Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Directions to Start a Sourdough Starter now that I've Started Mine

I just passed along my first helping of my sourdough starter to a close friend. This makes me officially something, but I'm not sure what. However, she asked for directions on what to do with her starter. So I guess I better write up something that clearly spells everything out. I guess you're stuck with reading that now too.

Either way, making your own sourdough is something that I've long been told was impractical. Because of the requirements of "having a starter", it seems something of a bygone era. I've been told its hardly worth the effort or time. Unfortunately there is a few things that make this somewhat true. Around here a good loaf of sourdough runs three to five bucks. When compared with the work of making your own, the time involved certainly doesn't quite end up in your favor. However, being able to control what goes into your bread probably is worth a little extra time. Also, everyone that's picked up a disappointing loaf of sourdough knows that fresh hot sourdough is incomparable when it comes out of the oven.

The following will be a summary of my knowledge on the subject of sourdough and its starter as well as directions for caring for your own. I'll make the note here that I've probably made about 15 loaves at this point and I've finally gotten it down to a way I actually want to eat it for the last three. That's a grand summary of 12 different ways NOT to make sourdough I now know. It's a fair bit of failure I'm preventing you from there.

Sourdough Starter

There's two ways to get sourdough starter. First off, the historic way, is to have someone with starter give you some. It's important to realize that this isn't like asking for anything of value from a neighbor. They really aren't losing anything other than half a cup of flour and warm water that the might have to throw away anyway. So if you know someone who has a starter, ask. They may even have a blog post that tells you what to do with it once you have it. The second way is to get a dry starter. These can be purchased but the ones found in organic food stores really aren't that great and they don't actually sell them in normal supermarkets. The best place to get one of these is from Carl's Friends. If you send them a self addressed and stamped envelope then they'll send you some starter in a little plastic bag.

There actually is a third way to get a sourdough starter which includes setting out some water and flour mix and letting it go sour (much like milk goes sour). Then propagating it from there. This is a manner of capturing wild yeast and much like lambic brewing it is best left to people who know what they're doing.

What is Starter?
What you've got there is yeast. Whether dry or wet, the mix is probably somewhat similar. Yeast and flour in some various quantity in a little jar or powder. You know what flour is. Yeast is a living microorgamism that eats sugar and poops alcohol and CO2. The CO2 is what is important for baking, the alcohol is what is important for brewing. Because it is alive a yeast starter needs to be fed, kept warm, and safe. You can sing to it a little too if you want.

A starter needs two things to continue to propagate. First is carbohydrates which is usually added in the form of flour. The second is water, generally warm water is best (from the hot tap in your sink). This is kept at a moderate temperature ideally between 90 and 100 degrees. The yeast will multiply and you'll have more starter than you started with, some of which is used for baking. The rest is used to make more starter.

Caring for your Starter
Where I live 90 degrees isn''t an easy thing to find occurring in nature. If we're unlucky we'll get about a week of heat above 90 degrees in summer, if we're lucky it'll only be a day or two. This means we need an artificially location that we can keep the starter. Years of knowledge have shown us that if you turn on your oven light and close the door, its temperature will range between 85 and 100 degrees. This makes your oven the perfect place for storing starter as well as raising bread. I had never understood the purpose of that little light until now.

I don't feed my starter every day, but generally every other day.  I also feed it the two days before I actually make bread. I feed it equal parts flour and warm water. If I'm just keeping it along, I'll only throw in about 1/3 or 1/2 cup of each. If I'm trying to grow it big I'll do up to 1 cup of each. I generally use bread flour which I store in a gallon container as I go through a large amount of it making my own bread. If I feel that my starter doesn't have enough sour kick I'll do 1/2 cup rye flour and warm water to boost the sour flavor.

(One note on flour, apparently bread flour is different from regular flour, so use bread flour for bread. Also don't use whole wheat bread flour. You can mix a little of it in with the white flour in about a 1 to 2 ratio but full whole wheat sourdough doesn't really work well. The nutty flavor of whole wheat doesn't really mesh well with the sour flavor and you end up with something that is mediocre instead of light and fluffy.)

You can see how it is pretty easy to end up with massive amounts of starter relatively quickly. If you're adding 2 cups of total material to it each day, It'll continue to grow unless you make bread every day. Another option is to refrigerate your starter after it gets going strong. I used a baby food jar and stuck it in the fridge. When I came back a few weeks later and got it going again it still worked great. It took a few days to build up mass to a decent size but I was back to making more sourdough quickly. When it's cool the yeast goes inert and falls asleep. I've heard that if you're only making bread once a week you can keep your starter on the counter and the yeast will still work but at a much slower pace requiring less often feeding. I haven't done this yet but it seems it could be a good way to moderate the amount of starter you end up with.

Making Bread
The actual process of making bread is full of imperfection, lack of clarity, and issues. I haven't figured out how to make loaves rise up rather than out when they're not in a bread pan so I haven't made effective sourdough bread bowls yet. So this is what I'm doing right now that makes good, basic, bread shaped bread for everyday use.

In the mixer with a dough hook mix for (10-15 minutes):
3 cups white bread flour
2 tsp sugar
2 tsp salt
1 cup sourdough starter
1 cup warm water
1 tsp (1/2 packet) dry yeast (not instant)

Sometimes this comes out perfect, sometimes it needs more water, sometimes it needs more flour. Using my Kitchenaid mixer you want the dough to mostly attach to the hook but still be sticking to the very bottom of the bowl at the same time.

Then spray a large glass bowl with cooking spray and put the dough into the bowl. You may find it easier to detach the hook, flour your hands, and spray them with cooking spray. This stuff should be super sticky at this point. It will stick to anything. Spray the top of the dough with cooking spray and cover with plastic wrap.
There's no reason you can't just use flour instead of cooking spray if you want to be more traditional.

Let it rise in the oven for about one and a half hours. It should be much bigger at this point.

Take the dough out and knead on a floured surface for 5 minutes.
Spray your bread pan with cooking spray and place the dough in it. This is the time to place cuts into the top of the bread to suit your design preferences. Then spray the top of the bread and cover with the same piece of plastic wrap you used for the bowl. Stick back in the oven for one to two hours. How long you let it sit depends on how fluffy you want your. The longer time it sits, the more CO2 is released by the yeast making bigger bubbles in the bread. One hour will make a fairly dense and hefty bread while three hours might escape your pan and be very light and fluffy when cooked. I'd advise somewhere between one and a half and two hours.

When it reaches the size you want it (it won't really rise much when cooked) take it out and turn on the oven to 425. Take the plastic wrap off and cook for 20 minutes, then turn down to 400 for 20 minutes. Then take it out of the oven and remove from bread pan to cooling rack. It is ready to eat and should be tasty.

Yesterday's looked like this:

A few important side notes.
1) Don't put a tightened lid on your starter in the oven. That release of CO2 is making carbonation which equals pressure. It could cause your jar to explode if you're unlucky, or spray all over the place if you're lucky.
2) Take out your yeast starter before you turn the oven on for cooking anything. This includes bread or a roast, or anything that you turn on the oven for. I've melted plastic lids into my starter which ruins the starter, and the lid.
3) Spray or flour the top of the dough, no really. When you look at your nicely proofed batch of sourdough that has achieved a glorious shape you're finally proud of it is very sad to pull off the plastic wrap and find that the top 1/4 inch of dough comes with it.
4) After you make a batch, refeed your starter. Don't empty it all the way to make a batch of bread. You want it to keep growing.
5) Don't worry about the hooch, just don't drink it. Hooch is the layer of alcohol that forms on top of your starter as a byproduct of yeast reproduction. Don't throw it out for sourdough. It contains a fair amount of the sour flavor. Just stir it back in. Also, don't be a hoochy mama and drink it to get drunk. There are thousands of way to become intoxicated, this one is probably the worst.
6) Take your bread out of the bread pan when it's done. If you leave it in there it'll get damp and won't last as long. Let it cool on a rack.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Barleywine Reviews

In the interest of making our own batch of barleywine a church friend and I decided that a tasting was necessary to convince his wife of the plan. So we traveled to the local quality beer shop 99 Bottles in Federal Way. For anyone that hasn't had the experience of exploring this shop, it's really an amazing place. Beers from all around the world as well as numerous microbrews across the US. They had over 20 different kinds of barleywine, however, being that barleywine is in season during the winter, there was a limited number of available 12 oz bottles. So we picked up a few different kinds, some more barleywine than others.

For those who don't really understand what is meant by barleywine let me take you on a brief tour. Barleywine is generally above 10% alcohol making it a very serious drink. It's got a very rich and malty flavor that brings in a toasted grain and dried fruit sort of flavor. Depending on the variety of barleywine (English or American) the hop flavor can range from mild to assertive but either way the malt flavor should shine through. It's also fairly expensive. I payed $5 for a 7 oz bottle and the same for an 8.5 oz bottle. This is somewhat acceptable as it is a special occasion drink, more to be treated like a dessert wine than an BBQing beer.

We picked up 4 for our taste test that actually ranged a cut wide swath through the field of heavy beers. We had Scaldis Belgian Ale, Rogue Brewery's Old Crustacean Barleywine, Hair of the Dog's Adam, and Mendocino Imperial Barleywine. None of these particular brews fell below the 11% line so we knew we were in for an interesting night.

From left to right: Imperial Barley Wine, Belgian Ale, Old Crustacean, Adam.

Mendocino Barleywine Ale
Appearance - 4.5 : Deep and dark red with a dark tan foam forming a perfect head. Crystal clear. Color makes me think of a really rich Irish Red.

Smell - 4.0 : Smell points to the definite sweetness of the beer. Very malty with no clear sign of hops. Brings preparation for a very strong brew with toasted toffee and caramel in the mind.

Taste - 4.5 : Very rich and sweet. For those hoping for a dryer beer flavor stay away. Initial flavor contains no hop bitterness, very smooth. Brings to mind a vast array of dried fruit flavors, plum, prune, date, fig, and cherry all come to mind. Sweetness points towards a sherry or port flavor. Slight earthy hop flavor at the finish. Very sweet throughout without any noticeable alcohol hotness.

Feel - 4.0 : Thick and chewy without being overwhelming. Very smooth throughout in spite of it's high gravity.

Overall - 4.5 : This is definitely the best barleywine we tasted tonight. Very fitting to expectations. As a port lover, the sweetness it brought with it was very welcome though I can see how others would be less fond of such a sugary beer. My only big confusion here is what Imperial is doing in the name. There wasn't really anything I found Imperial about it.

Scaldis Belgian Ale
As a note this really isn't a barleywine. It's considered a Belgian quadruple ale which basically means a really strong, but regular beer. I figured it'd round out the tasting to see if we'd be interested in a really high gravity but lighter beer.

Appearance - 4.0 : Poured nicely with a decent white head. Light color matching of the Belgian style.

Smell - 3.5: Not very pronounced, slight aroma of something orangish but otherwise could have been any beer we were smelling. No identifiable hop or malty smells.

Taste - 2.0 : Flavor is dominated by a hot alcohol burn but otherwise matching a dry Belgian. Other flavors are brutally swept aside by alcohol flavor. Somewhere near the end the light orange flavor shows back up but you're too busy grimacing to notice it. Could have had a shot or two of vodka accidentally dumped into the bottle.

Feel - 2.0 :  Burning followed by more burning. Density is light for of a high gravity beer but considering the light color it makes some sense. 

Overall - 2.5 : The only positive thing I'll say about this beer is that it's flavor held up when paired with our dessert. Compared to all the others we tasted this night this is the only one that followed a strawberry and still maintained its profile. It also served as a palate cleanser between other beers bringing out a number of flavors we had missed on first taste. However, the same could probably have been achieved by getting a regular Belgian and dumping two shots of cheap vodka in the glass. It'd probably taste about the same and not run you $5 for 8.5 oz.

Rogue Brewery Old Crustacean
First off I'd like to point out that this brew is frequently considered to need significant aging before being ready to drink. We did not do this. We had a 7 oz bottle of 2011 which we cracked open and drank So that's what I'll review here. I'm sure some people are crying out against the crimes we committed against the beer. But all of these brews were off the shelf.

Appearance - 3.0 : The big lack here was under carbonation. Little to no head, nice light amber color. I felt that it poured a bit thin for a barleywine.

Smell - 3.5 : Dominated by a strong American hops smell. I had difficulty tracing down much of any malt aroma through the hops. This promised to pack a punch with all those hops. Right up front. However, smelt more like an IPA to me.

Taste - 3.5 : Big upfront bitterness that ended with a citrus and floral hop finish. Malt flavor absent. No noticeable alcohol burn. Mild dryness overall. This seemed to me to mirror a double IPA and definitely lacked the malt flavor I was seeking in a barleywine. As a double IPA would have been fine.

Feel - 4.0 : Smooth with decent thickness. What I didn't see in the pour I felt when drinking. 

Overall - 3.5 :  My primary disappointment here comes down to expectations and prince. While not a bad beer it really didn't measure up to my expectations of a barleywine. I really feel that I over payed for this beer. At $5 for a 7oz bottle I'd expect flavors I couldn't find in a six-pack of Torpedo IPA. Save some money and just get a double IPA instead.

Hair of the Dog "Adam"
Billed as an Old Ale, not a barleywine but in the end that doesn't make much difference to me. Hair of the Dog also makes an American Barleywine but we figured this would be closer to a British style so it's what we ended up with.

Appearance - 2.0 : Massive, overgrown, and inappropriate head on this beer. Level of foam made me think of a root beer float with the root beer poured over the ice cream. Couldn't actually split the bottle into two glasses without waiting for the head to die down. Otherwise dark color just on the bottom range of black. Foam had a dark tan color and it poured thick and smooth.

Smell - 4.0 : Rich malt aroma tending to the dark malts but not limited there. Some sweet malt smell present but minor. Hops aroma absent.

Taste - 4.0: Easy and smooth start with slight sweetness before drifting towards the bitterness of roasted barley or chocolate, a slight hotness, and finishing with light woody hops. Good complex mix of flavors. The alcohol flavor is present but pleasant mixed in with other malts. Calls to chocolate, figs, and leather, all lightly smoked.

Feel - 4.5 : Thick and well carbonated heading towards syrup but still smooth. Carbonation lasted for a long long time, not surprising considering the initial head. 

Overall - 4.0 : A very fine brew. I'm confused as to the initial size of the head but other than that everything went well. One note I'd make is that this falls short of the richness of an imperial stout by dancing among other flavors. It's a light smoky bitterness, light sweetness, light hop flavor, and light alcohol hotness all rolled into one. With so many flavors I find myself wishing to explore one direction or another a little more but it's nice to find them all in balance.

Final Thoughts
The Mendocino Imperial Barleywine ale clearly won out here. Especially considering its price was almost half of all the others. This led us to want to make a barleywine with heavy inclusion of Crystal 120 and Special B, slight hop bitterness but perhaps a little more earthy hop finish. The Hair of the Dog "Adam" was definitely a good drink but all the dark malts covered up some of the sweetness I was looking for but weren't bold enough to be the focus of the beer. I'd be willing to try a couple year old Old Crustacean if someone pulled one out, but I wouldn't pay to drink it again. I'd personally avoid the Scaldis and settle for a Belgian Double that could be more complex without being so bold.