Bread baking on a sailboat is more efficient using packaged yeast than maintaining a sourdough starter. But if you are looking for efficiency, you are probably not particularly interested in sailing either.
Starters, like the wind, can be fickle. They contain yeasts — a fungus of sorts — and bacteria that both float around us in the air. In fact, a starter will eventually take on the unique flavors of the local strains, no matter where it came from.
Both the yeast and bacteria, however, need to be fairly warm to maximize the leavening power and the fermentation, which adds the acidic twang that is unique to sourdough bread.
In my case, I have to contend with relatively cool and fluctuating temperatures, certainly lower than most who maintain a starter on land. According to most of what I have read, starters are most vibrant at temperatures approaching 80 degrees. When I am in prime baking mode, during the winter months, the interior of my boat hovers between 60 to 65 degrees and colder at night. I could leave the starter on the cabin sole near a heating vent but that may result in a trip, a spill, and a mess to clean up, usually at night.
So I settle for a, pardon the metaphor, reefed starter. It doesn’t have as much power as it could have but gets the job done safely.
And then there is my oven. When pushed, it can almost reach 300 degrees F. If I use the broiler too, it can hit 450 degrees, but direct heat from a broiler, even when on low, will burn the top of anything in the oven in a few minutes.
In recent months, I have been adapting my recipe for bread that overcomes those limitations, maintains the sourdough flavor, isn’t too dense and can last on the countertop for more than 24 hours before fossilizing.
When I started baking, I followed land-based recipes, which prescribed relatively precise amounts of sourdough starter, flour, and water. The results were remarkably inconsistent. Some loaves came out airy but light-flavored, with mushroom tops. Other were dense but full-flavored.
The one variable which changed was the ambient temperature. The lighter loaves came out on warmer days; the heavier loaves on cooler days.
Really what I wanted was something in between.
Eventually, and blindly, I stumbled on what I now call my “Sailboat Sourdough Winter Bread.”
The key was managing the leavening process and keeping the starter runny. In fact, I stopped adding water to my flour when making the dough. I just add as much starter to the flour as is needed to make it the right consistency. This requires maintaining a large container of starter. I wish I could tell you how much to use but it is entirely dependent on the runniness of the starter. This is all feel.
I also add olive oil or any handy veggie oil or fat to my dough. Many bread recipes do not use oil. I have found that the oil extends the counter-life of a loaf from a day to as long as four or five days.
Here is my basic recipe: (Makes two smallish loaves.)
- Four cups of flour. (I use King Arthur’s white, organic, unbleached bread flour.)
- Four splashes of olive oil.
- Two squirts of agave.
- A palm-full of salt.
- As much starter as needed.
Mix the flour, salt, sweetener, and oil loosely in a bowl. Make a three-inch well in the middle and fill it with starter. Mix again (I use my hands). Keep adding dollops of starter until all the flour is incorporated and there is no gooey starter covering the dough. If you go overboard with the starter, add a wee bit more flour. Knead the dough for about five minutes.
At this point, the dough should be firm and hold together.
When you are done, make a neat dough ball. Wash and dry the mixing bowl and place the dough back in the bowl. Cover with plastic wrap, or as I prefer, a damp tea towel.
Take a deep breath, place the bowl in the warmest spot on the boat, forget about it for at least 12 and up to 18 hours, perhaps longer. Mine goes on a shelf in the aft cabin, behind the door to the aft head.
There are many tricks seasoned bakers follow to tell when the dough is done. I usually wait until it has increased by a factor of about 2 to 2.5.
What happens next, is entirely up to you. I typically make two smaller loaves in two bread pans. But sometimes, I will bake an Italian-style, round loaf or even lumpy baguettes.
I lightly paint the inside of whatever pans I am using with olive oil and then sprinkle with cornmeal (ground millet). This will give the side and bottom of the bread a hearty crunch.
On a table or countertop, toss down some flour. Remove the dough from the bowl. As best you can, cut the dough evenly in half. I knead each piece for about five minutes and then create two oblong rolls, as even as possible, and slightly shorter than the length of the pan.
Paint the top of the dough with olive oil. Cover again and place in your warmest spot.
Wait for the dough to double in size again.
Patience is needed. Go to work or for a sail. Read a book or lose yourself in thought. Turn on some music, open a bottle of wine, and spend some time with your lover. Rebuild a winch, if you must. Maybe stay out of the bilge?
This will take eight, 10, even 12 hours. Dent the dough with a finger, if it doesn’t gradually rebound, it is ready.
When ready, heat the oven. This is where every boat will be different. I pre-heat the oven to between 375 and 400 degrees using the bottom burner and the broiler. Just before putting the loaves in the oven, I turn off the broiler. For me, this means the temperature will drop to about 300 to 325 degrees. This is cooler than dirt-based bakers would recommend but it is the only oven I own.
Bake for about an hour. The bread will be ready when the top is lightly golden and when tapped, sounds hollow.
There was a time when I would have removed the bread at that point. Since I repaired my broiler, however, I have added one more step: Cover the bread with foil and turn on the broiler with a low flame. After five minutes, the top will be nicely crisp. Remove the foil and allow the top of the loaf brown a wee bit.
As soon as the color is satisfyingly dark, remove from the oven.
Let the loaves rest in the pans for ten minutes before removing onto a cooling rack. My stove-top grate doubles as my cooling rack.
Using this method, my bread consistently holds up to a knife without being too dense. And it maintains that sourdough bite.
Maintaining Sourdough Starter
When not being used, a starter can be stored in the fridge and for long periods, months even.
I remove mine about three days before I plan to bake. I toss about half the volume, being sure to discard all of the clear liquid that collects on top of the starter. Add equal parts water and flour so the level is about 4/5s of the volume you started with.
Add water and flour so the starter is the consistency is as you like. I like mine runny. Others like it gooey.
If it has been in the fridge for more than a week, or so, the first feeding might be wheat flour, which will kick-start the fermentation better than bread flour.
If the temperature is below 65 degrees, feed once a day, until day three. On day three and beyond, feed once in the morning and once in the evening.
The starter should be ready to use about six hours after the last feeding.