Chef Reem Assil’s Basic Sourdough

published Apr 1, 2022
Basic Sourdough Recipe

Because this dough is made with sourdough starter and not commercial yeast, this recipe performs best when the dough is allowed to ferment in the refrigerator overnight.

Makes1 loaf

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Kneeding dough for Arab bread.
Credit: Photo: Nader Khouri | Food + Prop Stylist: Jillian Knox

Sourdough requires care, attention, and lots of loving.

When I started as a worker-owner at Arizmendi Bakery & Pizzeria, I stepped into a well-established protocols for rotating and feeding the starter. We learned to take into account the weather, water temperature, flour-to-water ratio, and the frequency of feedings. Some days, our starter did not “look right,” and we’d begin our detective work to find out why. How long had it been sitting? At what room temperature? Who fed it last? Did that person measure correctly? Once we’d tweaked the starter, we’d set it out to bask in the ambient room temperature to restore its gooey, bubbly luster.

Building your own sour culture is simple and takes about 10 days. If fed correctly, it can last forever. Legend has it, some starters have been passed down as a nourishing heirloom over multiple generations. The starter we use at my restaurant, Reem’s California, uses local rye flour, adding a touch of California love to our Arab breads. Rye hosts wild airborne yeasts and adds an element of whole-grain complexity to the dough.

There’s a life cycle for starters: They rise, crest, and then, left untended, they begin to decline. When a starter has gone too long and descended into a bubbly soup, save 1/4 cup, toss out the rest (don’t think of it as waste but rather as energy expended), and begin feeding your starter again. In the bread world, that bit you save is called the mother, and I think of mine as a mother connecting me to my lineage.

Once you have successfully made your starter, you are ready to create Arab sourdough bread. Because this dough is made with sourdough starter and not commercial yeast, this recipe performs best when the dough is allowed to ferment in the refrigerator overnight. The slow fermentation allows the natural yeast to do its job, developing flavor and airiness in the dough. So, for best results, make this dough a full 24 hours before you plan to use it.

Basic Sourdough Recipe

Because this dough is made with sourdough starter and not commercial yeast, this recipe performs best when the dough is allowed to ferment in the refrigerator overnight.

Makes 1 loaf

Nutritional Info

Ingredients

  • 2 cups

    water

  • 1/4 cup

    Basic Sourdough Starter (see below)

  • 6 cups

    bread flour, divided

  • 3 tablespoons

    neutral oil, such as sunflower, plus more for greasing the bowl

  • 2 tablespoons

    kosher salt

Instructions

To mix by hand:

  1. Place 2 cups water, 1/4 cup sourdough starter, and 3 cups of the bread flour in a large bowl. Use a sturdy wooden spoon to mix until everything comes together and forms a viscous, white gooey batter. Set aside, uncovered, at room temperature for 20 minutes. Add the remaining 3 cups bread flour, 3 tablespoons neutral oil, and 2 tablespoons kosher salt, and work together with your hands, squeezing the dough between your thumb and fingers in a lobster claw–type movement, until the mass forms a rough and shaggy ball. Turn out onto a lightly floured work surface and knead for about 10 minutes, or until the dough is smooth, springs back when dimpled, and stretches like a windowpane.

To mix in a stand mixer:

  1. Place 2 cups water, 1/4 cup sourdough starter, and 3 cups of the bread flour in a stand mixer. Using the paddle attachment, mix on low speed until everything comes together and forms a viscous, white gooey batter. Set aside, uncovered, at room temperature for 20 minutes. Switch to the dough hook and add the remaining 3 cups bread flour, 3 tablespoons neutral oil, and 2 tablespoons kosher salt. Mix at medium speed until the dough pulls away from the sides of the bowl, about 10 minutes.

  1. Form the dough into a ball. Coat a large bowl with oil and transfer the dough into the bowl. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap or a damp dish towel and let it sit for about 4 hours in a warm draft-free spot in your kitchen.

  2. Proceed with your bread recipe or if you are not planning to use the dough right away, place the bowl in the refrigerator for up to 24 hours. When you are ready to use, remove the bowl from the refrigerator and set it out at room temperature 1 hour before baking.

Recipe Notes

Reprinted with permission from Arabiyya: Recipes from the Life of an Arab in Diaspora by Reem Assil, copyright © 2022. Published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House.

Basic Sourdough Starter Recipe

Makes about 1 cup

Nutritional Info

Ingredients

For starting the sourdough starter:

  • 1 cup

    white rye flour

  • 1 1/2 cups

    lukewarm water, divided

  • 1 1/2 cups

    bread flour, divided

For maintaining the sourdough starter:

  • 1 cup

    bread flour

  • 1/2 cup

    white rye flour

  • 1/2 cup

    water

  • 1 tablespoon

    Basic Sourdough Starter

Instructions

To start the sourdough starter:

  1. DAY 1: In a medium bowl, stir the rye flour into 1/2 cup of the water, until the clumps dissolve. Cover the bowl with a plastic wrap or tightfitting lid and let it sit at room temperature for 48 hours.

  2. DAY 3: Bubbles should begin to appear on the surface. Stir 1/4 cup of the bread flour into the mix until smooth. Put the mixture into a plastic container with high sides and cover it with the lid or plastic wrap. Let it sit at room temperature for another 48 hours.

  3. DAY 5: The starter should start to smell like sourdough bread and show large bubbles. Feed it another 1/4 cup of the bread flour and stir until fully incorporated and thick. The texture will be stiff and difficult to stir. Cover and let it sit at room temperature for another 48 hours.

  4. DAY 7: Remove 1/4 cup of the starter into a new container with high sides and discard the rest. This becomes your “mother,” the starter you’ll use to jump-start your next batch of starter. Add another 1/2 cup of the water and another 1/2 cup of the bread flour to your mother, scraping down the sides of the container and making sure everything is well incorporated. Cover and let it sit at room temperature for another 48 hours.

  5. DAY 9: Remove another 1/4 cup of the starter and discard the rest. Add the remaining 1/2 cup water and the remaining 1/2 cup bread flour to your mother, cover, and let it sit at room temperature for another day. By this time, your starter should be visibly expanding.

  6. DAY 10: Your sourdough starter should reach its peak and be ready for the final feeding before use.

To maintain the sourdough starter:

  1. To maintain your starter, you should feed it on a regular basis. The following is my basic formula for maintaining a starter: Place 1 cup bread flour, 1/2 cup white rye flour, 1/2 cup water, and 1 tablespoon Basic Sourdough Starter in a small bowl. Mix with your hands until combined. This will initially feel like a dry dough. (I like a less-hydrated starter, so I can detect more easily any rise or fall in its life cycle.) If the dough feels stiff, do not worry. It will come alive after 12 hours at room temperature, and your starter will then be ready to use.

Recipe Notes

STARTER CARE TIPS AND TRICKS
The following are helpful tips to maintain a healthy sourdough starter.

1. To maintain your starter for frequent use . . .
If you’re baking daily or even several times a week, keep your starter at room temperature and feed it daily, using the formula above to keep it bubbly.

2. To maintain your starter for infrequent use . . .

If you’re not baking weekly, keep your starter in the refrigerator. Once a week, pull it out of the refrigerator, feed it using the formula above, let it sit overnight at room temperature, and then return it to the refrigerator. It’s helpful to designate a specific day of the week to feed it so you don’t lose track.

3. To wake a sleeping starter for baking . . .

Feed refrigerated starter about 12 hours before you plan to use it and then let it sit at room temperature. A starter that’s fed the night before will be ready the next morning.

4. To grow your starter for bigger batches of dough . . .

The Basic Sourdough Dough recipe will leave enough starter for future batches. If you’re scaling up for a larger batch, double the portion you take from your mother and double the feeding formula for the starter.

Reprinted with permission from Arabiyya: Recipes from the Life of an Arab in Diaspora by Reem Assil, copyright © 2022. Published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House.