Stories from the NFCCA Newsletter, the “Northwood News”

Northwood News ♦ February 2016

Third in a Series

Making Your Own Fermented Foods:  Sourdough Bread Basics

By Tim Knight

I have been baking most of my own bread for more than 15 years.  In that time, I believe I have become a fairly proficient home baker.  That said, I still have an occasional batch that doesn’t come out the way I wanted.  Most of these are still edible, especially when warm and fresh.

Hands down, the worst bread I have ever made was my first batch of sourdough.  I followed a recipe to create a starter using commercial bread yeast, did not feed it frequently enough, and allowed it to rise for far too long.  Instead of the chewy clouds I had imagined, I baked up some tough, grey hockey pucks.

I have since learned a lot about sourdough baking and can look back and explain what went wrong to younger me.  At the time, though, we heroically tried to chew our way through the rolls and tossed the uneaten remnants in the garbage.  I didn’t attempt a sourdough loaf again for several years.

The author’s fresh sourdough ciabatta, hot from the oven.

Most bread is leavened with baker’s yeast.  Sourdough bread, on the other hand, is leavened with whatever strains of wild yeast are floating around in the air and on the grain.  These are maintained in a “mother” or starter, which is basically a paste of flour and water.  Some traditions keep their starters fairly dry, in a ball of dough about like a loaf of bread.  Others add more water to create a pourable slurry.

A sourdough starter is not a monoculture of only yeast, but also contains a variety of bacteria that produce a cornucopia of different organic acids and alcohols.  The wild yeasts also eat more slowly than the commercial strains do, which means that your bread will rise more slowly.  This gives the yeast and bacteria more time to break down the complex starch molecules into simpler sugars, then convert those sugars into flavorful compounds.  The exact balance of these organisms affects how fast your bread rises and how sour the flavor is.

You can also control these factors by controlling the hydration of your starter and the temperature at which you rise the bread.  Cooler temperatures result in a longer rise, more acetic acid, and less lactic acid.  Warmer temperatures reverse that effect.  A lower hydration starter (sometimes called “levain” or “chef”) will give slower rise and more acetic acid. The point here is that you have a lot of control over the flavor and character of your bread, based on how you maintain your starter and what temperature the starter — and, more importantly, the bread — rises at.

I maintain my starter at 100% hydration, meaning I use equal weights of water and flour.  Periodically, I throw out all but about ΒΌ cup and add 5 ounces each of filtered water and bread flour.  I let this rise on the counter for about 24 hours, then either feed again, make bread, or put it in the fridge for longer term storage.  The extra starter can be discarded or used like buttermilk to leaven pancakes, waffles, or biscuits, when mixed with baking soda.

People will sell you specific strains of starter (San Francisco sourdough being a favorite).  My understanding is that, while the culture will be pure when you first get it, unless you have absolutely perfect sterile technique, your starter will quickly take on the character of your local environment as the native yeasts and bacteria take it over.

Tim’s homemade sourdough bread.

My starter has moved with me from Oregon, to California, then to New York State before coming to rest here in Maryland.  I like to believe the specific blend of organisms in there are a combination of all of those locales.

Interestingly, there has been some research that the long, slow rise of sourdough (and some other traditional bread-baking methods), which breaks the starch down into smaller molecules, is actually far better for our health than standard white bread.  Some people who are gluten-intolerant (not Celiac Disease sufferers, but those with more subtle concerns) have reported that they can eat sourdough bread without discomfort.

There is also some evidence that the much-maligned starchy carbohydrates in white bread are broken into healthier compounds by this process.  I will make no health claims here, but encourage you to do some investigation on your own.

Baking sourdough bread is not a simple process and I am not going to try to teach you everything you need to know in this small space.  Instead, I refer those of you who are interested to any of a number of excellent sources in print and on the Internet. Here are a few of my favorites.

[Knight lives on Royalton Road.]   ■

Part 1: Introduction Part 2: Kombucha Part 4: Pickles and Kimchi

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