Better bread starts with a sponge


Clockwise from left: Favorite French Bread, atop two loaves of Whole-Wheat French Country Bread; Black Olive Rosemary Fougasse; Artisanal Walnut Bread. (Katherine Frey/THE WASHINGTON POST)
February 5, 2013

When it comes to the romance of home-baked bread, nothing beats the notion of sourdough. It’s the Holy Grail of doughs, much like DIY charcuterie and naturally thickened jams.

Truth is, I like sourdough bread when someone else makes it — say, the corner French bakery. It takes dedication to nurse the slurry of flour and water into a mature, sour, puddinglike glop that can yield a great exterior and those characteristic big, gaping holes inside. The machismo of superb sourdough (and, trust me, it’s a competitive venue of baking) is about using no added yeast, relying on airborne spores to do the job.

Sourdough is so beloved yet so demanding that Cook’s Illustrated recently suggested home bakers forgo a starter to save time and simply add vinegar for that characteristic acidic taste. I say: Please don’t, on both accounts. That is what some commercial bakers used to do to hasten the process and sell regular bread as sourdough.

Sponge-based bread for me, as both a home baker and professional pastry chef, is the perfect hybrid. It’s a relatively old frontier in need of re-exploration, and if you’re not much of a bread baker, consider it the right place for you to jump in. Sponge-starter bread is not quite sourdough, yet it’s way more interesting than a regular or straight bread dough. To my mind, it’s also more flavorful than no-knead bread.

A sponge is just as it sounds: a bubbled mixture of flour, water and a touch of yeast. For a rather low-rent approach, it produces rather phenomenal results: a crust and flavor like sourdough, with less of the taste that some sourdough haters can do without, due to shortened pre-fermentation. The starter can be made eight to 16 hours ahead. If I forget to deal with it or am called away, I can chuck the bowlful, or I can feed it and let it develop as a sourdough starter.


A bowl of sponge starter for Favorite French Bread bubbles and foams — a good sign. It will produce a tangy loaf with some of the characteristics of sourdough, but in less time. (Katherine Frey/THE WASHINGTON POST)

True sourdough starters can have a lot of legacy to them; by that I mean starters that were inherited and can be traced back for years or those that have been fed and developed with care.

Another sourdough-ish bread that tastes less sour and is less demanding to produce is the slow, no-knead bread that became popular thanks to books such as “Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day” and James Lahey and Rick Flaste’s Sullivan Street Bakery bread. (And there is a similar category of breads, made the “pâte fermentee” way. Pâte fermentee is leftover yeasted dough that bakers shear off from the day’s baking. They refrigerate this chunk of fermented dough — a sourdough of sorts — then add it to a new batch of bread.)

Sponge-based breads, like great sourdoughs, tend not to go stale as fast as other homemade white breads; the more yeast that is used, the faster the breads can go bad, I’ve found. That makes them the ideal choice for sandwich bread and next-day toast. A big round of sponge-based dough yields a nice boule; a flat spread of it yields a fougasse, the sculpted Provence-inspired loaf that bakes with ladderlike slits.

Less yeast is helpful in creating breads that don’t dry out. However, the little bit of yeast that sponge-based breads do use guarantees a decent rise that, even on my best days, is not always a given with no-added-yeast, sourdough bread.

What I do to make my sponges a magnet for the interesting wild yeast spores found in my kitchen (and yours) is to use spring water and organic flours. That further courts unique yeasty guests, and the nonchlorinated water ensures there is no yeast-fermentation upset due to the chloride. In my sponge-based recipes, I tend to tailor the sponge starters to the breads in question. For an all-white country bread, I use a bit of non-white flours but mostly organic white flour; for a whole-wheat bread, I tend to go more wheaty.

In the dough itself, given the foundation of an interesting organic sponge, I use unbleached bread flour, which is happily unbleached, if not organic, and bolsters the spine or architecture of the bread. That yields a rather nice-size loaf vs. the more modest one of homemade sourdoughs.

The accompanying recipes offer a solid, diverse starter pack: classic white country bread, whole-wheat bread, a trendy walnut bread and a Mediterrean-kissed rosemary and olive fougasse. If you want to make bistro-style pizza, a sponge-based dough is accommodating enough to handle a rise that lasts one hour or six.

The final argument I’ll make for the sponge approach is this: Once the dough has risen, it will stay that way longer and bloom in the oven more than a sourdough. And flexibility’s just what every home baker needs.

Goldman is a Montreal pastry chef/baker, instructor and cookbook author. Her Web site is www.betterbaking.com. She’ll join today’s Free Range chat at noon: live.washingtonpost.com.

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