Monday, June 14, 2010

Sourdough, part 1: Starter

It's been a long time that I've wanted to post about how to do sourdough, but there were so many problems with it: I wasn't happy with everything I made, I didn't feel confident in my ability to discuss it, and I do all my sourdough starters and bread measurements in grams, which aren't very friendly to the masses for a blog. Also, there's no way to talk about sourdough without going into a lot of depth.

But it's finally time. How? you may ask. Well, I consistently love my bread now, and I'm pretty sure I know why it turns out well. Also, I've decided it's okay to post in grams. It's European-style bread, for goodness sake. As for the depth of the's not like I don't have the ability to go on for a long time, so I'll just say what I need to say. And break it up into multiple posts if I need to.

Since I've gushed very recently, I'll try to keep that to a minimum, but I need to start by saying that I have spent considerable time reading and studying from Daniel Leader's Local Breads and Peter Reinhart's The Bread Baker's Apprentice. While each has been very instructive, being able to learn from both of them has helped me understand how to move forward on my own, to come up with my own formulas, with a decent grasp on bread basics, especially pertaining to sourdough and fermentation. If you're feeling serious about hearth breads, you should have them on hand.

*little note: If you don't already, you really need to get used to making notes in your cookbooks. They should feel like a workbook, especially since you bought them to learn from. Sometimes I go a year between repeating a recipe, and I need to know if I like certain changes I made and want to continue them. Buy a coffee table book for the coffee table, but use your cookbooks.

Let's start with making the sourdough starter. This is surprisingly easy. All you need is flour and water. That may seem preposterous, but it's true. The only catch is that it's a good idea to have a wee bit of rye flour at the beginning, as rye is very easy to start a sourdough with. (It ferments at a faster rate than wheat flour, so it jump starts the action. After feeding and refreshing the sourdough with wheat (all-purpose or bread) flour, the rye will have disappeared, so it doesn't turn up in your bread unless you're adding rye at a later point.) Wild yeast is in the flour and in the air, so you don't need to add anything to start the process, just feed it with flour everyday and give it time to grow.

All-purpose flour or bread flour is fine. I prefer to use bread flour, as it has a higher protein content and will help develop the gluten in dough a bit easier, giving your bread structure and stretch (and chewiness), but there's not a big difference, and the protein doesn't play any role in the sourdough itself.

So here's what you do: in a very clean environment, stir together 150 grams of room temperature water with 75 grams flour, about half rye and half all-purpose. Cover it loosely with plastic and leave it on the counter for 24 hours. Then every day for the next several days (about 5-7), add the following: 35 grams of water and 60 grams of AP (all-purpose) flour. If your water is really chlorinated, you should use filtered water in your starter so yeast and other bacteria aren't kept from growing.

Each day, before you feed your starter, note the changes. At first you'll see next to nothing. As the days progress, though, you'll notice air bubbles on top and inside the starter. You'll also smell earthy, acidic smells that will increase and alter throughout the process. Also, always make sure your hands, containers, and utensils are very clean. Introducing other bacteria into the starter can alter it or even kill the yeast.

Somewhere between days 5 and 7 (usually; it can take up to 10 days), you'll notice that the culture will have risen about half again in the 24 hour period (a mason jar can be helpful for storing the starter on the counter, so you can track how much it rises), and it will be full of bubbles inside. Daniel Leader explains the smell and taste perfectly: it will smell like very ripe apples, and it will taste tart and fruity. If you taste it before it's ready, you'll note the change when it is ready, as the tartness will zing on your tongue.

It's like magic in the kitchen when you reach this point. You started with just flour and water, and now you have a leavening agent. Are you impressed? You should be impressed.

At this point, you'll start the normal refreshing process, something you'll try to remember to do every week, but will at least do just before you bake with the sourdough and no less frequently than every 2-3 weeks (or maybe 4-8, but then you have to scrape off the icky top before refreshing). To refresh the starter, you have to throw some away (but don't be sad; you're only getting rid of about 20¢ tops) and feed the rest, so it can continue to grow at a healthy pace. This keeps the bacteria (which gives it the sour taste) under control, so it doesn't overpower and lessen the strength of the yeast. It also feeds the yeast, so it can continue to grow. Sort of the same thing, really.

Anyhow, throw out all but 50 grams of your starter. To it, add 50 grams of water and 87 grams of AP flour. Mix thoroughly, cover loosely in a container marked with the spot it reached when first mixed, leave it at room temperature, and check it in 8-12 hours to be sure it has doubled in volume. If it has, it's ready! If not, go back to the feeding stage for a few more days.

If your starter is ready, you can use it at this point or cover it with a lid and place it into the refrigerator until you're ready to use it.

I'll post pictures shortly, and tomorrow we'll turn our starter into bread!!


Alaskan Dave Down Under said...

I loves me some sourdough bread! I used to keep starter around (I made the potato type starter) but I found that my eyes don't like it. As in really filmy! And it happened even if I keep it in the fridge after it's bubbly. So I then moved it to the garage, no worries. Unfortunately, the place we are no renting doesn't have a garage... so no sourdough starter for me :(

Ski Bike Junkie said...

First off, congratulations on the bold move of going metric on your blog. All the best blogs are all metric, all the time.

Second, I thought for sure you would point your readers to the comprehensive treatise on the subject of yeast, found here. I'm so offended that you didn't.

Dan said...

Sourdough is great, and makes the best pancakes in the world too. I throw a spoonful of yogurt in with my sourdough mother a day or 2 before making bread, as it gives everything a nicer texture and tang. (I know you don't like your sourdough extra sour, but I use a milder middle eastern yogurt available in Armenian markets in SoCal - Byblos)

What to do with the unused starter? Save unused starter in an old yogurt container in the refrigerator. Once it gets groggy, and grey, beer smelling liquid floats on top stir it up well. (I keep my starter barely pourable when stirred well just so you know the thickness.) Then add in baking soda and a bit of sugar to the starter, stir well. It will thin out with the air bubbles that are created with the reaction of acids and soda. Instant pancake batter is the result. Have your griddle hot and ready to go!

Fry up a bit thinner than usual and serve as you like. Good food is real fun.

Sarah said...

I'm so glad you mentioned this today. I've got my starter started. I'm so excited to make my own sourdough!

Hansen Family said...

I am so sorry to miss your pie crust lesson in a few weeks. I know you will do a wonderful job! Please let me know if you plan on doing another chocolate order. We just finished the last of our chocolate chips and would love to order more!