Sourdough On A Boat
A couple of years ago a good friend of mine introduced me to the world of making sourdough bread. I was lured in by the constantly (and consistently) delicious bread I would regularly enjoy when visiting. I don't mean that the texture or flavour was good, I mean these loaves were works of art. My friend would often make 2 loaves of bread a day, giving one to a lucky neighbor or a lucky me.
As cruisers, one thing we can often agree on is the desire to be self sufficient. Having fresh made bread at a remote anchorage or in the middle of a passage sounded pretty ideal. Now, here was a friend who did the research, found what worked and what didn't and so I asked him if he would teach me. I wasn't surprised when he gave me a casual "of course".
Living aboard Pandion at the time necessitated some adaptation to my new recipe. My oven was (a lot) smaller, my counter space; sparce. No problem I'll half the recipe and make a single loaf. Well maybe not no problem. It took a while to understand how sourdough works, (which I'll go into in detail) but once I figured it out, I was creating decent loaves, that might not make it into a SF magazine spread, but they taste amazing, look great, and were hand made in our own galley.
Disclaimer I'm not a professional baker, definitely not a chef and pretty far from some sort of expert in the kitchen. What I'm sharing here is from what I've learned in the trenches through trial and error. There are probably different, maybe even, better ways to make sourdough bread. I sincerely hope you'll pass along any ideas or tips in the comments below. I love to learn new things, so please share!!
Sourdough is alive!
I quit! Yup, after a year of successful bread making I threw in the towel. It just wasn't working anymore. My loaves were coming out flat and dense and it seemed nothing I did made a difference. What changed? Well we left the bay area and had crossed into Mexico and a different climate. The boat was hotter, the air drier. My starter wasn't reacting the way it had in the past and I lacked the experience to understand what was happening.
Just to clarify, I didn't really quit, I just stopped making bread ... for a time. We were on a new adventure, sailing for days on end, fixing things that were breaking in the shakedown, exploring new places and sourdough takes time. Time to feed the starter, time to prepare and time to bake, time I didn't really have. So I froze a small batch of starter, and put it in the back of my mind.
As a boat owner one skill that reigns supreme above all others is the ability to troubleshoot a problem. I soon started to think of my sourdough problem as I would with outboard not starting or the watermaker not working. That's when I started to think about the sourdough starter as a living thing (which it is), and how it lives.
I use a scale for measuring. I find it more accurate and easier to use than measuring cups. You can pick up a simple scale for less than $20. Any food scale should be fine as long as it handles at at least 2kg and you can zero out the weight.
Create a starter
So you need a starter, that much is probably pretty obvious at this point. There are a number of ways to go about this, but remember all that talk about being self reliant? Knowing how to create your own starter with nothing more than flour and water will allow you start a new batch of starter in case of any catastrophic failure. Plus your starter will have a unique flavor. It comes from the good bacteria floating in air and in the flour. You starter will be unique to you and your boat. Now, this is going to take a little longer (about a week) and if your itching to get going and you know someone with a starter that they are willing to share, then go for it!
Creating your own starter
What you'll need
- Glass jar with lid
- Scale (set to grams)
- 50g Flour (whole wheat or all-purpose)
- 50g Water
- Place empty jar on scale and zero out
- Add 50g of water.
- Zero the scale again.
- Add 50g of flour.
- Mix together really well with a fork. You are looking for a honey-like consistancy. Add more water or flour as needed to achieve this.
- Loosley cover with lid. Leave starter in a warm place to sit until next feeding.
That's it. Your starter is started and you can begin the feeding schedule. You'll want to feed it twice a day (every 12 hours) until it's healthy and strong. This should be less than a week. You can then go down to once a day, or even put it in the fridge for up to a week between feedings. If you ever feel your starter isn't popping enough, try feeding twice the day before you bake.
Understanding your starter
Sourdough is alive and is the yeast in your bread. It's less active when it's cool, and more active as the temperature increases. By active I mean it's eating and growing and reproducing. As it grows it gives off gases which makes our breads rise.
Your starter will comsume any and all flour and water and will continue to grow and gas till it goes through it all. The warmer it is, the faster this can happen. You can put the starter in the fridge to stall this process and bring it back by making it warm again. Making great big fluffy loaves comes from understanding this about your starter.
Before feeding your starter
When you are feeding your starter, you only
need want a little bit of starter. It's about ratios and you want a little bit of starter to have a whole lot of food. So get rid of all but about 1 or 2 tablespoons of starter. No seriously, just do it. This will make your starter strong and very active and that means a taller, fluffier loaf.
The Sourdough Pancake
hold on second! Before you throw that perfectly good starter out, try making a sourdough pancake! This is only good after your starter is fully active. If you are at the Creating your Starter step, just pour the extra starter in the trash or overboard for now.
- Spray a little oil into a pan over medium heat
- Pour your extra starter on the hot pan trying to spread it out.
- It should be bubbling nicely, flip when the edges are looking cooked.
- Spray a little oil on the cooked side and sprinkle with a little course salt, if you like.
- When cooked fully through, enjoy.
Feed your starter at least once a day when you are actively baking bread. If your not going to bake bread for a few days, you can put it in the fridge for a week. The cool air slows the starter down, so you'll need a few extra hours to get it going again when you are ready to bake.
Starter grows but doesn't gain weight. So, if you add 50g of flour and 50g of water, you end up with 100g of starter. This makes it easy to figure out how much flour and water you want to add to your starter and aanother benefit to using a scale. I like my sourdough more sour, so I use a 200g of starter in my recipe. You'll want to use at least 100g of starter when baking.
Feeding your Starter
- Pour out all but a tablespoon or two (see Sourdough Pancake recipe above)
- Place jar on scale and zero it out.
- Add 50g of water if your just going to feed and dump, add 100g if your going to bake with it.
- Stir well, make sure to get as much as the starter that stuck to the sides as possible.
- Add same amount of flour as you did water above.
- Stir well with a fork until nice and smooth.
- Again, you are looking for a honey-like consistency. Add tiny bits of flour or water if needed.
If you are going to bake with it, let sit until the level in the jar doubles(ish), depending on your climate/temperature this can be 30 minutes or 4 hours. Again, warmer is faster.
Alright!!! Let's bake some bread! First, make sure you'll be around for a few hours. The bread is simple to make, but it requires a lot of time-between for the science to work. Depending on the temperature in your boat/home you'll need anywhere from 3 hours to 6 hours or maybe more. This involves about 30 minutes of actual work on your behalf. If your looking at more, you can proof (let the bread rise) over a warm oven or leave it overnight to proof and bake in the morning.
Everything can be done in a single large bowl, and no kneeding is required. Instead of kneeding in fact you'll want to stretch the dough as you mix it. This creates a tension in the dough that leads to its chewy texture, and tight ball shape.
I cook my sourdough in a cast iron pot for a couple of reasons. First, its a great shape for the bread and it fits in my galley oven. Second, it keeps the moisture up around the bread while it's baking. This is important for Sourdough, I don't know why, I've just been told. If you aren't using a cast iron pot, try placing a bowl of water in oven with the bread. That should steam and keep the bread moist while it bakes, just make sure to not let it completly dry out.
- Oven capable of hitting around 400F.
- Cast Iron pot with lid.
- Large fork or hand dough mixing hook.
- Large mixing bowl.
- Large spatula
- 200g of starter
- 350g of warm water
- 500g of flour (can be up to 50% whole wheat)
- 15g of salt (more or less depending on taste)
- 20g olive oil (optional)
Place large empty bowl on scale and zero it out. Remember to zero out between ingredients.
- In large bowl add 200g of starter.
- Add 350g of warm water and mix well.
- Add 500g of flour, mix with large fork until well combined. Should look like your starter only a little thicker.
- Let sit for 1 hour.
- Add salt and olive oil.
- Stretch and fold the dough over and over until you feel you've stretched every bit of dough. I use my mixing hook to pull the dough up, stretch it over to the other side of the bowl and drop it. Move over slightly and pull up another bunch of dough. Do this about 30 times.
- Cover with a cloth and let sit until it doubles. Mine will double in about 1 hour, but it's 35C (90F) in my galley these days.
- Preheat oven to 500F with cast iron pot in oven to get hot.
- While the oven is preheating, stretch and fold the dough one more time.
- Shape your bread. This is one of those important steps I ovelooked in the beginning. It makes a big difference, so watch this little video for the easy method I like to use.
- Place the shaped loaf back in the bowl for about 20 minutes.
- Take the hot cast iron pot out of the oven and remove the lid.
- Place the shaped loaf in the center of the pot and put the lid on.
- Turn the temp down to 450F and bake for 25 minutes.
- Remove the lid from the cast iron pot and turn the heat down to 350F. Bake for another 20 minutes.
- Remove the bread from the pot and let cool. The internal temp should be at 208F when you take it out of the oven, if you have a pokey thermometer.
There is a lot of information out there if you really want to geek out on sourdough. Hydration levels, surface tensions, and more folding techniques than you can shake a stick at. This is a much simplified way I've found to get a great sourdough while living onboard a sailboat. I hope you enjoy!