Regular readers may remember I made a wild yeast sourdough starter back in October, using whole wheat flour and water (and a little pineapple juice in the beginning to control pH). Since then I have been feeding and using this starter on a regular basis. So far it has proven to be an easy to maintain and versatile addition to my bread baking repertoire.
Once I got the starter going strong, I put it in the refrigerator, where I keep it in a covered glass container. I pretty much use it once every week or so, holding back at least 4 ounces of the starter and then feeding it with 4 ounces of whole wheat flour and 4 ounces of water. Keeping the starter at this ratio of flour and water (100% hydration, in baker’s terms) makes it easy to add to an existing recipe, because if you add 8 ounces of starter you know that is the same as adding 4 ounces of flour and 4 ounces of water.
On a day I plan to use the starter, I try and get it out of the refrigerator first thing in the morning, so it can warm up and get active again. Since I usually bake in the afternoons, this works well for me. If I were baking in the morning I would probably get it out the night before. I’ve added up to a cup of the starter to a number of recipes, without really changing anything else in the recipe except for maybe adding a bit less liquid or a bit more flour. The starter not only improve the flavor of the bread, but it also seems to improve the texture of the breads as well.
Once I got the hang of using and feeding the starter, it only seemed natural to try to make some sourdough flatbreads. Pitas are a favorite in our household, and we use them for pizza crusts and pita crisps as well as for pocket bread. They freeze well, and that way we always have some on hand when we want them. If I have time I often make two batches at once, while the oven is hot.
These sourdough pitas are made with 100% whole wheat flour. I’ve made them with traditional whole wheat flour, and I’ve made them with white whole wheat flour, and both work well. I usually use a stand mixer to knead the dough using the dough hook, but it can also be done by hand. With either method it takes about 5 minutes or so of kneading to bring the dough together and to develop the gluten sufficiently.
After kneading, I put the dough in an oiled bowl to let it rise. Since there is no commercial yeast in the recipe, the rising time is hard to predict, and can vary considerably. The strength of the starter as well as the temperature of the flour, starter, water and kitchen all come into play. For me, it can take anywhere from an hour and a half in warm weather to over three hours in winter for the dough to rise in this primary (and only) fermentation.
That longer, slower rising time is not exactly a bad thing, because it allows the flavors to develop. It does mean if you are in a hurry, then you might be better off using a recipe that includes commercial yeast, like my basic recipe for pitas.
The dough is ready when it has more or less doubled in bulk. That can sometimes be hard to judge with the small amount of dough in this recipe, so I usually use the ‘poke method’ to test if it’s risen long enough. If the dough springs back when poked with your finger, it needs more time. If the indentation remains, the dough is ready. At that point the dough should be divided into 8 portions if you want smaller pitas, or 6 portions to make larger ones.
I form the dough into rough ball shapes, then cover them and let them rest while the oven heats up. One secret to making pitas that puff up is having a really hot surface to cook them on. I put a pizza stone in the oven and let it preheat to 550°F while the dough is resting. The pizza stone needs at least 30-45 minutes to heat fully, depending on your oven. Remember, hotter is better in this case, and if your pizza stone is not hot then your pitas will not puff up nicely.
The dough needs to rest for about 20 minutes. This resting phase makes the dough easier to roll out. If the dough still resists rolling, let it rest another 10 minutes or so. I try and roll the dough to somewhere between 1/8 and 1/4 of an inch thick. Using a silicone baking mat will make the rolling process a lot easier. I use a little bit of flour on the mat and on the rolling pin to keep it from sticking. When rolled out, I transfer the dough to a floured pizza paddle. Then it’s off to the oven where I slide it onto the preheated pizza stone.
If all goes according to plan, the pitas will puff up in a minute or two. They may not all puff up perfectly like the one in the photo below, but that’s all right. They will still be good for use as pocket bread. For other uses, like pizza crusts or flat bread, it doesn’t really matter how much they puff up – or if they puff up at all. You can also prick the surface of the dough with a fork if you really don’t want them to puff up.
I usually bake them for about 2 minutes before flipping them over and baking them for another minute. How long you bake them depends on your oven temperature, and how crisp you want them to get. In general, the thinner you roll them, the crispier they will get, while thicker ones will stay softer. Experiment, and taste test until you get them like you want them!
When each pita is done baking, I remove it from the oven and let it cool, covering it with a clean cloth towel. If freezing, I let them cool thoroughly first before packaging for the freezer.
The recipe that follows is one that I developed specifically for my sourdough starter. It should be adaptable to other starters, but some adjustments to the amount of liquid and flour may be necessary depending on your starter. The recipe doesn’t call for any additional yeast, so you need a fully mature and active starter. It will take a bit longer to rise than recipes calling for yeast, but that longer rise will improve the taste of the finished bread.