Yeast, that is. Taming the wild yeast. In addition to the constellation of other projects around the homestead, I’m trying to establish a sourdough culture to play with.
I’ve always been good around microorganisms. Part of that I think is from practicing with fermentation of various types; as mentioned previously, I brew beer and wine, and have done for almost 20 years. Part is from actual training; I spent a number of years in the military focused on the destruction of biological agents, and that knowledge could certainly be classified as “dual-use”. Even before either my brewing or my training, though, I was intrigued by that other fermentation: bread.
The basics of bread-baking are at once too intricate and too simple to go into here; the best I can do over the internet is to point you to two of my favorite books on the topic: the King Arthur Flour Baker’s Companion, and Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day. The first covers the gamut of breadmaking very thoroughly, and the second is a very simple method to produce some extremely tasty breads.
Where I really get into the subject, though, is sourdoughs. There’s nothing in the world quite like it, and anywhere in the world you go it will be slightly different. From San Francisco’s distinct tangy bread through the mild Armenian Matnakash and beyond–all leavened (at least originally) with whatever yeasts and other microorganisms occurred naturally in the area and on the grains that went into the bread. I’ve never met one I didn’t like, and I’ve met quite a few of them.
Many people have their own “sourdough starters” that they got from friends, or built up from purchased cultures; my favorites, though, are the ones that people “catch” locally, using the simplest of ingredients. All it takes is some flour, some water, and some time; for a total investment of perhaps five minutes a day over the course of about a week, anybody can get a sourdough culture up and running. There are lots of different techniques for it (each of the above books has one), but at heart they’re all pretty much the same: you’re making an environment that the local host of micro-bugs likes, and waiting for them to colonize and reach a healthy population.
The process I like goes like this:
- In a non-reactive (plastic or glass) container, combine a cup each of water and flour; mix thoroughly to remove lumps. It should have the consistency of thin pancake batter. Cover with a paper towel or tea towel; allow to sit overnight someplace warm (60-70 degrees F). Stir it occasionally, if you remember–if you don’t, it won’t hurt it.
- After 24 hours, stir the mixture back together (it will likely have separated somewhat, with a watery layer on top). Remove about 1 cup, and discard it. Add 1/2 cup each water and flour; once again, mix to remove lumps. Re-cover, and place somewhere warm.
- Repeat step two for 3 to 5 days. By the end of this time, you should be seeing bubbles and a frothiness in the mixture, and its smell will have gone from bland doughiness in the beginning, through a surprisingly smelly bit around day two, to a delightful sour tangy aroma about day five or so.
- You can check to see if the starter is ready for baking by dropping a spoonful of the starter into a bowl of room-temperature water; if if floats, you can bake with it. Otherwise, keep repeating step 2 until the mixture floats.
It’s not really important what type of flour you use; I prefer unbleached flour of whatever variety, but I’ve gotten workable results even with generic store-brand bleached white flour. Of more importance is the water: “city” tap-water should be at least filtered before use, to remove as much as possible of whatever chlorine/chloramine/fluorine is present. (Filtering and boiling is better.) Now that I’m on well-water, I’ve actually noticed a marked difference in the starter: my “city” starter took over a week to really get going, but my “country” one was ready in just a couple of days.
Once you’ve got your starter, you can keep it indefinitely. In the refrigerator, if you “feed” it (remove half, replace with a 50/50 flour/water mix) weekly, it’ll go as long as you’d like. Out at room temperature, you should feed it more often–daily, or every other day at least–but if you’re using it, you’ll be doing that, anyway. (Supposedly, you should also talk to the starter, and name it; mine is “Zach”.)
Speaking of using it, there are far too many links on the ‘net for Sourdough recipes. Most of them are pretty okay. Since each starter is different, though, and each kitchen is different, the best thing is to start with one of those base recipes, and experiment a bit to find what works best for you. When I get my outdoor oven built (possibly next year, maybe), I’ll certainly have to re-think my process for that: I’m a complete novice at baking in a wood-fired oven. I think it’ll be fun, and I’ll certainly update here (and take you along for the ride) as things move along.