Bake Sourdough Bread Without the Expensive Tools

Don't let a want of fancy tools squelch your dreams of baking a beautiful loaf of sourdough bread

Some of the lessons that the COVID-19 outbreak has taught me:

  • Citizens can collectively act when a crisis erupts—and we can act quickly.

  • Black tea without any type of milk in it tastes good.

  • I might make a good backpacker.

I feel a bit like I'm camping indoors at my mom's condo in Canada. In early March, I arrived with a carry-on bag packed with one pair of pants, five pairs each of underwear and socks, a few t-shirts, a toothbrush, a kombucha SCOBY and my sourdough starter. I also have my laptop and phone of course.

Now I'm here for the duration. I've long dreamt of living a more minimalist life and now I have my chance. That minimalism, as usual, extends to food.

Looking for a recipe for a simple dish? Combine a want of tools with a fear of grocery stores, add whatever ingredients you have on hand and sprinkle generously with creativity. You'll be amazed by what you come up with. And you can't get much simpler than sourdough bread. It contains only flour, water and salt. (Go here for the recipe.)

Just some newborn starters of the COVID-19 sourdough baby boom. Parents left to right, top to bottom: @beccagetspucked@ratatoeskri, @plant_based_mommas, @changemagnate@climate_action_mataro, @itsv.e.r.o, @tiffanynoelf, @numack_art@sustainablesamantha

Sourdough tools I usually use

Back in California, I have all the stuff for baking:

  • Grain mill for grinding part of the flour

  • Digital scale for measuring the flour, water and salt

  • Rubber spatula for scraping down bowls and glass measuring cups

  • Dough scraper for flipping the dough around and for cleaning my...

  • Giant wooden butcher block to work on

  • Banneton baskets for proofing the dough

  • My homemade lame for scoring the bread

  • Le Creuset Dutch oven for baking the bread

I have none of these sourdough tools here.

If you invest in one tool for your sourdough adventures, I'd recommend you buy a good scale. It makes measuring accurate and quick. But you don't even need a that. Fortunately, a few years ago, I wrote up the measurements for sourdough bread by the cup for readers who don't own a scale. I'm now one of them!

How I've been improvising

The night before I make the bread, I make a levain (i.e., a giant starter that makes the bread rise). And by the way, these days, I keep a very small smarter going in the background and make only the amount of levain I need for whatever I bake. This reduces the amount of discard I accumulate.

I usually make the levain in a glass measuring cup so I can see how much this wild yeast bubbled up. I couldn't find a glass cup or large jar here (I'm working on building up a jar collection) so I've been using a ceramic mug.

When making the levain, if you don't have a rubber spatula to scrape off the sticky flour and water mixture from your fork or jar, use a clean finger—and of course it is clean because you're washing your hands constantly.

A clean finger does the job of a rubber spatula

When shaping the dough, flour whatever pastry or cutting board you have. Or use a clean countertop. My mom has a small cutting board that can almost accommodate one loaf's worth of dough. When I make two loaves, I'll use the counter after cleaning it well.

Ordinarily, I proof my bread in a banneton basket. These light-weight, wicker-esque baskets allow the dough to rise while they create that appetizing coiled pattern on the loaves. If you don't have a banneton basket, line an 8- or 9-inch bowl with a thin dishcloth and dust the fabric with flour. I couldn't find an appropriate-sized bowl, only giant ones, so I proofed the loaf in a glass baking dish that I found.

If you don't have banneton baskets (left) to proof the dough, use towel-lined bowls

My mom has one large knife that needs sharpening. The knife sheath contains a bit of steel that sharpens the blade a bit as you remove or insert it. So I pulled it in and out of the sheath several times to try to put at least something of an edge on the blade. I used that to score the bread as deeply as I could. Scoring is important. It enables your bread to expand as it rises.

If you don't have a lame, use a knife to score the bread

No $300 Dutch oven? No problem! Cook your bread on a cookie sheet or shape it as usual and allow it to proof in the loaf pan that you'll bake it in. I don't grease my Dutch oven and so didn't grease the cookie sheet. If you use a loaf pan, dust it with cornmeal to prevent sticking. My daughter has a very non-stick Pullman loaf pan that works without adding cornmeal to it. Your loaf pan may not be as non-stick.

The Dutch oven creates a caramelized crust by trapping water inside to create steam. Several people on social media asked if I put a pan of scalding water in the oven to create at least some steam. I didn't do that with this loaf but I have with previous loaves.

Baking the dough on an inexpensive cookie sheet

After I slid the bread into the oven, I didn't have high hopes for it even though the very elastic dough did taste delicious each time I tried a blob while it fermented. I set the timer for 35 minutes (10 minutes fewer than usual) and crossed my fingers.

The first loaf

It may not look as "perfect" as the loaves I bake with all the sourdough tools but this loaf made me so proud. It rose like crazy in the oven, had a moist, chewy crumb and tasted delicious.

This sourdough bread didn't last long

There you have it—proof that you don't need to go out and spend $500 on sourdough tools to make a delicious loaf of bread. The expensive gear is nice to have but you can make the bread without it. If you've been waiting to take the sourdough plunge until you have all the stuff, I hope you'll feel motivated to give it a try.

As much as you can, stay home, stay safe!