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June 2014

Food for Thought

From Starter to Finish
By Lorinda

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Sourdough bread with freshly churned butter.


Last month as we meandered along the Oregon Trail, I gave you recipes for everything but bread, not because it wasn't important to the pioneers, but because it was so important it deserved its own column. This month I have immersed myself in one subject: sourdough bread. My goal was to produce a loaf of bread without using yeast.

If you know someone who has a good sourdough starter (and some of these starters have pedigrees that go back a long, long time), by all means beg for some. You can also buy starter from many sources online, and even from some grocery and kitchen stores.

There is even a wonderful group called Carl's Friends that will send you starter for the price of a self-addressed stamped envelope! This is a starter that dates back to the 1800s. I've just sent away for some. I urge you to send a contribution with your request if you can; volunteers culture and ship the sourdough and I'm sure they could use some financial help.

There is one more option: you can make your own starter using water and flour! It's easy to do, as long as you remember to feed it daily for five days. You just have to go fishing for some wild yeast!

When you buy yeast at the store it is pre-measured, active, and very predictable. Capturing wild yeast is a little more hit-and-miss . . . a culinary adventure. If you use filtered or spring water and a decent quality unbleached all-purpose flour, the odds of capturing cooperative wild yeast is pretty good. Your local yeast will be different from mine, so the flavors and vitality of your starter will be different. Because of this, my instructions are just guidelines; you'll have to use your nose to determine if it is pleasantly sour, and your eyes and hands to decide whether to add additional flour or water to a recipe.

Oh, come on. This is FUN! The worst thing that can happen is you might capture the wrong kind of yeast and you'll have to start over. You'll know by the look and smell of the starter. The upside is this: in one week you might be pulling a crusty, golden loaf of heaven from your oven.

I've tried making my own starter in the past, with dismal results. If you search the Internet you'll find a lot of different methods, some more complicated than others. I decided to go with the simplest process I could, which just involved feeding the starter daily, without discarding starter each time. There was less mess, less fuss—just what I was looking for.

According to some of the instructions I studied, this should have produced a less vigorous starter, but it worked so well for me that I'm a believer!


Sourdough starter


When your starter is bubbly and slightly sour smelling and it's time to "discard" half of it, don't throw it away. Make breakfast! I've given you recipes for pancakes and waffles in the past, but adding one cup of sourdough starter to either recipe will add a little more flavor and a noticeably lighter texture.


There's nothing quite like sourdough pancakes . . .


. . . or sourdough waffles.


My homemade starter was wonderful in pancakes and waffles where baking powder and baking soda were also used as leavenings, but using it in bread was a different story. Here's what I tried:

  • Sourdough rye bread made with a sponge (more about that later) and a small amount of yeast in the dough. The loaves rose for several hours but never really puffed up in the oven. The bread had a lovely crunchy crust and good flavor, but not enough loft. The heavy rye flour may have been too much for the starter and yeast to handle. I'm thinking croutons.
  • Sourdough bread made with a cup of sourdough starter added to a traditional white bread recipe. This produced a very nice loaf of bread, but I couldn't detect any sour flavor in the bread at all.
  • An improvised batch of rolls when I needed something to go along with dinner and happened to have some sponge bubbling on the counter. Ahem. I promised not to give you a recipe for hardtack, so I'll just pretend this never happened. It was flavorless and hard.
  • Sourdough bread made with a sponge but no added yeast in the dough. There was a tiny bit of instant yeast in the sponge, but that is all. And . . . we have a winner! This made a great loaf of bread with a subtle sour taste.

Sourdough bread made without added yeast has its own timetable; there are many factors that contribute to the amount of time it takes for the bread to rise. I found myself baking bread at midnight . . . probably not something most people would want to do. The answer to this problem is to start your sponge at night before bed and let it do its thing overnight. That way you have the next day to cater to the whims of the rising dough.

A sponge is just some of the sourdough that is fed heavily and allowed to sit out on a counter in a warm spot to ferment a bit. It adds flavor and "oompf" to your bread.

What really puts the "sour" in sourdough is a long rise time, which is exactly what you have when you don't use any additional yeast. Depending on the vitality of your starter and your elevation (see "hints" below), it could take anywhere from 2 hours to 20! Try making your first loaves of sourdough on a weekend when you know you'll be home. Once you know how your bread will rise, you will be able to fit regular bread making into your schedule.

I still have many variations to try, but for now I'm going to give you the recipe that worked well for me, producing a lovely rounded loaf with a great crust. I wanted to stay away from yeast, but added 1/4 teaspoon of instant yeast to my sponge just to ensure it would be active enough. There was no yeast added to the dough, and though it took longer than regular yeast bread to rise, it DID rise beautifully.


Sourdough Bread


What good is warm sourdough without fresh butter? Just for fun, pour a cup of heavy cream into a mason jar with the lid on, and shake, shake, shake! When it feels like nothing is moving in the jar, it's almost ready. There is still space in there. If you don't believe me, open the lid and peek . . . poke it with a spoon if you want to. The mixture will drop back down to the bottom of the jar. Put the lid back on and shake a little longer (it helps to have two people) and suddenly it's firm, yellow butter! Pour out the buttermilk or save it for later, and rinse the butter in a small bowl of cold water, stirring to release trapped milk. Salt it if you wish, and slather it on that bread.


Washing the freshly churned butter.


Your sourdough starter should be fed at least once a week, though after it's established it can handle a little neglect. Remove half of the starter (use it, discard it, or give it away) and feed it with 3/4 cup flour and 1/2 cup water. Cover lightly, let it sit out on the counter for 24 hours, and then put it back in the refrigerator. Anytime you use some of the starter, feed the remaining starter.

It's easy for a jar of starter to get pushed to the back of the refrigerator and forgotten. Most of the time you can nurse it back to health, but in the event your starter is murdered, you should have a backup. Here are directions for drying and reconstituting your sourdough starter.


Dried starter


Helpful hints

If you are at a high elevation, your bread will rise faster and higher, which isn't necessarily a good thing when it comes to sourdough. Try punching your bread down after the first rise and let it rise again in the bowl. It will take longer this time, giving the dough a stronger sour flavor. After the second rise, shape it into loaves.

  • Cover your dough with a slightly damp towel while rising. This will keep it from drying out.
  • For a seriously crunchy crust, place a large pan of water on the bottom rack of your oven when you start it preheating. The steam will give the crust character. Be sure to use oven mitts and stand back when you open the oven door; this gets hot!
  • Whenever your starter or sponge is sitting out, try to keep it warm; 70–80 degrees is perfect. The top of your refrigerator is a good spot, or put it in the oven with the light on if you trust yourself not to forget it's in there. It definitely wouldn't survive a preheat cycle!
  • When your starter is not being used, keep it lightly covered with plastic wrap or a loose lid. If you make the container airtight, the gases will have nowhere to escape and you'll end up with a big explosive mess.
  • Use only glass or plastic containers for starter. Some metals will react with the acidic dough. Although stainless spoons are safe to use, I always play it safe and stir mine with a wooden or plastic spoon.

Making sourdough bread seems to be a very competitive subject in the baking world. Aficionados take their sourdough seriously! Yeast or no yeast, sponge or no sponge, slow rise or regular, baking stone or pan . . . everyone has an opinion. I'm not through with this fascinating bread yet, and have a lot of experimenting to do. Hopefully, down the trail (see what I did there?) I'll be able to present you with some fun no-fail sourdough recipes for biscuits, cakes, cookies, pastries, pizza crust,
rolls . . .

Oh heavens, someone stop me, please!


Contact Lorinda at lorindamckinnon@gmail.com

Lorinda resides in Eastern Washington, where she joyously combines her love of cooking and gardening. Baking is her passion, and licking the batter off the spoon after making a cake is her reward. When she's not in the kitchen, she's out in the garden pulling weeds and snacking on young peas. Also enjoy Lorinda's blog, The Rowdy Baker.


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