xoFOOD: How to Bake Bread at Home Even in a Freezing Cold Apartment With No Specialized Equipment

For those of us who live in places where winter happens and who can't shell out the extra cash to keep our living spaces at 72 degrees, we've got some issues for this whole bread baking thing.
Publish date:
February 5, 2015
xoFood, recipes, baking, Bread, Sourdough

Let's be honest: Baking bread is complicated. Recipes often involve fancy equipment like proofing baskets, stand mixers, or — my favorite unattainable accessory — a "warm, draft-free location." Sometimes my bread recipes call for room temperature, which Wikipedia defines as approximately 72 degrees F.

For those of us who live in places where winter happens and who can't — or won't — shell out the extra cash to keep our living spaces at that temperature, we've got some issues for this whole bread-baking thing. Personally I heat with wood. I refuse to spend the money on electric heat for a poorly insulated apartment, so I've had to rework my bread recipes to accommodate this fact.

One trick is to turn the oven light on, and let your bread rise in there. This is great for quicker rising breads, or for those of us who won't forget about our bread and turn on the oven while our dough is in there. But for breads like sourdough, which require long rise times, this might not be the most practical solution. And since sourdough is amazing, we're going to figure out how to make it without increasing our heating bill.

Some brief history, and to prove you don't need many years' experience for this endeavor: I only learned how to cook as a senior in college when my boyfriend and I moved into our first apartment. My boyfriend actually had a better cooking background than I did, but he's that unique sort of person who gets so involved in a project that he forgets to eat. Since that's not how I function, I had to learn to feed myself.

To try and keep our grocery bills down, we put in a giant garden that summer with the thought that we would have a lot of food for the winter (note: my gardening experience was on par with my cooking experience). Nothing inspires creativity quite like desperation: In this case desperation came in the form of seemingly endless quantities of green beans and 16 bushels of winter squash. So I learned to cook vegetables. It's a wonder we didn't kill each other that summer.

Fast forward four years and we're still planting giant gardens every year. I'm not entirely sure it saves us money, and it's a lot of effort, but it's delicious. From green beans and winter squash, we've graduated to more complicated things like lettuces, dry beans, peppers, and rye. As in the grain.

As it turns out, rye is incredibly easy to grow in New England. You broadcast seed it in the fall and then basically forget about it until harvest time the next summer. Harvesting it is significantly more challenging than growing it (go figure). For us, harvest time involved one of those old-fashioned scythes, beating out the rye heads with a baseball bat, and then winnowing out all the chaff with one of those big old box fans. At the end of the summer, I had 40 pounds of rye berries chilling in my freezer.

Cue an investment in an electric grain grinder and a motivation to really, truly learn to bake bread. Specifically sourdough, since apparently rye sourdough is the best. Spoiler: It totally is.

So here's a recipe for rye sourdough (and starter) with notes on how to compensate for non-room temperature rooms and the Polar Vortex 2015.

**Note #1: You can also buy sourdough starter — King Arthur Flour sells it.

**Note #2: Most of this recipe is adapted from the Taproot Magazine article written by Shari Altman and Tom Graham — it's the recipe with which I've had the most success .

**Note #3: I am very much NOT an expert.

The Starter

Day 1:

Find a canning jar with a lid, or a deep soup bowl and some plastic wrap. Add 1 tablespoon flour (I used white flour) and 1 tablespoon lukewarm water. (Note: if you question the quality of your water, use bottled water for your starter-baby. Chlorine is bad for it.)

Seal the jar with a lid or plastic wrap and put it in a cozy spot in your house. I put mine on the mantel above the wood stove, but close to a heater vent or in a sunny windowsill would work, too. If it's on a windowsill, you might want to move it someplace else for the night, so it doesn't get too cold. For a single-celled organism, yeast is ridiculously difficult to keep alive. My first (multiple) attempts at sourdough starter ended with death via endless winter.

Day 2:

Your starter should have some bubbles and be starting to smell a little sourdough-y. If it doesn't have any indication of life, you either didn't find a cozy enough spot for it (it never activated) or you put it too close to a heat source and it sizzled. Give it a nice meal of 1 tablespoon flour and 1 tablespoon lukewarm water and cover it again.

You can feed it non-white flour, if you'd like, just keep in mind that this is the basis for all future sourdough. I fed mine rye flour, since I've got a lot of it.

Day 3:

Should be bubbly. Feed it again: 1 tablespoon flour and ½ tablespoon lukewarm water. Cover and let sit.

Day 4:

Give it 3 tablespoons flour and only 2 tablespoons lukewarm water. Cover and let sit.

If your starter's all nice and bubbly and smells sour, you should be good to go. Keep in mind that starter tends to mature and therefore the first loaf of bread you make with it might not rise quite as well as subsequent loaves. You can add a little bit (1/4 teaspon) of yeast to the first attempt to help it along. If you think you and your starter may have a long relationship, go ahead and name it. Mine's called Elsa.

Healthy starter should expand after you feed it and then sink back down in a sort of slow-motion yeast breathing. Sourdough starter is best used at its peak activity level, which is about 3 to 9 hours after feeding it, depending on the temperature. So technically it's best to feed your starter, wait until it's about doubled in volume, and then use it to make your levain (see below). This, of course, makes the timing and logistics of sourdough baking infinitely more complicated. You can use it when it's not at peak activity, you just might get a denser loaf.

The Bread

This recipe involves some long rise times (made longer by that cold apartment you're living in) so it's often best left for a day off from work.

Step 1:

Take 2/3 cup starter and mix in a bowl with ½ cup flour. I usually use ¼ cup white and ¼ cup rye. Add just enough lukewarm water to get everything to mix together. This mixture is called the levain. The amount of water, or the ratio of water and starter, changes the acidity of the bread. So if you like really acidic sourdough you can try having your levain a little more watery. If you have extra starter, it can be mixed into something else (apparently it's good in pancakes) or tossed out. Cover with a towel and let sit for 6 to 12 hours. I usually let this sit overnight, anywhere from 12 to 16 hours. I think 16 hours is appropriate if your house is around 60 degrees or cooler. I've gotten away with 6 hours, but my bowl was right near the wood stove.

Step 2:

THIS IS IMPORTANT: Remove ½ cup levain to save for your starter. I like to feed mine (1 tablespoon flour + 1 tablespoon water) before I seal it and put it in the fridge. Keeping it in the fridge makes the yeast go dormant. This is good if you only plan on baking sourdough once every week or two. If you keep your starter out, you'll want to feed it regularly since it will be metabolizing faster.

Step 3:

Add ~2 ¼ cups flour (I usually do about 1 cup white flour and the rest rye. Although adding some oat flour makes it really tasty also), 1 teaspoon of salt, and ~ 3 cups water to your levain. But pay attention — for whatever reason I always seem to use less water than is called for. I realize that sophisticated bakers use weights for their breads, but . . . I'm not a sophisticated baker. Also, depending on the flour you're using, it will soak up a different amount of water and at a different rate than white flour (rye can be like that).

Cover and let rest for an hour at room temperature. Or 1 ½ hours if your apartment's in the 65 degree range. Anything cooler than 60 I would recommend a 2 hour rise time.

Step 4:

Fold the dough. It's a little like kneading, but not as intense. Just fold the dough over onto itself a couple of times, making sure you get all of it off the sides and the bottom of the bowl. It's easiest when your hands are wet. Except I seem to always need to add more flour to mine also, because the dough tends to be pretty wet on its own. Cover and repeat this step every half an hour for 3 to 5 more times. And again, if your place is cooler than room temperature, I would let it go 45 minutes to an hour.

As a reminder, your dough doesn't need babysitting. I usually go running/grocery shopping/whatever between folds.

Step 5:

After the final fold, shape your dough into a nice ball, cover it, and let sit at room temperature for another couple of hours. You can get away with 2 hours if your dough is near the wood stove/radiator/sunny window, but I would suggest letting it go longer if you can. Although I never notice a significant amount of rising going on between folds, your dough should look significantly poofier after three-ish hours of this final rise. Alternatively, if it's in the evening, you can put your dough in the fridge/cold part of your house and wait until the morning to bake it.

Step 6:

Find a casserole dish or Dutch oven (anything with a lid that's big enough to fit your bread). If you don't have either of these, a ceramic or glass mixing bowl with a tin foil lid will do just fine. Put your baking implement in the oven and preheat to 500 degrees. When the oven is preheated, slash your dough with a sharp knife (slashing it allows the uncooked dough on the inside to expand better), put your dough in the casserole dish, and cover with the lid. Turn the oven down to 420 degrees and bake for half an hour. Remove the lid and bake for another 15 to 20 minutes.

Step 7:

Remove from the oven and let cool for a little bit.

Step 8:

Consume. It's delicious with jam and Brie cheese.