Campin' Sourdough Bread

Bringing gracious living to the camping life since, like, forever it feels like! 

Seriously good bread, made with flour, water, salt, and sourdough culture -- a symbiotic mixture of yeast and lactobacilli.  A little harder to work with than store-bought instant yeast, but miles better tasting.

Materials and Supplies Needed:

  • Flour, water, salt, active sourdough culture (see recipe).
  • 1-liter size Tupperware bowl with lid for overnight proofing.
  • A little olive or vegetable oil for above. 
  • Small round wicker basket lined with smooth clean cloth for final proofing after shaping.  The cloth can be flour bag cloth, or canvas duck.
  • Some kind of lid for above. Use a plastic shopping bag.  Plastic wrap can be used if you can figure out how to get it to stick to anything besides itself.
  • Cutting board or other work surface.
  • Dough scraper to help clean that cutting board.  A $0.99 plastic paint scraper from the hardware store works fine.
  • Inexpensive instant-read probe thermometer.
  • Bread peel.
  •  Scissors or sharp blade for slashing bread.
  • "Oven" -- you'll need to make your own, see the text for how ours is built.
  • Cloche from ceramic pet food bowl or similar, see text.
  • Cornmeal.
  • Appetite.  Bring your own.

This is how Mr Squirrel makes fresh sourdough bread when camping. While this article is not meant to be a bread-making how-to, it does describe the best technique we've come up with so far for making sourdough when away from a full kitchen without making a big mess. Your results will doubtless vary, as do ours, because sometimes it's cold, sometimes it's hot. The more experience you have with sourdough and baking bread, the better your ability to compensate for variables outside your control.

Note: This is a modification of the Autolyse Method found in the booklet Original San Francisco Sourdough Culture Instructions which ships with some of the sourdough cultures available from www.sourdo.com. Also, the word "sourdough" does not mean that the bread will taste sour. "Sourdough" is generally taken to mean bread that has risen, or been leavened, without the use of commercial yeast. Whether or not it tastes sour is a function of time, temperature, fermentation, and (in my experience) the type sourdough culture you start with. Sourdo.com isn't kidding: their San Francisco sourdough culture does indeed taste like the sourdough breads I ate when I lived there in my misspent youth (yes, an endorsement). Commercial bakers often add flavorings to achieve that sour taste.

Directions:

Preparation starts night before baking day. Makes one smallish boule of bread, size accordingly.

270 grams of bread flour (bring prepackaged in sandwich-size Ziplock bag)
175 grams (175ml) of water, between 75F and 95F if possible.
30ml very active (bubbly) sourdough culture [1].
1/2 to 3/4 tsp salt

(Flour wants to be weighed because you never know how hard it's tamped down.)

7:00 PM: Add water to flour in Ziplock bag. Seal top and knead the contents until the flour and water have blended. Set aside for 30 minutes to autolyse. This is a wet dough but it will get firmer as the evening goes along.

7:30 PM: Add salt and culture to bag contents, moosh around more to blend, set aside. Refresh your sourdough culture with enough flour and water to replace what was taken, let it stand for about an hour to give the organisms a chance to start feeding, then return the culture to the refrigerator.

8:00 PM: Split bag open and empty contents onto floured work surface. Flatten into rectangular oblong and fold into thirds like a business letter. Set upside down bowl over dough and wait 30 minutes. Do the flattening and folding thing two more times, at 8:30 and 9:00. Note that the dough will be wet at the beginning, so use flour as needed to reduce sticking to the work surface and your hands. After each folding it will be easier to handle and less sticky.

9:00 PM: After third folding, round dough and place in a covered bowl overnight to proof at whatever "room" temperature you have, but if it's much below 65F then activity will be slow -- figure out some way to keep the dough warm. For proofing I use a little Tupperware bowl and wipe the inside surface with a little oil to reduce sticking. We don't seal the lid completely so if the bread starts to ferment a lot there's someplace for little yeasty gaseous byproducts to vent.

In the morning the dough should have risen some, maybe doubled, even just 50% is fine. If it has been a cold night and nothing much has happened you need to do what you can to warm the dough until you have some rising [2]. Gently flatten the dough one more time (don't punch it down, just stretch it flat), fold into thirds and round into a boule, as shown.

Place it, round side down, into the proofing basket. Use a fine dusting of flour on the cloth to prevent sticking. Pinch the upper side together, dust with flour, cover and proof again at room temperature, 75F to 95F. Here the basket is covered with the lid taken from a storebought salad. If it's too cold it won't proof ("rise") much, but I'm not sure if direct sun is a good idea. More research is needed here.

Let the dough proof until it passes the "finger dent" proof test: press a wetted finger about 1/2'' into the dough -- the dough will be proofed if the hole doesn't try very hard to close back up after you've removed your finger.

 

Our "bread oven." We use a small propane barbecue which I've modified by closing some of the vent holes because the whole interior wants to get hot like a real oven, not just the pizza stone. With all the holes open, wind pushes the hot air out and only the stone gets really hot. In this model of BBQ the heat from the burner is very uneven so I use two stones, one above the other with about 1'' of space between them. With only one stone, the front and rear of the bread cooks before the sides.

 

Sprinkle some corn meal onto the top stone and and invert the proofed dough out of the proofing basket onto it. I slash the top about 1/2'' deep with a pair of scissors so it will rise easily.

 

 

I like a crispy brittle crust so we bake our bread in a cloche at home. When camping I cover the loaf with a ceramic pet food bowl (thanks to Roger Sisler for the idea).

Close the BBQ lid and turn on the heat -- I set ours to "high." How long the bread gets cooked depends on the heat of the BBQ; ours takes about 15 minutes to get nice and hot, over 500F. I wait another 10 minutes or so, then peek under the cover. When the bread starts to get tan on top I remove the cloche and close the lid for a few more minutes until the crust starts to get those dark crunchy bits and an instant-read thermometer plunged into the interior of the boule indicates that it is between 190F and 210F.

 

This bread is done. Remove it from the hot stone and let it cool.




Made with Bob's Red Mill unbleached white flour which has a buttery yellow color. There are several fine choices for bread flour, King Arthur "Sir Lancelot" seems to be popular.

The inside is chewy due to the gluten strands which formed and strengthened during the autolysing and folding steps the night before, and the large holes come from the wetness of the dough: a "baker's percentage" of 65% (a ratio of 1 to .65 flour-to-water, by weight) which is about as wet as I can handle when camping without incurring a major cleanup.

To eat: Wait at least 30 minutes. The schmear on some guacamole, have it with some homemade soup or gazpacho, sop up some bean juice, wrap it around a chunk of imported Roquefort or aged Cheddar, make a sandwich, or just eat it as-is.

Notes.

1. For much about making your own starter see here and here. The second link has a lot about making an existing one nice and active.

2. In cooler weather I'll try using solar power to warm the dough, maybe a clear plastic linens bag or inverted glass bowl. For fast proofing, 85F is good. Yeast slows down at higher temps, dies at 140F, and also slows at lower temps. Faster proofing provides a less-sour flavor, it is said. However, your sourdough culture might not be a very sour one anyway. You're on your own on this one.