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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.

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