It has been said that a cook that didn’t have skill with sourdough bread and biscuits wasn’t worth having in a cow camp. If you have the addiction, you’ll understand, or at least sympathize. Anyway, here are my observations based on years of failures, and even a few (very few) successes with sourdough baking.
There is one major difference between baking bread and baking biscuits. Bread is made slowly, lovingly, hands-on and warm. Biscuits are made fast and cold.To make a pan of biscuits, put a cup of flour in a cold bowl, add 1/4 teaspoon of salt, 1/2 tablespoon sugar and, at my altitude, sea level, a healthy tablespoon of baking powder. Mix thoroughly, then cut in 1 tablespoon of shortening, I use leaf lard. When it looks coarse like cornmeal, pour in a cup of sourdough starter. Mix it with a fork until it comes away from the sides of the bowl, then dump it onto a lightly floured surface flip it over, and using your knuckles flatten it to slightly more than 1/2 inch thick. Cut out the biscuits, put them in the lightly oiled Dutch oven or skillet, crowd them together, and let them sit someplace warm for 10 to 15 minutes. When they’ve had a little rising time, put them in an oven at 400° or put the lid on the Dutch oven and a good shovel full of hot coals on top with not too many on bottom. Takes 15 to 20 minutes to bake golden brown.
Bread, on the other hand, may take a day or more. The night before you bake, make a “sponge” by mixing a cup of flour with a cup of starter, a cup of lukewarm water, and a tablespoon of sugar, and place out of the way, lightly covered with a damp cloth. In the morning add in 2 1/2 teaspoons salt, and begin mixing as you add around 4 cups of flour. When you get a sort of sticky ball, dump it out on a floured surface. Now, flour your hands and begin to knead. You need to knead it for about 20 minutes. You can stop to rest a time or two. But you knead until you can stretch the dough and see light through it. Knead it with a pushing, rolling motion to activate the gluten and make the dough elastic. It’s meditation time. If you want to speed up the process it’s legal nowadays to add a packet of rabbit rise yeast while mixing. ( rapid rise, tee hee)
Put the dough in a crock, lightly oiled, and drape a warm damp dish towel over it. Set it somewhere warm to rise. This can take hours, until the dough doubles in size. Some cooks even punch it down for a second rise (more hours) but now it’s developing its sour flavor. When it’s “proofed” or risen, put it on a cookie sheet or in a bread pan, cut slits in the top to let out gasses and put it in the oven at 400°F. In 30 to 45 minutes it will be deep golden brown, so take it out and let it cool on a rack so air can get around it. When you finally get it right, it won’t last long, particularly in my family!