Anyone even mildly familiar with bread and the science of bread baking would probably take one look at the title of this article and assume that I had lost more than a few of my marbles.
“Sourdough in three hours?! Nope. Can’t be done,” they would boldly exclaim. To a certain extent, they are right. A true sourdough cannot be rushed, accelerated, or otherwise prodded along; you could, of course, go out and purchase a sourdough starter, but where’s the challenge in that?
For the uninitiated, the big divider between an average loaf of bread you can slap together in around three hours and a sourdough lies in a simple mixture of flour and water. This “starter” is allowed to sit out for weeks, months, even years on end, and as it lies around, it creates a home for wild yeast. As time passes, these feisty yeast cultures produce carbon dioxide and alcohol, which impart distinct sour flavor into what was at first a flavorless blob of dough.
So how do we shortcut such an excruciatingly long process into a few hours? Quite simply, you don’t. Science does not enjoy being cheated, so we’ll still give our bread rise using the power of yeast, but look elsewhere for that distinct sour flavor. This month, we’re staring a seemingly impossible task in the face to create: the three-hour sourdough.
Getting Yourself Into a Pickle
A few weeks ago in my breads class at Le Cordon Bleu, our chef challenged us to create our own original breads (okay, it was actually an exam, but I totally took it as a challenge). Only a few parameters were put in place: it couldn't be too heavily enriched with things like eggs and butter, and had to maintain a fairly basic shape. Other than that, we had a good deal of freedom.
As always, finding inspiration was as easy as cracking open the fridge to see what was sitting around. It just so happened that I had prepped one of my favorite snacks the day before: pickled sweet onions in apple cider vinegar, brown sugar, and low-country blackening spice. My plan for them was fairly simple: in a bread that only contained flour, water, yeast, and salt, I would replace a portion of the water with my intensely flavored pickling liquid (as well as add the onions) to up the flavor of the dough.
So, dutifully following bread baking procedure, I whipped together my recipe with that slight amendment and handed the result to my chef. When he sliced into my loaf, he revealed a dense, under-cooked dough; horrified, I couldn’t help but wonder what could have gone wrong.
As it turns out, I hadn’t accounted for the harsh conditions that acid creates for yeast. In addition to weakening the gluten structure, acid inhibits the yeast’s ability to produce essential gases and alcohol that give bread its rise and flavor. Because of this, a dough has a ceiling to the amount of acid it can handle, and will need almost double the amount of time to rise (which I hadn’t counted on).
Aside from the doughy, raw nature of my failed loaf, it did have a pleasant sour hint to it. So was there anything I could do to this recipe to develop that sour character while still making a well-made bread? It was time to hit the kitchen and find out.
Experimenting with (Acetic and Lactic) Acid
Whenever you hit a wall, especially in the realm of science, the best thing you can do is a little research. In this case, I had my pastry instructor from the University of South Carolina in mind. A man of many talents, Travis is particularly attuned to the workings of bread and food science in general. He had a couple of really great leads that would mark my starting points for the experiment:
Earlier in this article, I knocked a little bit on purchasing a pre-grown sourdough starter. There is absolutely nothing wrong with doing this, as it is a guaranteed route to great flavor; the only problem is that you are essentially growing a live yeast culture that demands constant, daily care. Perhaps not the best route fora casual home cook. Travis suggested something much more low-maintenance: simply take already a baked sourdough loaf (especially a staled one that would otherwise be tossed), and soak a portion of it in the water called for in the recipe.
Such an idea stems from the classic French “old dough” technique, in which an older portion of unbaked dough is added to a recipe. With the older dough that's already been fermented it automatically boosts the flavor of the new dough that it is added to. The yeast in a baked loaf of sourdough has dies in the high heat of an oven, but the goal is to carry the sour flavor from the baked loaf to the one being mixed, not the yeast.
What resulted was pleasing, if not ideal; tasters could not identify any carryover in sourness, but using the old, well-developed bread bolstered the flavor profile of an otherwise basic bread recipe. But was it so drastic a change that it will forever change the way you bake bread? Probably not. On to the next idea, then.
When we think about acids in cooking, we tend to work with two major categories: acetic and lactic. To over simplify it, acetic acids are the harsher type that we find in such products as vinegar, while lactic acids are the gentler ones that give a slight tang to some of our favorite dairy products.
One of the main contributors of flavor within a developed sourdough is lactic acid, so Travis suggested using whey protein runoff from a dairy product like yogurt. Using this alone, or even in conjunction with the harsher pickling liquid, would in theory contribute a tangy note to the bread, without being so acidulated that the bread couldn’t form. Taking time to hang the yogurt would push me outside of my three-hour window, but at this point I was hungry for results. One container of yogurt, some cheesecloth, and a little time later, I had accumulated more than enough whey to give this interesting idea a go.
Fortunately and unfortunately, the bread did form nicely, but without any pronounced sour flavor. I had a nice loaf of sandwich bread, but sourdough this was not.
Ace(tic Acid) in the Hole
Several loaves of bread and zero satisfying results later, frustration was setting in. What had been the difference between my raw and sour dough and the well-baked but neutrally flavored breads I produced? Surely there was a middle ground somewhere that I could hit.
After some deep thought, it occurred to me that the problem with my original underdone batch of bread might have been the pickled onions. I had calculated the maximum amount of pickling liquid I could add to the recipe, but wasn’t taking into account the liquid that the onions held onto after coming out of the jar. This small amount of extra acidic liquid was a likely candidate in the downfall of my bread.
So I would bank everything on two last batches: both would have high (but not the maximum) levels of acid, and one would contain onions, but pickled in the exact amount of liquid the recipe called for. Finally! A positive result emerged, and I was so happy I could have (and maybe did) kiss the damn things.
Both fully-baked loaves did indeed produce a slight twang, but it was undeniable in a taste test that the loaf with the pickled onions exhibited concentrated blasts of tangy brightness. As an added bonus, the acid creates a looser “crumb” on the bread, helping the inside look less like a plain Jane sandwich bread and more like the artisanal sourdough it aspires to be.
I wouldn’t say that it matches the flavor profile of a sourdough whose starter has had years to develop, but it is on par with one given a few weeks to grow. Not bad!
I realize that a lot of people would rather run to their local bakery and grab a loaf, but bread baking is a relatively simple and rewarding process that I encourage anyone to try. As usual, I’ll leave you with the recipe, as well as a few general bread-making tips for the home cook who still feels a bit shy about the process.
Everyday Tips for Any Bread Baker
Invest in a Scale
Ingredients in a bread recipe are meticulously measured to produce exacting results. My recipe happens to translate fairly well to cups and measuring spoons, but this is rarely the case, and can really throw off your bread consistency.
Switch to Instant Yeast
Also known as bread machine yeast, instant yeast can be mixed directly into your dry ingredients without being dissolved in water first like active dry yeast. It will shave about five minutes off of your cook time, which is invaluable if you are doing large-batch baking.
Turn Your Dough
A large portion of your bake time in breads comes in two large chunks of time in which you have to allow the yeast to feed on the starches and sugars in a dough to produce gases. One of these byproducts is carbon dioxide, which does contribute to a dough’s rise as it expands, but actually prevents further yeast activity.
A common technique for regulating this CO2 development is to “punch” or press the gases from the dough. Rather than completely deflating the dough, fold it onto itself by gently lifting it from one end and pulling the dough up and over. Doing so will maximize rise and flavor, which is particularly useful when making a dough such as the Three-Hour Sourdough, which needs as much help as it can get.
No Proofing Box? No problem.
Professional bakers use large, temperature-controlled boxes to create a warm, moist environment that yeast loves, and causes breads to rise faster, thus shaving more time off the cooking process. Home chefs try to recreate this using a low oven and a pan of hot water, but here’s what I propose: fill a coffee mug halfway with water, microwave it to near boiling (about a minute should do), then place your covered bread in the now warm, moist “proofing box.” Boom.
Finishing the Bread
A few last tips for finishing your bread. Simple French breads such as the one in this article are in part characterized by a crisp, golden crust. Professional bakers achieve this by having hot steam-injected ovens. Recreate this effect by leaving an empty baking sheet on the bottom rack of the oven while it preheats. By the time your bread goes in, a little water poured onto the hot sheet pan will create billows of steam to crisp up your bread’s crust and give it deep, golden brown color.
LOW-COUNTRY ONION SOURDOUGH with BACON BUTTER
Makes 1 12-inch round or 2 6-inch rounds
16 ounces bread flour (about 2 ¾ cups)
½ ounce instant yeast (about 1 ¾ tablespoons)
Pinch of kosher salt
1 recipe low-country pickled onions (recipe follows)
7 ¾ ounces warm water (about 1 cup)
Black sea salt (optional)
1 recipe bacon butter (recipe follows)
1. Preheat the oven to 500 degrees. Place an empty baking sheet onto the bottom rack of the oven.
2. Mix together the flour, salt, and yeast in a medium bowl. Add the pickled onions, pickling liquid, and water. Stir with a wooden spoon until combined.
3. Once the dough has absorbed the liquid, turn the dough out onto a floured work surface and knead until smooth, about 8-10 minutes.
4. Place the kneaded dough into a lightly oiled bowl, cover with a damp towel, and let rise in a warm, moist environment for an hour, folding the dough after 30 minutes.
5. Fold the dough once more, shape into a round, and place on a cutting board generously dusted with cornmeal. Cover with a damp towel and let rise for one hour.
6. Uncover the dough, brush with a small amount of water, and sprinkle with black sea salt and a bit of flour. Using the blade of a sharp paring knife, score an “x” in the top of the loaf.
7. Immediately place the scored loaf directly onto a preheated pizza stone or onto a parchment-lined baking sheet and place in the oven. Carefully pour a small amount of water onto the empty baking sheet, and immediately close the oven door.
8. Allow the loaf until deep golden brown, about 18-20 minutes. Remove from the oven and let cool on a rack for at least 20 minutes before slicing it open. Serve with bacon butter.
Low-Country Pickled Onions
1/2 Vidalia onion, julienned
1/3 cup apple cider vinegar
2 tablespoons brown sugar
1/2 tablespoon blackening spice (or your favorite spice blend)
1. Combine ingredients in a Ziploc bag, close tightly, and allow to sit in the refrigerator for at least one hour, or up to two weeks.
8 tablespoons unsalted butter, room temperature
4 slices applewood smoked bacon, cut in half
1. Place bacon strips in an even layer in an unheated sauté pan. Cook over medium low heat until bacon is crispy on one side, about 8-10 minutes. Flip and allow to crisp on the other side.
2. Drain cooked bacon on a paper towel-line plate. Once cooled, crumble into pieces and mix in a small bowl with the softened butter. Serve immediately or store in an airtight container in the fridge for later use.
Make this delicious treat and share your results with us. Comment below or send us a picture on our Instagram or Twitter. Don’t forget to use the hashtag #FeedYourCuriosity