Simple Sourdough Focaccia: A Beginner’s Guide
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Sourdough is having a moment. Longtime sourdough bakers may cringe at this proclamation, just as our grandparents likely roll over in their graves when they hear “toast” is a thing.
But it’s true. I cannot open a magazine without seeing a feature on a bakery and its naturally leavened loaves; I cannot scroll through instagram without seeing a crumb shot of a halved sourdough miche, a beautiful web of irregular holes, or an intricately scored, thick-crusted boule being presented like Simba to the animal kingdom.
My interest in sourdough in recent months has been spurred by a number of requests about how to make my mother’s peasant bread with a sourdough starter. Initially, I thought why? The beauty of the peasant bread is that it doesn’t require a starter or a long rise or any fussy techniques; it can be on your table start to finish in three hours. Everyone will rave.
Over the years, I’ve been able to answer questions relatively easily about how to make the peasant bread morph into something else: a boule with a thick crackling crust — thank you Jim Lahey — or a thinner round to use for pizza or something palatable for the gluten-free crowd.
But achieving that sour taste — even a subtle sour taste — is something yeast, even with a long slow rise cannot achieve. And, moreover, natural leavening is natural leavening — no yeast allowed.
So I began experimenting. I tried reviving my old starter, long neglected in my fridge, and when it proved altogether spent, I ordered one from Breadtopia. I followed the instructions to activate it, and within a day, I had a vibrant, bubbling starter.
After a bit of trial and error, I soon found a nice rhythm, mixing the dough in the afternoon, letting it rise all evening, splitting the dough into two portions and plopping each into a buttered Pyrex bowl in the morning. By early afternoon, the bread was ready to bake. The resulting loaves looked just like the peasant bread, golden crusted, soft crumbed, but with a nice subtle sourness. (Photo below.)
Using the sourdough peasant bread proportions, I decided to make focaccia, my favorite, a bread I love for so many reasons: its versatility — sandwich bread, appetizer, dinner bread — and its flavor and texture: the oil-crisped crust, the generous amount of salt, the chewy crumb.
I also think focaccia is an ideal bread with which to begin a sourdough journey. Why?
- First, it requires no special equipment — not a Dutch oven or a Baking Steel to create a thick crust; not two Pyrex bowls to create a golden, less-thick crust. You likely have a 9×13-inch pan somewhere in your kitchen. This is all you need.
- Second, it requires no tricky shaping technique on a floured work surface. Shaping free-standing sourdough boules is an art and it takes practice and repetition. It’s a beautiful thing when you get the hang of it, but it can be frustrating until you do.
- Third, it requires no scoring. With focaccia, you don’t need a razor sharp lame — you use your fingers to dimple the dough.
Curious about Sourdough? Let’s Start From the Top.
You need a sourdough starter. If you don’t know of anyone who will share his/her starter with you, buy one. In the past I’ve purchased one from King Arthur Flour and, more recently, from Breadtopia. Both were easy to feed and activate. There is a photo below of how the Breadtopia starter arrives. To activate, follow the instructions on this video. It’s simple.
Why Buy (or Procure) a Starter?
- First, if you’re curious about sourdough, get to it! Making a starter from scratch takes weeks. I did it once many years ago following the instructions in Tartine Bread, and after nearly losing my mind, I literally jumped for joy when I dropped a spoonful of my starter into a cup of water, and it floated. Making a starter from scratch is a really cool exercise, and it’s something to be proud of should you succeed (or not!), but why not start experimenting with an active sourdough starter while you build a starter from scratch on the side? (If you do want to build one from scratch, check out this post on The Perfect Loaf.)
- Second, feeding a mature starter will help you understand how to build one from scratch. You’ll observe how a starter rises and falls, what happens when you feed it more regularly, what happens when you neglect it, how it smells at various stages, etc.
- Third, they’re relatively cheap (or free if you get one from a friend).
- Fourth, maybe you embark on a sourdough journey and decide it isn’t for you. Why go through the trouble of building a starter till you know you enjoy the process of sourdough baking?
Begin with an Easy Recipe
As noted above, I think focaccia is a perfect sourdough-bread-baking starting point. It will teach you the fundamentals of working with sourdough without the potentially frustrating steps of shaping, scoring, and baking with a Dutch oven. The recipe below also can be baked in a loaf pan, another great option if you do not want to deal with shaping and scoring and Dutch ovens.
If, however, you are after that artfully scored thick, burnished crust, this whole wheat(ish) sourdough bread recipe is another great, easy recipe.
How to Make Sourdough Focaccia: A Step-by-Step Guide
Get a starter. If you don’t have a starter and don’t have a friend who can lend you one, I recommend buying one. I bought mine from Breadtopia, and I’ve managed to keep it alive for 6 months now. Score!
I store my starter in this quart container. When I’m ready to use it, I discard some of it, and add about 45 g flour…
… and 45 g water. You don’t have to be exact, but when you’re getting started, I think it’s helpful to weigh both the water and flour. Depending on how long the starter has been in the fridge, it may need one or two feedings before use.
If you stick a rubber band around your starter vessel, you’ll know when …
… it has doubled and is ready for use.
If you need reassurance as to if it’s ready, you can do the float test: drop a spoonful of starter into a glass of water. If it floats, it’s ready.
As with all bread, when mixing sourdough doughs, it’s best to weigh everything with a digital scale. Start with 100 g starter.
Add 10 g kosher (or other) salt.
Add 440 g water. (See recipe notes: If you live in a humid environment, you may want to use less.)
Stir to combine.
Add 512 g bread flour.
Stir to form a sticky dough ball.
Cover with a towel or bowl cover, and let rise for 8 – 18 hours at room temperature (times will vary depending on the time of year and how warm your kitchen is … in the summer, this may take only 4 hours):
When it doubles …
… drizzle it with some olive oil.
Deflate the dough by pulling the sides into the center.
Dough, ready to make it’s second rise, which will take 5-6 hours. Love this USA Pan.
After 5-6 hours, the dough is ready to be dimpled and stretched and salted. Bake at 425ºF for 25 minutes.
Just-baked sourdough focaccia:
As noted above, this same recipe can be baked, like the original peasant bread recipe, in buttered Pyrex bowls. More on this soon.
Just-baked sourdough peasant bread.
Sliced sourdough peasant bread.