Sourdough Focaccia (and what ‘sourdough’ is and is not)

Edit:  How To Make Your Own Sourdough Starter (and why you should) guide is now up!

So, in the wake of my trip to Barcelona and some home improvement, I have cooked and eaten, but not photographed much in the recent weeks. This all changed yesterday when I was baking this and realized that it’s too gorgeous not to photograph and tell about.  And it tastes (I write this anticipating the very last piece of this for lunch!) amazing – the bottom crust is browned and lovely with olive oil, the top is golden, the crumb is chewy and moist and aromatic, with just a touch of the sourdough tang to it – which sets the herbiness of rosemary and oregano off really, really well.  In short, if you like baking, you need to bake this.  If you have only tried the common cafe ‘focaccia’ (which tends to resemble dry toast more than anything, at least hereabouts), you truly need to try this.  There is just no comparison – this wins on every count (unless you compete in ‘dry’, then maybe not – but then it’s not a cracker!).

There are no complicated techniques involved here (other than owning some sourdough starter – more on that shortly), and the entire process is very very easy – and really, so very much worth the fairly small effort!

The other thing which spurred this post is feeling that I really ought to get the rant about what sourdough is and is not off my chest. Because, really, people (whom I, per usual, will not name) who have food shows and are supposedly ‘bakers’ seriously ought to get their heads out of where the darkness reigns supreme, and maybe take a class in microbiology. Or, barring that, at least one in sourdough baking.  Or do something else to acquire a friggin’ clue.

What I refer to, is the rather common phenomenon I see permeating both, cookbooks and online recipes and cooking videos, whereby a celebrity (or a blog writer, or whoever) goes something like “this recipe calls for a sourdough starter… if you don’t have your own sourdough starter, you can easily make it overnight by mixing some water, flour and bakers’ yeast…”  and proceed with the recipe without batting an eye.  This, frankly, annoys me – not because the recipe in question is not good (it may well turn out fantastic!), but because it’s not sourdough.  It’s a simple recipe with a ‘sponge’ or ‘biga’.  Which could be a sourdough sponge, but unless it’s made with actual sourdough culture rather than baker’s yeast, is not a sourdough sponge.

Why does it annoy me?  Because it muddles terminology, and I have a science education.  Things have names for a reason.  When a doctor prescribes you some antibiotics, your pharmacist doesn’t just go “have some antihistamines, they’re also pills and sort of sound like that too”.  When a reader or listener wants to bake sourdough, they imagine the sourdough flavor, or perhaps they want it for the health benefits (lowered GI, easier to digest), and instead they are being handed a recipe based on baker’s yeast is simply false advertising.  Oh, and I guess it annoys me as a student of food law, too.

Why is this common?  My guess would be, because foodie culture is making sourdough bread more popular again, people want recipes for sourdough that’d taste like that fancy levain bread they had at a cafe, or that sour-tangy loaf they bought at a bakery.  But… giving ‘difficult’ recipes or advice regarding making starter (7-14 days) aren’t going to sell food shows, or cookbooks – because, sadly, people who grew up with the 70s, 80s and even 90s idea that a béarnaise sauce can come out of a dried packet, don’t take well to being told something takes time and you can’t get around it by using something you have on hand as a shortcut.  And so, the “sourdough-but-you-can-just-use-any-bought-yeast” recipes proliferate.  And people try them, and they never taste the way sourdough did and they give up on sourdough baking before they even actually tried it.  So, the practice annoys me as a food blogger, too.  Make it trifold annoyance, then.  Sigh.

The really silly thing is, these days you can get sourdough starter from a bakery, or you can mail-order it dried, or you can even buy it at some of the better gourmet shops – at which point you can simply perpetuate it forever without the effort of making your own.  Or you can make your own like I did over a year ago – and mine is going strong despite me frequently leaving it in the fridge for a month without any feeding (or even checking to see what it is doing).  In fact, I think I need to write a better summary of making and care of starter after a year of experience with mine – note for the near future.  Either way, sourdough starter is not hard to make (or get), and it’s not at all hard to keep alive if you have a refrigerator (and most of us reading this online do – or I hope so, anyway).

But, back to the title of the post – what sourdough starter is, is a culture of lactobacilli (bacteria which sour milk to create yogurt, for example), acetobacteria (bacteria which make vinegar), and an acid-tolerant species of yeast (one of a few, none of which are the species sold as baker’s yeast commercially) living symbiotically in a mix of water and flour, together comprising the greyish gloop that is referred to as “starter”.  Because it is a living culture, it needs to be fed occasionally – daily if it is kept at room temperature, monthly or so if it is kept in the fridge (which is what I do).  Why is it special and different from regular yeast?  Well, the thing is – the “sour” in sourdough – the part that makes it both, taste great and helps preserve it for days on end when regular bread would just go moldy – are organic acids (lactic and acetic) which are produced by the aforementioned bacteria.  And the yeast that is living in the starter must, in order to raise the bread, be able to happily live and reproduce in a very acidic environment that these bacteria create – which baker’s yeast generally can’t do.  Hence the symbiotic culture of the right yeast which can naturally coexist with the bacteria in question.

The above also answers the other implied question – by process of elimination, what sourdough starter isn’t, is anything which is made by mixing baker’s yeast with flour and water and whatever else.  Whew, good to get this bit off my chest.

And now that I’ve hopefully not confused you at all, I will proceed to the really lovely focaccia that I have baked yesterday that begged to be shared with other people (food is happiness, happiness is bigger when shared – platitude, but not a bad one).

This recipe, somewhat unusually for me, uses both, a sourdough starter (for its flavor and preservative qualities), and a tiny bit of dry yeast to help this bread rise faster and to make it practical – and no, I do not contradict myself here.  The sourdough overnight sponge does not involve any dry baker’s yeast – that is added in the final dough mix, where acidity is reduced by mixing in a lot of ingredients.  So in a way, this recipe is the best of both worlds, though not one for the snob bread-baking purists (maybe, who knows – I certainly don’t talk to those types!).

This recipe includes an overnight pre-ferment (sponge), and it obviously does require a sourdough starter.  If you don’t have one, don’t use regular yeast – it may turn out ok, but the flavor and the lovely texture won’t be the same at all.  Instead, consider making your own starter (link now updated!).  Or buying it, or asking a friend for a piece – anything goes.

So, what do you need?

  • A couple of bowls, a kitchen scale (recommended for weighing flour), a hand or stand mixer (unless you have strong arms and are really good with that wooden spoon, then you’re fine with a spoon), a half-sized oven pan to bake this in or equivalent (two square or large round cake pans may do).

Day 1:

  • 1 heaping tablespoon of sourdough starter (mine worked fine from a jar in the fridge last fed maybe 2 weeks ago)
  • 110ml cold tap water
  • 85g flour (white, I mixed in about a tablespoon of rye because my sourdough starter loves the rye and goes crazy-bubbly when it gets some)
  • Whisk the tablespoon of sticky starter into the water in a large bowl.  Add flour, mix until thick batter-like consistency, scrape down the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula, cover with a plastic wrap (clingfilm), and leave overnight.

Day 2:

  • All of the above sponge (in its bowl where it should be bubbly by now)
  • 325ml cold tap water
  • 1 tablespoon good extra-virgin olive oil + a lot more for pan and brushing
  • 1.5 tsp dry yeast of any description
  • 1-2 tbsp rye flour
  • 450g white bread flour + a few tablespoons more if needed
  • 1 tbsp dry oregano, crushed in a hand a little
  • 1 tbsp coarse salt

For Topping:

  • You can really use whatever you like here, but in the picture I used:
  • 1 package of tiny baby plum tomatoes (I happily ate the last four or five that didn’t fit on the focaccia)
  • 100g chopped feta-style fresh cheese (I buy a German cheese which is less salty and not technically ‘feta’ as it is not from Greece)
  • Three sprigs of rosemary cut off my potted bush, leaves stripped.
  • Olive oil, flaked sea salt

What to do:

  • Combine all the dry ingredients in a clean bowl, mix a bit with a random kitchen implement (whisk or wooden spoon both work).
  • Add water to the sponge and whisk to mix.  Add 1 tbsp olive oil.  Add the dry ingredients and mix with a mixer and dough hooks (I use a handheld mixer) until all flour is incorporated.  At this point the dough will be very wet and sticky.
  • Continue mixing, turning the mixer up to medium speed, and adding white flour by tablespoonful at a time (I think I might have used 3-4 extra tablespoons) until the dough is still very wet (it won’t achieve the smooth elasticity normal bread dough gets when well-kneaded), but sort of pulls away from the sides of the bowl with the mixer hooks, though leaving sticky bits still, and sticking right back to the bowl.
  • Clean and very generously oil the other bowl and your hands.  Transfer the sticky lump of dough into the oiled bowl, and turn it over so it’s all coated.  A tiny bit of oil in a ring around it is good.  Cover with cling film and leave for 2-4 hours (I went out for about 3 hours to shop and then fussed with the dough maybe 40 minutes after coming home).  It should have at least doubled in size during this time.
  • Oil hands, lift the film, and stretch and fold the dough a few times right in the bowl, without taking it out on the counter (less mess!).  It’ll degas and be far more amenable for being made into a ball at this point.  Put the ball back into the bowl, cover and leave for another hour.
  • Pour enough olive oil into your pan(s) to have a couple of mm of oil on the bottom, and use a pastry brush to brush the oil up on the sides, covering those thoroughly.  If using more than one pan, cut the dough lump in half.  I didn’t, so I just transferred it to the rectangular half-oven pan as it was.
  • Use your hands to stretch and poke the dough into the shape of the pan.  If it resists too much, give it five minutes to relax and continue.  Be gentle and avoid deflating the dough – you want those air bubbles in there.
  • Take your toppings and push them deep into the dough, as far down as they’ll go, making little wells.  I pushed the rosemary leaves in with bits of cheese and tomato to help them stay stuck in.
  • Brush the top of the dough with more olive oil, and turn the oven to 225C to preheat.  Allow to rise for 30-40 minutes – the dough will become puffed up.  You may need to shove the toppings down again in places.
  • Place in the middle of the oven and bake for 15 minutes, then move into lower part of the oven to avoid scorching the top and turn heat down to 210C.  Bake for another 10 minutes or so (for me it was total of 25 minutes) until the top is golden brown and internal temperature reads 93C (200F) on instant-read thermometer (fantastic way to tell when bread is done, by the way – get one, they are cheap as chips at IKEA!).
  • Remove from oven, brush the top with more olive oil (I am not kidding!), and use a metal spatula to tease the bread out of the form and onto a rack to cool.  Wait as long as you can and then devour!

We had ours with roast pumpkin-and-garlic soup topped with fresh bacon bits and some chopped flat-leaf parsley.  You do as you will – you can just eat it as-is with a cup of tea or coffee.  Trust me, it won’t disappoint.

Submitted to Yeastspotting!


17 thoughts on “Sourdough Focaccia (and what ‘sourdough’ is and is not)

  1. Oh I’ve ranted for ages about the sourdough starter/biga/poolish/ferment thing for ages and ages as well! I HATE it when people that should know better spread any kind of misleading information to a trusting public! Thank you for setting this record a little straighter! (That is also a rather delicious looking loaf).

      1. I think that we both have the professional hate for people who should know better, and possibly even do know better, but “simplify” things too well or use random words regarding food in general and this in particular. I dislike it when people assume that no one would know the difference! These people really should be setting an example, and instead they fail their audience – grrrr!

        And yay, it’s nice to be missed! But I am (hopefully!) back more solidly now. We are a bit up to eyeballs with a bunch of projects, I’ll be drafting dissertation proposal soon, and we are refurnishing living room, but other than that life is business as usual!

  2. Wow, Veronika, this looks absolutely teriffic! I have experimented a bit with bread baking in the past but now mainly use my panasonic machine (sheesh) as it’s so easy and works so well (I’m more a cook than a baker).

    I’ve always wanted to give sourdough a try, but unfortunately it’s just not a good idea to introduce lactobacillus, acetobacter and brettanomyces to my kitchen as it is also my brewery. These organisms love nothing better to destroy good home-brewed beer which has no preservatives, and they are notoriously difficult to get rid of once they’ve settled in! (especially Brett).

    Lovely! Keep it up.

    1. Gary, thank you!

      Regarding baking and sourdough – if your kitchen is your brewery then I’d be cautious indeed! I am quite happy to have all these residing in my kitchen but that is because the only fermentation I am likely to be doing is bread or dairy, and neither of those suffer from sourdough organisms being present.

      If you want a good recipe that uses brewer’s (baker’s) yeast which ought not (I hope) endanger your brewing, you could try this – it involves aging dough in the refrigerator, but no actual sourdough fermentation, and gives very decent results for being just saccharomyces!

  3. Yay, you’re back! And with a great food-science lesson, too. I’m utterly spoiled when it comes to great sourdough bread–it’s pretty much the official food of San Francisco. I’ve never seen it in focaccia form, though, and it looks delicious!

    1. Oh how I envy thee… or maybe not, because I’d be as big as a house if eating sourdough bread was as easy as going to the corner bakery. Mind you, we have pretty good sourdough here too but it’s expensive as all hell – and homemade still turns out better nine times out of ten. I’ll just keep baking!

      And yay, people didn’t forget me! And I will try to write more normally now – like I said above, we are pretty up-to-eyeballs in stuff going on, renovations, new projects, dissertation, etc. but I don’t want to poof like this again!

  4. Man! I so need you in my life. To educate me about food law and the science behind the food that I make and eat and couldn’t be bothered about the hows, whats, whys, whos and whatnots that make the recipe work. I make, I eat.
    So you’d better not disappear too long. Gotta feed my teeny brain, never mind the starter.
    This looks absoverylutely gorgeous Professor V! I’m so gonna make one.
    Next request, I need to borrow a piece of your starter.

    1. Ping! I will happily lecture, but truth be told, I don’t bother lecturing to tiny brains – nothing fits in them anyway. Yours isn’t, however, so don’t even start to pretend!

      Sourdough starter? I can easily dry it, stuff it in a plain letter envelope and mail it to you. Email me your home address and I will start drying some if you really want it! :) Or else you can make your own (it may be faster than drying and mailing from Sweden, which may take more than 2 weeks)! I promise to start writing instructions on getting your own starter going soon. Like, maybe even today!

  5. I do a sourdough focaccia with rosemary and garlic. I like the idea of the tomatoes and cheese, but think I’ll use goat’s cheese.

    1. Goat’s cheese would be lovely, but you must account for the fact that it would melt a lot faster than feta or the German white cheese I used. Toasted fresh goat’s cheese is amazing, though!

  6. Thank you ! Your article was wonderful! I totally agree with everything you said.So glad to see that there are people out there who think and question and say what’s on there mind and back it up with evidence. Glad to read about people that are true to their Sourdough.

    Thank you,

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