"United we bargain, divided we beg."

Friday, October 23, 2009

Fun With Sourdough


My sister, last time she came over, brought with her a gallon sized ziploc bag of sourdough starter. It was given to her by a friend, who told her the starter has been in her family for some 75 years. Whether or not that's true, it is certainly true that there are starters that old and even older which have lost none of their vigor and flavor.


I'd never baked with sourdough before, with the exception of an "amish friendship loaf" some years ago, which I think hardly counts, calling as it does for a pack of Jello pudding mix and other adulterants, including packaged yeast. In the past week and a half, I have for the first time baked true sourdough, leavened by wild yeasts alone, slow risen at October-room temperature, and containing nothing but flour, water, and salt.

Man, I am proud of the results. I have made some serious bread, bread that takes me back to northern European peasant roots. The sourdough caraway rye brought me to the shteltl of my Russian Jewish forbears - thick, heavy, strengthening and nourishing, just like my own great-great Grandmother. I've made a crusty-on-the-outside, airy-on-the-inside San Fransisco loaf, and dipped it into homemade red sauce, made from tomatoes I picked myself. Tonight, at the request of my husband, I made pan de yema - a rich, sweet Mexican egg-bread roll meant for dunking into cinnamon spiced hot chocolate. I don't think pan de yema is traditionally made with sourdough, but I'm here to tell you, it works just fine.

Sourdough starter is a bit intimidating if you've never used it before, but really, it isn't difficult at all. You keep it in the fridge. Every couple of days, you let out the excess air and mush it with your hands. Every fourth or fifth day, you add a cup of flour and a cup of water. That's it.

Astute readers will have ascertained that the starter will double in bulk every fourth or fifth day. Much faster, actually, because of course it grows. It doubles in bulk every third day or so, even in the fridge. That means that even a small amount of starter represents a commitment to bake - bake early and bake often! Even a family that eats a lot of bread (which we are fast becoming) will find the amount of bread produced more than ample after a couple of weeks.

Luckily, as my sister reminded me when I complained that I was gaining weight like a baby blue whale due to the vast quantities of bread I was suddenly consuming, bread freezes beautifully. Bake two loaves, and wrap one tightly in plastic wrap, zip it in a ziploc bag, and toss it in the freezer. If you let it thaw thoroughly, you will not be able to tell it from fresh bread, hardly. Also, sourdough bread seems to keep better than straight-run bread. One of my caraway rye loaves was sitting on the counter, loosely wrapped in a plastic shopping bag, for four days before I breached the crust, and it was still absolutely perfect.

A batch of sourdough starter is a great thing to add to your stores if you have food security in mind. It needs no refrigeration and literally never goes bad, as long as you keep it alive. Most of us come from a bread-is-the-staff-of-life culture and fresh homemade bread would be a great comfort in case of emergency. Starter is not hard to make, either. Try it - the worst that can happen is too much bread. And really, is that a disaster?

Sourdough starter culture

This will take a few days, but is not at all difficult. It's quite amazing that with the repeated additions of only wheat and water, you will develop an active and living sourdough starter!

Day 1

Mix together 1 cup of whole wheat or rye flour with ¾ cup of water. Make sure that all the dough is wet into a ball. It will be stiff, but don't worry about it. Keep in a clean container covered with plastic wrap at room temperature.

Day 2

Mix together 1 cup bread flour with ½ cup of water. Add this mixture to the mixture from yesterday, and mix it all together. Yesterday's dough will likely be a little bit softer than it was, but there will not likely have occurred any rise. Cover with plastic wrap as before, and leave at room temperature.

Day 3

Mix together 1 cup of bread flour with ½ cup of water. Take the dough from the day before, and discard half of it. Mix the new and old dough's together. It will be getting wetter, and there will probably be some rise by now. Cover with plastic wrap, and leave at room temperature.

Day 4

Repeat the procedure exactly as from Day 3. A few hours after you have mixed the dough's together, your starter should have doubled in size. It is now ready for use.

Take 1 cup of your active sourdough starter, and, mix with 3 ½ cups of bread flour and 2 cups of water. Mix together well and cover with plastic wrap. After about 6 hours, the dough should have doubled in size, and become quite bubbly. It is now ready to use in a sourdough bread recipe!

You can use this starter right away, or it can be held in the fridge until you are ready to use it. I keep it in a clean large covered Tupperware container in the fridge, and take it as needed.


2 comments:

~Tonia said...

I will have to try this!! i tried on Sourdough starter recipe it failed... really bad!

Aimee said...

Tonia, many starter recipes do call for a pinch of commercial yeast, just to make sure you have some good yeast in with whatever wild yeast is floating around your kitchen.