Sourdough Bread Tips & Techniques

Get sweet on sourdough with these creative loaves from chefs around the country

The latest food trend sweeping restaurants across the country isn't a Technicolor ice cream cone, but something more humble: a classic loaf of sourdough bread.

Chefs and bakers are thinking outside the basket, proving once and for all that you can indeed teach an old bread new tricks. At Tørst in Brooklyn, you'll find the loaf elevated from a complimentary predinner basket to an in-depth program that makes it all too easy to overlook the restaurant's signature burger. Carb enthusiasts can thank head baker Max Blachman-Gentile, a San Francisco native who approaches baking sourdough much in the same way a sommelier makes wine pairings.

"I'm thinking about stuff that will go well with food or things that are inspired by foods I really like to see how they would work in the bread," he says. Take his dosa porridge roll: Fermented rice and lentils are turned into a dosa batter that's then incorporated into the bread dough. It's a far cry from the chowder-filled boules you'll find in his hometown, but for Blachman-Gentile, there's much more to sourdough than just subtly tangy white bread.

You can see that philosophy come into play at Claus Meyer's food hall in NYC's Midtown, where a mix of heritage rye, wheat and white flours are combined with puréed pumpkin and pumpkin seeds for a bread far more complex than your usual sourdough.

Photo: Northern Food Hall 

Across the East River, Sunday in Brooklyn uses a century-old Alaskan starter in its buckwheat sourdough that's served with a salted IPA butter, giving beer bread a whole new meaning. Mallory Cayon, executive sous-chef of the restaurant, bakes the loaves at a blistering 560 degrees in a wood-fired oven for a uniquely smoky loaf you can't get anywhere else.

"The recipe took a month of research and development to figure out," Cayon says of the bread. The inconsistencies of using a wood-fired hearth over a standard oven, using finicky buckwheat flour and having to constantly keep their starter well-fed makes it tricky to produce, but for Cayon it's worth it.

"It makes our loaf a bit more original. . . . Every day, the bread looks a bit different. The buckwheat itself makes the loaf rustic, and it matches the flavor of the smoke from the oven." The bread has never left the menu since Sunday in Brooklyn opened last year, so it seems customers would agree.

Buckwheat also shows up at Michael's Santa Monica, where chef Miles Thompson (who named his starter Raúl) serves his sourdough with house-made butter specked with additions like sunflower seeds or barley.

But sourdough rises well past the identifiable loaf. At Craft in L.A., a sourdough starter—who also has a name, Betty—is used for everything from corn cakes to doughnuts. The latter are currently on the menu, served with plum jam and caramel ginger ice cream. And at New York's Temple Court, you can ease into your day with a sourdough waffle for breakfast.

Besides being the key to flat-out delicious breads, sourdough starters have also become priceless heirlooms that are being passed around from kitchen to kitchen. The Tartine starter, in fact, is in restaurants around the world. And the legendary starter Cayon uses at Sunday in Brooklyn has been passed through and shared with so many bakers over its 100 years that it's difficult to trace its original ancestor.

Just because you don't have access to a mythical, ancient ferment doesn't mean a homemade boule is out of reach. Here are some tips and pointers from Cayon and Blachman-Gentile for tackling this timeless loaf at home.

It'll Take a Few Tries

"You will fail the first time, especially if you're brand new at it," Cayon jokes. Blachman-Gentile is also is quick to remind that the process is incredibly satisfying once you pull your first acceptable loaf out of the oven, adding, "The first 100 times you're not going to be good at it. You really do have to be patient."

Learn from the Masters

No treatise on sourdough is complete without heavy mention of the famed Tartine Bakery in San Francisco, which is expanding past the Bay area for the first time. Baker Chad Robertson's book, Tartine Bread, is where Cayon first learned the basics that helped her come up with Sunday in Brooklyn's buckwheat loaf.

Bakers can also pick up Meyer's upcoming Meyer's Bakery, which walks readers through every step of the bread-making process, while Blachman-Gentile swears by the encyclopedia, The Bread Builders, by Daniel Wing and Alan Scott.

Embrace the Work-Arounds

Even if you don't have a professional combi oven, Blachman-Gentile offers a trick he uses at home when he's away from Tørst's kitchen. Instead of plopping your dough into a Dutch oven (which can de-gas your bread), he suggests preheating the Dutch oven and inverting it over your loaf once you slide it onto a baking stone.