Looking at those beautiful loaves of artisan sourdough on the bakery shelf, you might think that creating such delicious bread would be difficult. I sure did, until I tried it for myself. It turned out to be amazingly easy to churn out loaf after perfect loaf. Here's everything you need to know to do it yourself. All you really need is a little patience; the rest comes naturally.
Start With a Starter
The key to sourdough is a volatile combination of bacteria and wild yeasts that just love to eat flour and water, in the process expanding and leavening the dough. It's technically possible to create your own starter by leaving a mixture of flour and water out for any passing yeast to make its home, but your best bet is to get a sample of starter from a friend or a local bakery. You can also buy sourdough starter online, usually for under $10.
A good starter is a precious object. When you bake a new loaf, you use some of the starter, keeping some so you can use it again. A friend of mine tells the story of her Mormon forebears, crossing the deserts of Utah with sourdough starters tucked into their corsets. You don't need to go to such lengths, but once you get your hands on a good culture, hang on to it.
Coddle Your Culture
Once you've got a sourdough starter, you'll need to feed it regularly — once every 12 to 24 hours if you're using it actively. Of course, if you're not planning to use it, it keeps fine in the fridge. I once let mine sit, completely neglected and cold, for 5 months. It only took a few days of active feeding to "wake up" again.
My method is to throw out about 3/4 cup of starter every time I feed (just so I don't end up with The Sourdough That Ate Reno), then mix in 1/2 cup of organic flour and 1/4 cup of water. Cover it and keep it at room temperature; it'll do the rest.
Sourdough Doesn't Have to Taste Sour
In fact, a basic "rustic" sourdough loaf isn't sour. It's also very user-friendly. I recommend the Rustic Sourdough recipe from King Arthur Flour, which adds bread yeast and comes out tasting just like any other loaf of bread (crustier and better-looking, though). Just mix your starter with a little yeast, flour, salt, sugar and water; knead; let it rise a few hours; and bake. My tips: Give it an egg wash and sprinkle rock salt on top before baking.
If, like me, you really love that sour flavor, you'll need to be extra patient. A traditional sour loaf doesn't use any added yeast; instead, the dough sits and rises for 18 to 20 hours before you bake it. During that time, the culture produces lactic acid that gives bread a distinct tang. Try this Extra-Tangy Sourdough recipe, also from King Arthur. You start by combining some of the flour with the starter and water; then it sits overnight in the fridge. The next day, add more flour and let it rise again before baking. The key here is to beat and knead the dough until it's impeccably smooth. The resulting velvety, crusty, tangy bread will be well worth the wait.
Oh, and one other thing: Don't expect to get "San Francisco Sour" bread if you don't live in the Bay Area. A good lactobacillus sanfranciscensis culture will give you that distinct flavor, but over time it may fade as your own, local wild yeasts populate your culture.