. The results don't come quickly and like all true craft work, you must put in some time to get what you're after. But you will achieve generously airy breads (like the 70% whole wheat loaf pictured above). Barely a month after the book appeared, home bakers produced some notable loaves with his recipes.

Robertson's main departure from standard practice comes with his natural leaven (I'm loathe to use the word sourdough, which is a misnomer, since this leaven is anything but sour). Unlike most leavens made with white flour, he uses 50% white and 50% whole wheat flour. Normally, that would lead to an explosion of activity, since the minerals and bran in whole wheat flour make for a very active starter that can be difficult to master.

But he tackles this problem by doing two things: first mixing a large amount of leaven - 400 grams total, or 2-3 cups - with just a tiny tablespoon of starter. Then he ferments it at a rather cool temperature to reduce its activity. The result is a mildly flavored leaven which when added to the dough inoculates the mix with copious amounts of yeast but has very mild acidic notes. Shining though is the sweetness of the wheat, which is probably why San Franciscans line up to get their hands on this bread. Plus the loaves just look gorgeous, judging from the pictures in the book by Eric Wolfinger.

His mixing and folding technique for the dough and loaves, while not new, is also not particularly well-known, especially when it comes to home bakers. For anyone wanting to avoid the tedium of kneading or using a stand mixer (another gadget you have to wash), his explanation and the pictures go a long way towards explaining this relatively labor-free technique.

Then there's his recommendation of baking in a cast iron combo cooker, which is kind of baking 2.0 compared to Jim Lahey's no-knead method of baking in a Le Cruset pot. The main advantage is that you don't have to drop the loaf into the vessel, which was always a bit troublesome. (Neither of these methods were new -- people have been baking in enclosed vessels for millenium). I don't have a combo cooker (I've come up with other fixes) but I'd be curious to try it.

I do have a few quibbles with the book. The basic recipe works best with a high quality all purpose flour but you don't get that tip until reading the detailed notes that proceed the recipe (so yes, read those notes). If you do use bread flour, the loaf will be tough. Finally, the volumes are generous, so you'll have to do some math to make a smaller loaf. This is especially true for the baguette dough, which at 2,300 grams is enough for 6-8 baguettes. The recipe says 2-3, which would be enormous loaves. I shape baguettes at 250-300 grams to fit my oven, which means I usually mix just over 1,000 grams of dough. 

But these are minor issues. Turn to the recipes at the end and along with the bread, you'll be seduced. Right now, I'm staring at Clarise's Meatball Sandwiches and my stomach is starting to growl. He's also got a savory bread pudding with leaks and mushrooms I'm dying to try (I've got the day-old bread on hand) and a kale ceasar salad, with home-made croutons of course.  

As for the bread recipes, they would be a serious clinic for a beginning baker, which is why I might not tackle this book if trying my first loaf. (It's also why I won't post a recipe: this book is more about technique than adding ingredients together). But if you've made a loaf or two and want to go further, or are simply curious about naturally leavened breads, I could think of no better place to begin. Robertson has graciously opened up his bakery to us, and it would be a shame not to put on an apron and take up his invitation to get busy. 

- Samuel Fromartz


Cibatta Recipe, at special request

Ciabatta, interior shot

Here's the receipe for ciabatta, which I negleted in the previous post. In part, I did this because the recipe is usually the least important part in baking and there are many recipes for ciabatta in cookbooks and on the web. (Here's two at Wild Yeast and Breadcetera). Far more important than the recipe is knowing how much to mix, how long to let the dough ferment and how to shape the loaf -- things that you learn the more you bake. But in response to requests here's my latest, which builds over two days to develop flavor. You can see this and other terrific loaves over at Yeastspotting.

Quantity: two loaves, 475 grams each.
Time: 16 hours to rise preferment, 12-24 hours final dough

Formula, baker's percentage

  • Flour 100%
  • Water 78%
  • Instant Yeast 0.4%
  • Salt 2%
  • Percentage of prefermented flour: 20%

Biga preferment

  • 110 grams flour (King Arthur or 365 brand organic all purpose)
  • 55 grams water
  • Two pinches instant yeast (pinch some between thumb and forefinger, add and repeat)

Mix flour, water and yeast until combined into a stiff ball. Cover and let sit at room temperature for about 16 hours or until ball has expanded but not collapsed.

Final dough

  • 420 grams flour
  • 360 grams water
  • All of biga
  • 1/2 teaspoon instant yeast
  • 11 grams sea salt

1. Mix flour and water together until combined and no longer lumpy. Let sit for 20 minutes.

2. Add biga by tearing off pieces, then add salt and yeast. Mix until combined for 1-2 minutes. Let rest for 10 minutes. Feel dough to make sure there is no undissolved salt. Mix again until dough is moderately developed -- that is, until you can stretch it but it will tear. You don't want to fully develop the dough because you will build gluten strength in folding. If you mix too much the gluten will be too tight and you won't get those big holes.

3. Place dough in a oiled container and fold at 30 and 60 minutes. By now the dough should be glistening and the gluten fairly well developed. If not, wait another 30 minutes and fold a third time. Then place the container in the refrigerator for 12-24 hours. At the end of this time there should be visible bubbles in the dough of varying size. If not, remove it on the day you're baking and let rise further on counter for 60 minutes.

4. When ready to bake, preheat oven and baking stone to 480F. Place a rimmed sheet pan at the bottom of the oven.

5. Pour the dough out onto a well-floured counter and shape into a rectangle, being careful not to deflate the dough or manipulate it too much. (The more you move the dough around, the less holes you will have). Cut the rectangle in half into two loaves. Carefully move the loaves onto a well-floured couche or board. Sprinkle with flour, cover with plastic wrap or a tea towel and let rise for 45 minutes to 1 hour. When pressed slightly, the dough should spring back slowly.

6. Place parchment paper on a cutting board or peel. Carefully pick the loaves up and invert them onto the parchment paper. (Fish spatulas are great for this, or if using a couche, roll the loaf onto parchment paper). Slide loaves into the oven. Pour 1/2 cup water onto the tray at the bottom of oven. Let bake until well-done, 22-25 minutes.

Here's a video from Wild Yeast Bakery in the U.K. on shaping ciabatta, though I tend to manipulate the dough less than this baker. Still, you can see, he's careful not to deflate the dough.