The great pandemic bake-off: the sourdough edition

By: Brittany Ekelund

In the decades to come, I wonder what we will look back on. What sounds and smells will bring back memories of what has been a truly wild year? For me, sourdough is at the top of the list.

While some might think the great sourdough craze of 2020 is old news, I disagree. Nights are getting longer, and winter threatens to separate us, as outside events don’t seem as appealing in 30 below. If we’re going to be stuck inside, we might as well be stuck inside with fresh bread.

Baking benefits our mental health, which may be why so many people took it up when the pandemic hit last spring. The star of the show? Sourdough.

Eggs, milk, and yeast were all in short supply during the pandemic, but sourdough needs none of these. At over 5,000 years old, it’s the oldest leavened bread known. We can only guess exactly how sourdough came about, but like many great things (penicillin, potato chips, and the pacemaker), it was probably borne of a happy accident. Someone likely left a simple dough of flour and water out overnight. What happened next was magic.

PRO TIP:  Bakeries order staples like yeast and flour in bulk, so if you forget to stock up before food shortages hit, reach out to your local bakery and see if they’ll sell you what you need.

You see, wild yeast lives all around us. People used to think that yeast in the air made each sourdough starter unique, but a recent study found that it’s more from the flour and the baker’s hands (or a beard, like this extra-specialty beer made in Oregon). The wild yeast, and bacterial cultures, come alive as the dough ferments, pumping it full of carbon dioxide. The tanginess comes from the same bacteria that give yogurt and cheese their zip.

“I love how simple it is, but then how really complex it is at the same time,” says Shelbe Chalifoux from District Café in downtown Edmonton, who loves sourdough. I mean, she really loves it – enough to have a sourdough tattoo on her left arm.

“Flour, water and salt. That’s all you really need for bread.”

And she’s right. If you feed and care for it carefully, you can have a sourdough starter that lasts a lifetime. And don’t throw away the leftovers -they’re liquid gold. There’s so much more to do with it than bake bread – like the cinnamon buns Chalifoux whipped up when yeast had long disappeared from shelves. (Jump to Recipe).

Don’t be afraid to play around with your sourdough cinnamon bun dough. Custard, fruit and chocolate can turn a sweet morning snack into a saucy little date night number in no time. (Photos by Brittany Ekelund)

Our next sourdough aficionado is Chef Kunal Sawhney, who the Globe and Mail recently named one of the next top five chefs in Canada. His pandemic project, a perogy company, is now supplying several downtown eateries, including the Cask and Barrel, The Rocky Mountain Icehouse and River City Revival. At home during the lockdowns, he perfected his sourdough starter pizza crust.

“I think the reason that people are so interested in sourdough is because, for most of them, it is their first attempt at any type of fermentation,” says Sawhney. “It can be fascinating to take a simple ingredient, add a culture, give it time, and receive so much more in return.”

Sawhney says that sourdough is perfect for dough because it gives the crust the strength to keep all those toppings from toppling into your lap, and it’s just more delicious too (Jump to Recipe).

Now, these recipes aren’t exactly a cake walk, but they’ll be a breeze for those who perfected their loaves during the first wave. And don’t worry if you’re new to the game. There are plenty of other – easier – ways to use your starter. Sourdough pancakes are a personal favourite, but there are also biscuits, beer batter, or banana bread.

Regardless of your skill level, you’re bound to have the time to step it up a notch, as Edmonton’s active cases continue to break records. Shutdowns are almost inescapable at this point, so do yourself a favour and make yourself a sourdough starter so that when the cookie inevitably crumbles, you’ll be ready to compete in the next edition of the great pandemic bake off.

Kunal's sourdough starter pizza crust

Prep Time 15 mins
Cook Time 15 mins
Resting Time 2 hrs 10 mins

Ingredients
  

  • 250 grams sourdough starter
  • 375 grams warm water
  • 30 millilitre olive oil
  • 2 grams yeast
  • 15 grams honey
  • 525 grams 00 flour or all-purpose flour 00 flour can be found at the Italian Centre
  • 15 grams salt

Instructions
 

  • In a large mixing bowl add warm water, starter, honey, olive oil and yeast. Mix well. Allow to stand until yeast is bubbly.
  • Add flour and mix on low until incorporated. Allow to stand for 40 mins.
  • Add salt and mix on second speed for 12 minutes, scraping down the sides of the bowls every 3 minutes.
  • Divide dough into desired sizes according to pan size. Roll dough into tight balls and cover and let rise in a warm spot until doubled - approximately 1 1/2 hours
  • While the dough is resting, heat oven up to 450 Fahrenheit and put your pizza stone in to heat up. Prepare your toppings.
  • When dough is ready, punch down and stretch or roll to desired thickness. Place onto pizza peel or carefully remove stone from oven and place on top. Quickly add toppings and return to over for 10-15 minutes, or until crust is set and the whole pizza lifts when you lift one edge.

Notes

Avoid the temptation to overload your dough, two to three toppings is best and avoid overly too many wet topping on each pie. 
If you don't have a pizza stone, a cast iron pan will work as well. 

Shelbe's Sourdough Cinnnamon Buns

Sourdough starter, instead of yeast, acts as the leavening agent in these sticky treats.
Prep Time 1 hr
Cook Time 15 mins
Resting Time 8 hrs
Servings 24 Rolls

Ingredients
  

  • 1 cup sourdough starter at least two days old
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1/2 cup sugar
  • 1/3 cup melted butter
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1/4 cup warm milk %2
  • 3 to 4 cups all-purpose flour

For the filling

  • 1/2 to 3/4 cup softened butter be generous
  • 1 tbsp cinnamon
  • 1/2 cup sugar

The icing on the cake

  • 1 cup icing sugar
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 2 tbsp milk %2

Instructions
 

  • Fit a stand mixer with a dough hook. Combine starter and milk until incorporated. Add sugar, eggs and salt to combine. On low, start adding flour cup by cup. Your ratio will depend on how wet or dry your starter is. When you’ve reached three cups, add more gradually until dough just starts to come away from the bowl. Turn mixer up to speed 2 until dough forms a ball and isn’t sticky. Turn out onto a floured surface and knead until smooth and elastic.
  • Place dough into an oiled bowl and cover with plastic wrap or a damp cloth. Let rise in a warm spot until doubled in size, approximately 2-3 hours. This will depend on how warm your kitchen is.
  • Once your dough has doubled, punch it down and fold it back into a ball to rise again. After the second rise, punch down once more and roll out with a floured rolling pin to a rectangle.
  • Spread butter generously over your dough, leaving a 1-inch border on your bottom lengthwise end. Mix sugar and cinnamon together and spread evenly over the butter. Roll from the buttered edge inwards towards the un-buttered end. Roll fairly tight,but not too tight as the middles will pop out if they don’t have enough room to expand during baking. Once you’ve reached the butter-less end, dab some water along the naked dough to secure it.
  • Cut log into 1 inch rounds. Grease and parchment a 9-inch pie pan and place your rolls inside. Dental floss also works well - thread floss underneath and use a tying motion to cut rolls without squishing.Bake at 400 Fahrenheit for 10-15 minutes until set and golden.
  • Mix all icing ingredients together and pour over buns when they've cooled.
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