Sourdough School Is in Session: Learn All About Sourdough from Martha and Her Niece Sophie Herbert Slater

Martha with Sophie Herbert Slater and sourdough recipes
Photo: Johnny Miller

Martha has baked more French bread, croissants, and brioche than most people, but she'd never used last year's surprise breakout star: wild yeast. For that, she invited her niece Sophie Herbert Slater, a self-taught expert on the subject, to give us a primer. Don't know your levain from your autolyze? Not to worry. From creating and feeding a starter to baking a magnificent boule, this sourdough seminar starts now.

01 of 09
pile of croissants in a linen draped bowl
Johnny Miller

Martha knows croissants. That's beyond dispute. So when she first tried the sourdough version made by her niece Sophie Herbert Slater, she knew they were something special. "I tasted one the day after they were baked, and I liked it better than the first day," Martha said. "And they were good even the day after that. I was shocked, in a wonderful way."

Loyal readers may remember Sophie as a child pictured in holiday stories. Now she's a counselor and art therapist living in Easton, Connecticut; a married mom of two; and an enthusiastic sourdough baker. When the pandemic hit and she paused her work, that passion filled a void. "I loved being home with my kids, but I needed to feel a sense of agency," Sophie says. She makes fresh bread for her family twice a week, and thought others might like it, too. "I reached out to a few neighbors, and they said, 'We'll buy bread from you!'" Then she concocted those glorious croissants, using the same basic ingredients that go into her sourdough bread, along with butter, milk, and sugar. People started ordering them weekly. Then a friend who owns Sport Hill Farm in Easton suggested she set up a table at their market, and bam: She was selling out of 150 croissants in a few hours every Sunday.

Last spring, Sophie also inspired Martha to try her hand at sourdough, and even gave her a starter. "My first loaves were excellent. Then I killed my starter," Martha says with a laugh. But that only gave aunt and niece more reason to bond over bread—and life. "Did Sophie tell you about the orphanage she lived at and raised funds for in India?" Martha asks. "She does good, and her lovely personality extends into her baking." Says Sophie, "She still teaches me so much! The other day, I told her the croissant tips sometimes unfurl during baking, and she said, 'The problem is you're not turning them down and tucking them under.' It seems so basic now. But that's why she's Martha."

Created by Sophie Herbert Slater and Sarah Carey; art direction by James Maikowski; food styling by Sarah Carey.

02 of 09

Glossary of Sourdough Terms

sourdough bread starter recipe in mason jar
Johnny Miller

Ready to start your own sourdough journey? This guide will help you understand the terms associated with this sourdough bread and offers answers to the most asked questions about the process.

03 of 09

Getting Started with Sourdough

proofing sourdough
Johnny Miller

From feeding and caring for your starter to making the levain and autolyzing, this step-by-step guide will set you on the way.

04 of 09

Sourdough Focaccia

Sourdough Focaccia recipe
Johnny Miller

If you have limited experience baking bread or sourdough, this recipe is about as forgiving as they come. You just plop the dough onto an oiled sheet pan and press it out for the final rise. Don't worry if it doesn't reach the edges of the pan at first; just let it rest briefly, then try again. And pushing your fingers in to make the classic dents feels so satisfying. The result is thick and crunchy and deliciously olive-oil-laden, like your favorite deep-dish pizza.

05 of 09

Boules, Our Step-by-Step Guide

transfer dough
Johnny Miller

For beginners, an Instagram-worthy round loaf known as a boule is often the goal. But after one bite, appearances are an afterthought. If you're still tentative about trying, "buck up!" Martha says with a laugh. "It's only flour and water." Sophie agrees: "You'll have some flops, but practice makes progress," she says. "And sourdough thrives on neglect. More time is more."

06 of 09

Sourdough Boules

Sourdough Boules recipe
Johnny Miller

While Sophie uses a lame—a double-sided blade—to create designs, it's not necessary. If you don't cut the surface, the bread will split open naturally, for a more rustic look. She is, however, a stickler for organic ingredients. She uses flour from Maine Grains, croissant flour from Central Milling in Utah and grass-fed dairy.

Sophie's trusty bread-baking pot is the cast-iron Challenger ($224.95, The shallow depth makes it easy to transfer the dough, and the cover seals in steam, which helps a thick crust develop.

07 of 09

Croissants Step-by Step

forming croissants
Johnny Miller

Ready to make croissants? See how Sophie folds the butter into the dough, then laminates and forms the croissants into their iconic crescent shape.

08 of 09

Sourdough Banana Bread

Sourdough Banana Bread recipe
Johnny Miller

A delicious way to use your sourdough discard is in this banana bread recipe. While the discard replaces some of the usual flour, you won't notice much difference in flavor. What you will notice is a slightly denser texture and an almost savory flavor from the use of olive oil, plus delicate sweetness from maple syrup.

09 of 09

Sourdough Chocolate-Chip Cookies

Sourdough Chocolate Chip Cookies recipe
Johnny Miller

Here's another fabulous way to use some of your sourdough discard. The water from the discard makes these chocolate-chip cookies slightly cakey, but banging the pans a couple of times partway through baking and browning the butter (a technique borrowed from Edd Kimber, otherwise known as the Boy Who Bakes, the first winner of The Great British Bake Off) add chewiness, and the butter lends a toasty note. And are they good? "When Sophie brings these, you want to eat all of them—and I'm not in a position to eat a dozen chocolate-chip cookies. They're tender, they're chocolaty. They're different," says Martha.

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