Meet John (sour)Dough

From nearly dead sourdough starter to gorgeous heritage grain and blue corn bread

I was late to the sourdough bread making game not because I wasn’t interested, but because I made a lot of mistakes and it took me a few tries before I got into a rhythm. While everyone was feeding their starters and posting photos of their latest loaves, I was struggling to get my starter… well, started! Making a sourdough starter from scratch required a lot of flour, and at the beginning of the pandemic, when flour was in short supply, it didn’t seem reasonable to use one cup of flour every day to get the yeast rolling. Plus, it felt like a waste throwing away the “excess”.

Even when my brother-in-law gave me some of his starter, the whole sourdough thing still didn’t make sense to me. I’m used to measuring cups and spoons — not measuring by weight! I nearly murdered the starter after my first attempt at feeding because, like a total newbie, I just “eyeballed” how much flour and water I thought it needed.

Becoming John Dough

Yes — I named my sourdough starter “John Dough” because it was an unknown entity living in my kitchen. Overwhelmed by the little jam jar of stinky goo I left the starter on my countertop FOR WEEKS completely unattended. Every now and again I’d pop into blogs and read articles about sourdough starters, searching for validation that I had killed the darn thing. Then I found a video from Jill Winger — The Homestead Mentor on how to revive a sourdough starter. It was a simple explainer that outlined all of the basic information I needed as a beginner and the whole thing finally clicked.

Using my husband’s scale (the one he uses to weigh toys he sells on eBay) and measured out equal parts water, flour, and the janky starter that had been sitting on the counter in mid-July heat for weeks. It took a couple of days to get it rolling but once it did, the sourdough starter was gorgeous! It smelled slightly acidic, it was frothy and bubbly, and even when stored in the fridge for a week, it was easy to revive.

The process of sourdough bread making can be extremely forgiving.

Even if you leave the starter unattended (I don’t recommend leaving it on the countertop like I did — it’s best to leave it in the refrigerator if you’re not going to use it for a while) and even if you mess up the measurements, it’s very hard to actually destroy your starter.

Sometimes certain corners of the food world can feel unapproachable because people have really strong opinions on how things should be done — how to feed starters and clean cast iron skillets are just two examples of how heated things can get. Part of my sourdough hangups were because of these seemingly strict rules — all of which were different depending on who I talked to.

But sourdough is a living thing. As the seasons progress, the temperature drops, the humidity changes, the sourdough’s behavior also changes, and the only way to navigate its mood swings is to work with it. During the summer, my starter would more than double in size when left on my kitchen countertop. Now that the weather is getting cooler, it doesn’t get as big and doesn’t smell as pungent. I have to keep it in my office, where it’s warmer in order to get it bubbly.

I’ve come to learn that sourdough bread recipes are also pretty forgiving, but there are a lot of variables you have to pay attention to. Sure, it only requires four ingredients (flour, water, starter, and a bit of salt) but how much you mix it, how long you let it rise, and how its shaped can change how your bread turns out. But no matter what, I promise you, at the end of the process you’re going to have bread. The more bread you make, the more you can tweak the recipe to your preferences.


Experimenting with Grains

After working on a story about heritage grains for Kitchen Aid (check out my story A Look Inside the Grain Renaissance) and researching how to use these grains for USA TODAY 10Best (check out 10 Ancient Grains and How to Use Them) I’ve come to really enjoy making sourdough bread with a variety of grains. Some of these flours aren’t a 100% replacement for whole wheat, but you can use these grains along with whole wheat for your recipe. I’ve been purchasing my flours from Castle Valley Mill, a mill that partners with local famers just outside of Philadelphia. Much of the equipment they use dates back to the 1800’s and 1900’s, but some components of the machinery are 3D printed (you can learn more about them in my KitchenAid story).

Working with these grains has been incredible. They don’t modify or bleach the flour, which helps retain much of the nutritional benefits that these grains have to offer. Plus, everything I bake tastes absolutely incredible! I never considered grain to be an important ingredient, one that adds complexity and flavor to a dish. But once I started working with these grains, it’s hard to go back! They add so much depth to everything I make, especially my sourdough bread.

Redeemer Wheat

This is my baseline wheat. It’s not a mass market grain but still a heritage wheat that’s great for bread, dough, and pastries. When using other heritage grains in my sourdough, I use this as my general purpose whole wheat. This is also the wheat I use to feed my starter.

Emmer Flour

Watch the hydration with this one. Making dough with emmer flour tends to be a lot wetter and stickier than working with other flours. For that reason, you’ll want to do 1/2 emmer flour and 1/2 whole wheat flour for your bread. Emmer flour gives the bread a darker color and a nuttier flavor.

Einkorn Flour

Einkorn is one of the oldest known wheat varieties, dating back nearly 10,000 years. They say that it can be a replacement for whole wheat, but I’ve found that I like using 1/2 whole wheat and 1/2 einkorn when I’m using it for bread. Einkorn has a lot of nutrients in it including carotenoids which can make your bread almost golden in color and gives it a mild hazelnut flavor.

Spelt Flour

Spelt is a great 100% replacement for whole wheat flour, but because it has become my favorite to work with, I only use 1/2 spelt and 1/2 whole wheat (the redeemer wheat I reference above). As a person who has had trouble with some grains in the past (I don’t have Celiac Disease but I do have mild inflammatory issues that can be exacerbated by certain foods) spelt is more water soluble than other grains, making it a bit easier to digest. In terms of flavor, spelt is mild, sweet, and earthy.

Blue Corn Flour

A little goes a long way with blue corn flour. It’s not something to replace whole wheat flour, but if you add a small portion of blue corn flour, not only does it give your loaf a rich, purple hue, it adds a rich, nutty corn flavor.

Blue Corn Sourdough Bread

This bread turned out way better than I could have ever imagined and was certainly a hit on social media, so here’s how to make it! It’s best to start this the night before, so that the bread can rise over night.

Ingredients

  • 3 cups of flour (I use a blend of redeemer wheat and spelt)

  • 1/4 cup of blue corn flour (next time I may reduce this to 2 - 3 tablespoons because the dough turned out a little dry, but it worked out just fine)

  • 1 1/4 cup of lukewarm water

  • 3 tablespoons of sourdough starter (if it’s stiffer, sneak a little more in there)

  • 1 teaspoon of salt

Instructions

  • In a bowl, sift the flour (whole wheat, blue corn, and other grains you may be using) together. Mix in salt. Set aside.

  • In a large mixing bowl add starter to water and mix together.

  • Slowly add flour mixture to water and starter mixture in the large mixing bowl. Mix together gently.

  • Cover the bowl with a towel and let it set for 30 minutes. This is a good time to feed your starter if you plan on using it again soon. Or just store the starter in the fridge.

  • After 30 minutes, gently shape the bread, folding it once on four sides. Leave the dough in the bowl and cover it with a towel and let it set over night. I generally do this around 7pm or 8pm at night so it can rise over night.

  • The next morning the dough should have about doubled in size. Gently scrape it out of the bowl and onto a clean, damp countertop — put down a little bit of flour if you’re worried about the dough sticking.

  • Shape the dough. I just fold it again on the four sides and roll it into a tight ball. I know everyone has their own techniques.

  • It’s time for the second rise. Put a floured towel in a bowl and place the dough inside the bowl seam-side up. Let it rise again for another 2 hours.

  • After 2 hours, preheat the oven to 450°F. Put the dough on parchment paper and place it either in a dutch oven or on a pizza stone. I like to use a layer of cornmeal in the dutch oven or on the pizza stone — it’s not completely necessary but it helps to prevent the bottom of the bread from burning.

  • Before putting it in the oven, score your bread.

  • It takes about 40 - 45 minutes for the bread to bake. If you’re using a dutch oven, bake the bread covered for the first 20 minutes. If not, no worries.

I’m also still learning, so if you have tips, tricks, recipes and preferences, let me know in the comments! If anyone knows how to get bread that’s got bigger bubbles in their sourdough bread, let me know!

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Kae Lani Palmisano is the Emmy nominated host of WHYY's Check, Please! Philly, a television show that explores dining throughout the Philadelphia region. She is a Maker with KitchenAid as well as a food and travel writer who enjoys exploring the history and culture of cuisine.