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Sourdough and Bread Machines

A question I am frequently asked is, "Can I make sourdough in a bread machine?"

Before we get into that question, I have to admit that I am somewhat biased against bread machines. On the plus side, they let people who otherwise wouldn't have fresh bread, have fresh bread. And, within the bread machine's limitations, it's decent bread. You can avoid the questionable ingredients that mass market bakeries use. Still, they don't make great bread. Not even bread that could be called "very good". Better than what's available in the grocery store? yes, but that's not really saying much, is it? With practice, you can make much better bread by hand. A bread machine limits the baker's vision to the sorts of breads that the bread machine can easily make. It forces the baker to modify recipes on a rather Procrustean manner to conform to what the machine can make, eliminating both very liquid breads such as ciabatta and dry breads such as bagels. And, once one knows how to bake, the time savings of using a bread machine are very small. If you consider that most bakers bake more than one loaf of bread, the time involved in making 3 or 4 loaves of bread is much shorter by conventional methods. I also think that the bread machines over develop the dough, leading to bread that is more homogeneous than the different bread styles really call for. But, getting back to the original question. Can you make sourdough bread in your bread machine?

It all depends.

You face two major problems. One is the combination of the facts that a bread machine has no judgment and sourdough isn't as predictable as yeast. At a certain time after you press the "start" button, the bread machine will bake the bread. Whether it is ready, whether it needs to rise for two more hours, or if it over-rose and filled the entire bread machine with foamy dough 30 minutes earlier.

While there are some bread machines that are programmable, that still requires more consistency than sourdough is usually capable of, particularly in the hands of an infrequent sourdough baker. Put kindly, the infrequent sourdough baker's starter will almost certainly vary in activity and strength from bake to bake, and the bread the infrequent sourdough baker makes will reflect the inconsistency in the infrequent baker's starter in inconsistently risen bread and inconsistent taste from from bake to bake.

The next major problem is that most bread machines keep kneading the dough after the main knead is over. Little "bumps" here and there where the paddle moves a bit. This helps yeasted breads but destroys sourdough bread's more fragile structure. Some programmable bread machines can be programmed to not bump or nudge the dough, but the inconsistency of sourdough timing remains an issue.

What about the sourdough bread machine mixes? They use chemicals to simulate the taste of sourdough, usually poorly, and they are not actually sourdough breads. They are yeasted breads. I don't think this is a real solution.

Some people will try to resolve these issues by putting a bit of yeast into the dough. When you mix sourdough and yeast, there is too great a chance the yeast will raise the bread before the sourdough has had a chance to flavor it. In France, bakers are allowed to put an amount of yeast into dough that is .1% of the flour weight and still call it levain, or sourdough. Beyond that, the sourdough characteristics begin to wane.

Of course, this doesn't really address the inconsistency, it just throws another variable into the mix.

King Arthur has a single use sourdough/yeast mix that some people like, though I haven't used it and can't report upon it.

The question I like to ask at this point is, "why do you want to use a bread machine to make sourdough bread?" The answers usually fall into a few broad categories. Some people tell me that because of their arthritis or carpal tunnel syndrome they can't knead bread. I have been teaching baking classes for about 10 years now and have heard this a number of times from students. However, when I show them the gentle and effective kneading techniques I use, and demonstrate in the "Kneading Dough, Converting Recipes, Pan De Yema Oaxaqueno" page, or I show them the very easy stretch and fold technique that I demonstrate in the "Stretch And Fold A Gentle Way To Develop Dough" webpage, they find they can knead dough. If these techniques don't work for you, you might consider letting the bread machine knead the dough for you, then removing the dough from the bread machine, shaping it into a loaf, and then letting it rise, and then baking it in a regular oven. You'll be rewarded with a better loaf of bread and you won't have to get into the incompatibilities between sourdough and bread machines.

Some people tell me that they don't have time to bake bread. And given the hectic pace of many of our lives, it's not a big surprise. Still, making and baking bread has very flexible time lines. You can use small amounts of starter to extend the rise times and you can also refrigerate your dough so that it will rise slowly and you can bake it when you are ready to do so. However, I find that baking is a way to slow down, a way to get back to something real, it is a way to make something to share with the family that is unique. I find that using a bread machine gets in the way of that.

Some people tell me that they don't have a good oven. In this case, there are ways to help your oven. Using unglazed quarry tiles as baking stones can help stabilize an oven's temperatures. Cleaning an oven works wonders also. Having a technician look at your oven is inexpensive and can quickly make your oven usable for a wide range of cooking tasks. There is another non-bread maker answer. Look for a small turbo convection oven. One such oven is sold at Pleasant Hill Grain. Please understand, I am not endorsing either the vendor or the product, but that was a convenient example of the sort of oven I am referring to. I found one at a local thrift store for $10.00 that worked quite nicely.

Some people tell me that they don't want to use their oven because it heats up the whole house. Having lived in parts of the country where air conditioning is not a luxury, I can understand these views. Again, a small turbo-convection oven is a good answer. Not only can it bake bread, it can do most things a regular oven can do. And you can move the oven outdoors onto your deck, porch or patio which will eliminate the whole heat in the house issue.

If you still have to use a bread machine to make sourdough, the best overall answer seems to be to use a bread machine that has a "bake now" option. When the machine has finished kneading, pull the dough out, pull out the paddle, and drop the dough back into the machine. Unplug the machine from the wall and wait for the dough to rise. Once it has risen, plug the machine back in and press the "bake now!" button.

I know this sounds awfully negative, so I have to comment that I love the idea of a bread machine, and that I have owned several. I'd love to be able to dump the ingredients into the machine, press the start button and have great bread a few hours later. However, it never quite worked that way for me. I got mediocre bread compared to what I could make by hand. In the end, all of the approaches to making sourdough in a bread machine seem like more work than just kneading by hand and baking the bread.