Monday, August 07, 2006

Baking: Our Sourdough, Ourselves--Part I

OK, you can laugh all you like: My first memory of sourdough bread is "The San Francisco Sandwich" that the Hardee's fast food chain ran for a while back in the 90's. Now, we can stand here and debate the relative authenticity and perhaps dubious quality of sourdough bread served at a fast food chain until the cows come home. Whether it was truly the "Authentic Taste of San Francisco Sourdough" or addictive chemicals added to the dough, I was hooked.

When I first started baking a few years back, the idea of making my own sourdough bread seemed like a tall tale dreamed up to scare would-be bakers, and I regarded every sourdough recipe I came across with the appropriate amounts of reverence and trepidation. Ancestral recipes for sourdough starters and sourdough breads have a reputation for being jealously guarded, passed down through baking-family dynasties, and kept secret from all novices. There are legends of French sourdough starters that have literally been maintained for generations.

My friends, the truth is that sourdough is really, truly, verily not as scary as it sounds. No expensive 'starter' powders from foofy baking companies. No secret ingredients only available on the baker's black market. You don't need anything fancier than a tupperware container, flour, water, and a pinch of yeast to get it going. It's even easier if you can beg a cup of starter off a friend (or steal a cup from a fancy French bakery, hee hee hee).

If you feel like making it from scratch, here's how:

Creating Your Very Own Sourdough

To create the most basic sourdough starter from scratch, you need a big container (at least 2 – 3 quarts) with a lid, flour, water, a little bit of yeast. I have found
that regular, run of the mill, all-purpose, white flour works the best (I use King Arthur Flour). For a while, I kept a separate sourdough that was about half whole wheat and half white. It worked fine, but it got to be too much for a lil' home baker like me to maintain two sourdoughs starters. I’ve also seen other sourdough starter recipes that use various ingredients like milk, honey, buttermilk, molasses, salt, and even grapes (see note at end of post). All these ingredients will vary the flavor of the sourdough. I recommend starting with the basic sourdough and elaborating once you get the hang of it.

Day 1

¾ c. plus 2 tablespoons (4 oz) all-purpose, white flour
½ c. (4 oz) water (filtered is best)
a pinch moist or dry yea
st

Combine all ingredients and stir well to make a thick, soft dough. Do not add any more flour or water at this point. Scrape down the sides with a spatula,
cover with a lid, and let stand at room temperature for 24 hours. Mark the side of the container at the level of the mixture with a dry-erase marker.

Day 2

¾ c. plus 2 tablespoons (4 oz) all-purpose, white flour
½ c. (4
oz) water (filtered is best)

The starter should have doubled in volume and have tiny bu
bbles in the surface. The initial bacteria cells from that pinch of yeast have been eagerly munching on the flour and reproducing like mad. Sugar and alcohol are byproducts of their reproduction (it's more technical than this, I'm sure, but that's another post).

Add new flour and water and stir vigorously to distribute all the ingredients and add fresh oxygen. Scrape down the sides, mark the level of the starter, and cover tightly for another 24 hours.

Day 3

¾ c. plus 2 tablespoons (4 oz) all-purpose, white flour

½ c. (4 oz) water (filtered is best)

The starter should now have the texture of thick batter, s
hould have doubled in volume, and be quite bubbly. If you taste it, it will have a musty, sour flavor. It will smell of alcohol and vinegar. Mix in the fresh ingredients as with Day 2. Scrape down the sides, mark the level of the starter, and cover tightly for another 24 hours.

Day 4 and Beyond: Caring for your sourdough starter


Now your starter is ripe and ready to use. The best place to keep starter is in the fridge. The mixture will expand and contract a bit, but shouldn’t double. After a week, a clear or yellowy liquid may have formed on the surface and the starter should smell strongly of alcohol and vinegar. This is fine. If the liquid is tinted pink or smells ‘off’ then the starter has spoiled and you should throw it away and start fresh.

To nourish your starter, discard about one cup (8 oz) every week. Add in ½ cup (4 oz) of water and ¾ cup (4 oz) of flour. Mix well and store in the fridge.


TIPS: Filtered or spring water is best for starter. There are often hard minerals or chlorine in tap water that can kill or hinder the bacteria developing in the starter. On the other hand, potato water (water that you’ve used to boil potatoes) is excellent food for the bacteria and can be used in place of filtered water.

If you ever want to incre
ase the amount of your starter, you can discard less or none of your starter. It’s most important to keep adding new ‘food’ every week.

If you want to decrease the amount of your starter or if you’ve noticed that the bread you’ve been making is getting really sour, you can discard all but ¼ cup (2 oz) of the starter. Add fresh ingredients and begin to build it up again.

Starter needs to be ‘fed’ about once a week, though I’ve gone as long as two w
eeks without having it spoil. If you go away for vacation, be sure to have ask a friend or neighbor to care for it along with the plants and pets! I’ve heard that you can freeze starter for up to several months, but I’ve never tried this myself. You can also keep sourdough on the counter, but it needs to be fed more often, which isn’t so practical for the home baker.

For this and other baking adventures, I highly recommend using an electric scale to accurately measure the ingredients.

NOTE: Keep in mind that the 'sour' flavor of your final dough is affected by lots of things including how long you've been maintaining the starter, how recently it was 'fed,' the manner in which you prepared the final dough, and even how fresh your final loaf is (I've noticed that my loaves will get more distinctly sour as the week goes on). Sourdough flavor also varies depending on your location. If you have a highly refined palate (oh, la la) and access to sourdough breads from a variety of regions, you might actually noticed distinct sourdough flavors in each loaf. I'll research an actual science lesson for another post, but the general principle is that the sourdough starter interacts with the wild yeast in the air where you live. Ipso facto, a true San Francisco sourdough can really only come from San Francisco. FYI, wild yeast is visible in one form as the film on grapes (which is why you might see some starter recipes using crushed grapes in the initial starter).

Our Sourdough, Ourselves--Part II: My favorite sourdough bread recipe....Coming up!

5 comments:

Jon said...

I love going out to eat at restaurants and being surprised by a piece of warm sourdough in the bread basket instead of the standard baquette or dinner rolls. It doesn't often happen, but it puts a smile on my face.

Emma C said...

I'm also a big fan of the bread basket at restaurants who really know their stuff. You don't come across sourdough too often, like you said, but a real treat when you do. My recent bread basket favorite was a nice, nutty hearth bread with bits of dried cranberries in it at Henrietta's Table (http://www.henriettastable.com/index.php). Not sourdough, but very yummy!

Dominique said...

Oh ma petite amie, I cannot wait to try making sour dough bread, you make it look so easy! I just love your blog, I feel like I am having a wonderful conversation with you even though we are many miles away from eachother. It's like the essence of Emma captured for us all to enjoy when every we need a splash of you in our life!

Anonymous said...

Something I've been wondering for awhile - yeast are microscopic, right? They are floating in the air. It would seem to me that if you were looking to 'capture' good sourdough yeast, that a better strategy than leaving water/flour on the counter and hoping for the best would be to go somewhere where sourdough yeast should be abundant. Head to Panara Bread or any other bakery that makes a lot of sourdough, and eat lunch there. While you're eating, take out your tub of flour and water and let it soak up the yeast floating around the store. Someone tell me why this wouldn't work, because it seems to me those places would have highter concentrations of airborne yeast than your kitchen counter.

Tim Weston said...

I just used your beginner's sourdough loaf recipe and it worked! I am slightly dazed as I live in autumnal Cornwall and have a cold kitchen, so my starter has been a bit lethargic. While I eat these 2 loaves (made with half spelt and half locally milled wholemeal flour) I will get up my courage to make the not quite a beginner's totally sourdough recipe. I found your instructions clear and easy to follow, which is more that some I have read in the sourdough jungle. Thank you!

Tim