The $265 Loaf of Sourdough Bread

by | Aug 7, 2019

What images come to mind when you think of Paris? Ok, the Louvre, sure. The Eiffel Tower, of course. But I’ll bet somewhere among the top ten, maybe even the top five, is bread.

The French are serious about food and passionate about bread. A hold-over from the time of the French Revolution until 2015, French law dictated when bakers were allowed to go on vacation (half in July, half in August), so that the citizens of France would never again be denied their starchy staple. No more “let them eat cake” crap.

To illustrate a point, at our favorite restaurant in Paris, Le Comtoir du Relais, our waiter told us that he’d quit his previous job at a different restaurant, because they charged customers for the bread – le nerf!

Being a French soul trapped in a Texan’s body, I’ve been making classic French baguettes for a while. But my husband loves sourdough and I love my husband, so sourdough I would make.

I started my starter based on a “Nancy Silverton’s sourdough starter” recipe that someone had posted on the internet.

If you don’t know, Nancy Silverton is the founder of LaBrea Bakery. Educated at Le Cordon Bleu in London and former pastry chef at Spago’s, she’s a James Beard award recipient for outstanding chef, and has played a key role in popularizing sourdough breads in America.

I delighted at how clever I was to have found a recipe for her starter on the Google machine, and didn’t need to buy her cookbook. Bad move for someone who makes a living writing.

Ain’t karma a bitch?

The hijacked recipe had the ingredients alright, but it left out a lot of science-y stuff that’s really good to know when you’re making a living thing – just ask Dr. Frankenstein.

And because I was making the first video for my YouTube channel, I compounded my errors by making a second batch the same way as the first, trying to improve the video.

I left my bastard cultures in my overly-warm kitchen (the air conditioning in my 100-year-old French-inspired cottage is a little deficient on hot southern California summer days) and didn’t feed it according to Nancy’s schedule. By the end of the initial waiting period, instead of my starter bubbling happily from friendly bacteria eating and burping,  it looked more like cream of bacteria soup.

I dumped my starved starters, made a trip to the book store for Nancy’s book (as I should have done to begin with), and followed the master.

This book is awesome if you’re a food geek (I am). She’s got recipes for everything from waffles to dog biscuits, all using sourdough starter. It’s not your typical follow-the-recipe cookbook, and I had to read through the entire recipe a couple of times (okay, many times) to get the full theory and details of starting a culture.

This time, I kept my burgeoning starter beside me on my desk where it was a cooler, more consistent temperature throughout the day, and where I could occasionally whisper to it or hum a few bars of La Vie en Rose.

Finally, the day came when I was to start giving it regular feedings.

I’m convinced that the way Jesus fed the masses with 7 loaves of bread – was that he made sourdough starter. I have no theory on the fish bit.

After you’ve made this massive bowl of goo, you pour off all but about 2 cups, to start feeding 3 times a day, like a relative who’s come to spend the weekend but shows no signs of leaving.

By the end of the day, this 2 cups of starter has become 4 quarts, which the next morning you will again throw out all but 2 cups of, when you start the day’s feedings. This pattern continues for about 4 or 5 days, while you are building and strengthening your starter. (Yes, technically you could not throw it out and just feed the whole batch, but it would require massive amounts of flour and you’d wind up with a bathtub full of starter by the end of the week.)

Then the big day came – making the premier loaf.

Nancy’s recipe is a two-day process, not hands-on time, just time. Day 1 consists mainly of making the dough and allowing it to rise, and day 2 is for shaping and baking. I won’t go through the steps – I like you and won’t give you a bullshit version to make mistakes with, like I did.

And the result? Drumrolllll …. It looked beautiful and tasted amazing. The brown, crisp crust yielded to a slightly chewy interior typical of sourdough bread.

We enjoyed the sourdough debut with a simple dinner of Moules Mariniere (mussels in white wine sauce), my husband’s idea since the best part of that dish is sopping up the delicious buttery sauce with some great bread.

Nancy says that your first loaf made with the starter won’t be the best, since the starter keeps getting better over time. But still I’ve got to say it was pretty damn good.

Now that I have my starter, I’ll never need to make another as long as I keep it maintained. Boudin Bakery in San Francisco claims to be using the same starter that they started with in 1849. It’s even said that Louise Boudin rescued the starter in the great San Francisco earthquake of 1906. Questionable priorities? I don’t think so.

All told, here’s what I figure I’ve invested:

About 20 pounds organic bread flour $ 26.00
14 kg French flour $ 34.00
Cheesecloths for grapes for multiple starters $ 12.00
Nancy Silverton’s Breads From The LaBrea Bakery $ 35.00
Proofing bowls and proofing cloth $ 35.00
Mason jars for sharing extra starter $ 13.00
6 quart container for developing starter $ 10.00
Retainer that fell and the dog ate, while I was feeding the starter $100.00
Total expenditures for that first precious loaf of sourdough $265.00

I know, adding the retainer is stretching it a bit, but hey, it’s collateral damage and I’m counting it. You can do this for a lot less by buying the book to start with, not throwing out two batches of false-start starter, and not letting the dog eat your dental appliance.

If you just want a good loaf of bread, obviously there are great bakeries everywhere. Heck, Nancy Silverton’s restaurant, Osteria Mozza, is a 15 minute drive from my house (or an hour and a half, with traffic). I’m not minimizing the effort it takes to search out recommendations, taste a few options, and choose the best tasting bread you can find.

However, if you, like me, get tremendous satisfaction in knowing that you made something yourself and you love bragging rights, then get Nancy’s book, be willing to waste some flour, and give it a try.

Best of all, you get to add that special ingredient that you can’t find at a bakery … love.

Bonjour! Je suis Kelley

Bonjour! Je suis Kelley

Hi, I’m Kelley – thrower of parties, drinker of wine, and lover of all things French. I hope you enjoy my Lessons in Becoming French!

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