Sunday, April 4, 2010

Sourdough 101

To leaven means to lift or lighten.  As I mentioned in the Matzah post, leavening agents include: yeast, baking soda, baking power, and lactobacilli (sourdough) bacteria.  All basically work by producing tiny bubbles (carbon dioxide) that are trapped within the doughs glutenous structure and therefore making the dough rise.

Sourdough, or in fancy French levain, does not rely on domestic yeast in order to rise.  Some recipes call for yeast because it helps sourdough along and (arguably) improves flavor.  

Since sourdough is essentially Pâte Fermentée or fermented dough you can go about it with shortcuts or through the whole rigmarole..

Some Sourdough Shortcuts
Route 1 - Dirt Backroads
If you bake a lot of bread you'll love this option -- Don't wash your dishes.  Scrape down dough, hydrate if needed, and incorporate into the new dough.  The only exception is if you are using dishes from an eggy bread (i.e. Challah).  Clean that up.  But seriously, you can use up to 2 cups of old dough in any new batch.  
Route 2 - Drive Slow
You can sort of make any bread into a faux-sourdough by mix together the flour, water, and yeast (if applicable) and allowing it extra time (at least overnight) to ferment or retard.
Route 3 - The Super Highway
Almost anybody who is awesome enough to maintain their own sourdough starter would gift a batch to you.  If you live in the NYC area - we'd love to share.  

Whole Rigamarole of Sourdough Starter (An Overview)
I am not going to post any proportions because I simply haven't tried enough starters from scratch to endorse one or another.  Scroll the to bottom of this post for a short list of resources.  For our sourdough mother dough/starter/sponge we used the 7-day plan in The King Arthur Flour Bakers Companion.  

What you need:
Basically, all other recipes I read have you starting with flour, water, and a tiny bit of sweet (sugar, molasses, honey).  Sometimes yeast.  

What you do:
Every 24 hours after your initial mix, you discard a portion (usually half) of your starter and feed it a mixture of all-purpose flour and water.  Be on top of feeding every 22-26 hours.  Don't let it go much shorter/longer than a full day because it is young and immature.  Be patient!!!  Some starters may take more than a week to become established.  

What you are going for:
Established starter has a predictable rise and fall pattern.  It smells winey.  There are bubbles that break the surface.  If you check on your starter and see creases, this means the starter recently achieved it's greatest volume and is deflating.  To the touch, you'll find that gluten has developed -- the starter will feel elastic-y.  

Once your starter is established:
I recommend baking a Pain au Levain to start and going from there.  Every loaf will be more flavorful as the starter ages.  Whole grains bring out the twang in sourdough.  I have also read some recipes (in the future I will try them) that call for vinegar or other acidity to vamp up the vavavoom of sourdough.

Where to store starter:
Maintain your starter either on your countertop, feeding daily.  Or in your fridge, feeding weekly.  
You can also freeze the starter if feeding once a week is too much.  When you are ready to pick up caring for the starter again you must let it thaw in the fridge for 24 hours before discarding half and feeding it.  If you store starter in the fridge it's good to let it work outside the fridge for a couple of hours before baking.  Always allow it at least two hours to work after any feeding.

What to store starter in:
Store your starter in a nonreactive container -- like stainless steel, glass, plastic, ceramic.  These materials are nonreactive because they do not react with acidic ingredients the way copper and aluminum do.  I recommend a clear one so that you can watch your starter grow.  If you don't mind donating a whole tupperware to your starter (as we have) you can mark the rises and falls, highs and lows.  Especially in the first weeks it's super exciting to watch.  

What to feed starter:
Feed starter whatever you last fed your starter (usually equal parts, by weight, all-purpose flour and water).  You can increase the volume of your starter for a special recipe or to gift some to a special someone by feeding it extra but stick with the same proportion of flour and water.  If you feel the urge to feed your starter a different type of flour (say, rye or whole wheat for example) resist that temptation and just bake a sourdough rye loaf.  If you want your starter to thrive you have to be predictable and reliable in when and what you feed it.  

If your starter becomes dormant/neglected:
You'll see a clear, dark liquid where you usually see bubbles and creases.  It will smell very strong.  Don't worry -- the starter is not dead it is just suffocating!  Stir the liquid on top into the starter, pour off all but 4 ounces and feed it twice a day until it is revived.  Healthy, bubbly, and active.  If you have any sign of pink or reddish mold (VERY rare) and your starter smells putrid throw it out.  Dangerous microorganisms have, against all odds, begun to take over the lactobacillus bacteria.  Start from scratch.  

Inheriting or gifting a sourdough starter is very special.  In my opinion, there is a pinch too much value placed on generations old sourdough cultures.  It's romantic, no doubt.  But, your mother's-father's-uncle's century old sourdough starter is no more authentic than the one sitting in my fridge right now.  

Not to get too deep into the history of it, but San Francisco claims the oldest sourdough starters in the U.S. dating back to the Gold Rush.  The prospectors didn't have the dough ($$cashmoney) to feed themselves so when they baked bread they reserved some of the dough for the next loaf.  Over time, the dough fermented more and more into the modern sourdough flavor we all love.

Somehow, the heirloom-nature of sourdough makes it intimidating but the amateur-home baker should NOT be discouraged by sourdough starter and all of it's rigamarole.  All the fancy French words don't help make it seem easy either.  But really, it is flour+water+sugar and time.  Starting your own sourdough starter is almost as good as having a pet.  I admittedly have a nostalgic attachment to my starter.  It's a little weird... so now that I've opened up to you about my love for the starter currently frozen for Passover, you should try making your own!  

Resources to get you (and your starter) started:
The Fresh Loaf
   Details day-by-day procedure for making a starter using rye flour and juice!
   Uses The Fresh Loaf method above and goes through the process step-by-step comparing it to a water-based starter.
- Bread Alone by Daniel Leader and Judith Blahnik
    Gives "A Gentle Introduction" for a 4-day starter into a rye loaf.  Their starter begins with yeast.  
- The King Arthur Flour Baker's Companion
    We used the KAFlour 7-day plan that starts with rye flour and eventually uses all-purpose.
- Or if you really don't want to read, this guy does a good job of explaining the basics and moving his lips to other words:

Comment here or email and we will try our best to help you through it!

- Sar

1 comment:

  1. You have done your homework and your lab work. I am impressed and actually tempted to try making a batch. I've always thought that this is an art/craft that takes years to really master. [Chef's] hats off to you!