Sourdough Philosophy

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Happy Breadiversary!!! 3 years ago today, my sourdough was born, a constellation of yeast colonies, who, many millenia of generations later, are still thriving in the bread I bake today. How magical is that?!

Here’s another magical thing: King Arthur has dubbed this Flour Month and is giving away a year’s supply of flour each day of the month! Check out the King Arthur Flour website to enter: http://www.kingarthurflour.com/sweepstakes/flourmonth/index.html

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I sometimes get questions or wonderments about sourdough, so I thought I’d make a bit of a Q & A. Sourdough FAQ:

Q: “Is Sourdough safe? It seems kind of gross and old”

It seems these days that longterm sourdough is less common than a brief fermentation of 24-hours or less. The shorter ferment time takes a bit less commitment and preparation. I have found that some of my contemporaries cringe at the thought of a “3-year old dough,” as though it is somehow expired. Modern times have a slightly overgrown sense of sanitation, and need for quick, shortened recipes for people who have busier lives with more roles/jobs. We find ourselves fitting cooking into our schedule between other things like 8- or 12- hour workdays. There’s nothing wrong with shorter fermentation for bread – it does create a lot of flavor in a relatively small amount of time, and then everything can be cleaned up and moved along and forgotten about. Back before commercial bread, before breadmaker machines, before commercialized yeast – we’re talking a mere 110 years or so – people couldn’t just drop a dollar for a bag of wonderbread. To get bread, you needed to find a baker or make it at home. The commercial (as well as home) baker 110 years ago relied upon natural methods of preserving yeast in the air. They relied on keeping their sourdough alive – like a fire kept going through a long night, the yeast supply needed to be kept going indefinitely. With some luck, consistent use, and prayer (yeast was once thought to be “god’s grace”), a sourdough yeast colony/grain ferment could live decades or even centuries.

The Dutch were far ahead in their understanding of yeast, having discovered its microorganic properties in 1680, they began selling a commercial form of captured yeast (a liquid ferment) as early as 1780. I’m guessing progress after this initial discovery might have been equally motivated by bread and booze. In the 1850’s, the next big finding was brought by French Louis Pasteur (who also developed “pasteurization”), when he proved that yeast was in fact a living organism, rather than a force of god, or chemical reaction, as previously believed. It was in the 1870s that commercial yeast production spread throughout Europe, and then the US with the entrepreneur Charles Fleischmann. Before 1876, American bakers relied solely on sourdough to capture wild yeasts. While dry active yeast is a huge convenience, its effects on baking norms took about 70 years to change bread to how we know it today. Economically, there was the boom of the busy industrial era followed by the Great Depression, and then finally after the end of WW2, the subsequent baby boom in the 50s & 60s, leading into the retro era, many home and commercial baking improvements happened. Over the decades since then, sanitation & food handling rules have changed, as well as women working more. All that has all led to the widespread popularity and ease of supermarket bread rather than bread made at home or in a small bakery. The commercialization of yeast, bread, and food in general, has changed our cultural narrative of bread from long storage being desirable, to “freshly made and then thrown out quickly;” from multi-generation community bakers to “made cheaply in massive bulk and shipped across the country.”

This is all a long-winded attempt to re-normalize sourdough, and reassure my doubtful contemporaries that “old” dough is good, safe dough (even though it might appear or sound “yucky”). In a sourdough starter, there are many kinds of microorganisms naturally present, but in order for it to be successful, it must have a monopoly of yeast – the takeover of the yeast as well as its byproducts, lactic acid, alcohol and vinegar, prevent undesirable bacteria from infecting the batch. Over time, the sour flavor deepens and changes, but a 500-year-old sourdough is as “safe” as a 1-year old starter.

Q: “WHEAT IS WHEAT AND IT’S EVIL AND NOTHING CAN EVER MAKE IT A BETTER PART OF THE HUMAN DIET EVEN 40,000 YEARS LATER AND NOTHING HEALTHY CAN COME FROM IT” ~ someone on the paleo diet
A: Yeah, I’m aware that wheat is not well-digested by some people, and that modern GMO & pesticides aggravate allergies. This is why I always look for non-GMO, unbleached, organic, or stoneground varieties of wheat flour, as well as using a variety of grains. Really, you could try making sourdough with any type of grain. Some folks prefer sourdough because of its flavor, or for its health benefits. As well as providing several strains of probiotic cultures, the grains get pre-digested by the fermentation process, thus making wheat somewhat more digestible for some folks. Let those who thrive on bread do their thing, and I’ll write a gluten-free baking tutorial another time.

Q: “Ok, I’m convinced that sourdough is great and want to try making some. How do you start a sourdough from scratch?”
A: Half flour and half water (non-floridated, non-bleached), whisked vigorously at least twice a day, lightly covered to prevent flies/mold/dust/etc, for several days until it starts bubbling on its own (that’s the wild yeast catching on). If you’re having trouble with this stage, you could add a tiny pinch of dry yeast to jumpstart the process, or double-check that your water doesn’t have yeast-killers in it like bleach, etc. Use most of the starter to make your first batch of bread, but save and re-feed about a quarter or a fifth of the starter to keep it going. I’m in a hot, humid climate that makes it a good idea to refrigerate sourdough starter in between uses. Mine stays in the fridge most of the week, and I just take it out to warm up to room temperature for a day or two each week.

Q: “What do you feed your sourdough starter?”
A: I mostly feed it whole wheat flour, and sometimes other leftover cooked grains – plain oatmeal (makes a very sour flavor), sometimes barley, millet, etc. Mainly wheat and oats.

Q: “So, I’m experienced with contemporary dry-active yeast bread baking, but when it comes to adding sourdough starter, I’m at a loss of where to start. If you don’t start bread with those magic granules, what do you do?”
A: Traditionally, sourdough starter replaces the yeast, at least half of the water, and some of the flour. Pour off a portion of the starter (saving a portion to re-start with), and stir in flour to make a dough. Let this dough rise & ferment for a few hours, kneading occasionally. Then form into loaves and let rest for the final rise until nearly doubled in size, which is usually slower than with commercial yeast. When I make commercial yeast bread, my rise is only about an hour. Sourdough-only rising action takes about twice as long. Keep loaves lightly covered for the first hour, and then remove the cover for the second hour. Some people mist their loaves with water to keep them moist; others keep a pan of water in the oven. The extra steam helps the sourdough have a secondary rise in the oven while baking. If you’re lucky, and the conditions are right, the loaf will “pop” up in the oven.

Personally, I love the taste of sourdough, but also the fluffiness or sandwich quality of modern bread, so I add some dry yeast to my sourdough. The way I usually start my bread is as follows (makes 13-16 loaves, 2 lbs each):

1)Soak 4 cups dry oats in 1 gallon very hot tap water, covered, for 20 minutes, whisking occasionally to break up the oats.
2)Add half a cup of molasses (or honey, up to 3 cups for a sweeter bread)
3)Add half a cup of dry active yeast (I prefer Red Star), whisk well, and let sit for 5 minutes – it should get a little bubbly.
4)Add 12 cups of sourdough starter to the oat mixture and whisk.
5)Add 6 cups whole wheat flour, plus 6 cups of white high-gluten bread flour, and whisk well, until clumps are mostly gone.
6)Let sit & ferment (covered) for anywhere between 20 minutes and 4 hours.
7)Add 1 cup oil (canola or olive), plus half a cup of salt.
8) Turn mixer on (with bread hook attachment) and add the rest of the flour (I do half & half whole wheat & white, until the dough forms a clump on the hook, and pulls away from the sides of the bowl).
9)Let dough rest for one hour.
10)Transfer dough to bread table dusted with flour. Knead briefly for cohesion.
11)Cut loaves weighing 2 lbs each.
12)Knead each loaf for a couple of minutes, form into a loaf shape, and place in a greased breadloaf pan.
13)Let loaves rest in pans and rise until almost doubled in size (poofing above the pan edge), about one hour (less if warm weather, longer if cold weather). Score tops if desired.
14)Bake in a 350*F oven for 35-45 minutes, or until the crust is golden brown, and sounds hollow when tapped. Remove loaves from bread pans, let cool for 1 hour (the center keeps cooking and steam escapes the crust).

Q: “What are some tasty things to add to bread doughs for flavor?”
A: Just not all at once: fresh or dried herbs (like basil, oregano, rosemary, dill, etc), hot peppers & cheese, cinnamon & honey, spinach (pre-cooked & chopped), caraway or dill seeds (if you like that “rye” flavor).

Q: “I noticed that you didn’t mention rye flour. What about rye?!”
A: So, I like rye too, and I’m not anti-rye, but I do have a caveat about it which is that you want to make sure it’s kept mold-free, and it seems to mold easily in a humid climate. This might be mostly superstition, but one theory behind the Salem Witch Trial phenomenon, is that the entire community ate bread made with moldy rye, which can theoretically under the right conditions produce LSD, leading to hallucinations, delusions, and paranoia. Who knows… but I’d rather just play it safe and keep my rye mold-free. Because of this theoretical chance, I never put rye in my sourdough bucket (I keep 3 to 5 gallons of starter in the fridge), keep my equipment clean, keep bulk rye in the freezer, and keep an eye out for mold. Any time I make rye bread, I add it to a batch of dough around the time the yeast is added. Letting the rye ferment for a few hours deepens the sour flavor. It’s traditional to add caraway, dill seeds or poppy seeds to rye, which might be part of that familiar flavor folks think of as rye.

Q: “What kinds of things do you like to bake with sourdough, besides bread?”
A: I’ve made sourdough pancakes, which are awesome, almost crumpet-like. Also, a dark molasses spice cake with just a cup of sourdough in it.

Q: “Geez, is anyone as sourdough and turnip obsessed as you?”
A: Uh, yes, definitely, I assure you. There are sourdough turnip enthusiasts all over the world. Possible high concentration in Vermont.

Q: “Did you make up all these questions yourself?”
A: Yes, and if you have real questions about sourdough etc, I’ll happily answer them either seriously or comically.

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One thought on “Sourdough Philosophy

  1. A couple of notes/corrections:
    – A friend found out that there is no GMO wheat grown in the US, yay!
    – Rye is safer than I thought. Of course folks have used rye in sourdough successfully for a long time. The concern about trippy rye mold is mostly null in modern times – the specific mold that causes hallucinations, the ergot fungus, grows on the rye while in the field. It’s removed after harvest now, and affects not just rye, but many grain crops like wheat, oats, barley, & more. Rye flour & berries mold easily if left out in the climate in VA, which should be avoided in general, but it’s not the ergot fungus.
    – Some folks say it isn’t best to feed sourdough a 100% whole wheat diet, that variety is best. You’ll find that every sourdough baker has something that they prefer to feed their dough pet: white unbleached, rye, oats, leftover porridge grains. One friend swears by feeding his sourdough dehydrated potato flakes, and you know what, it tasted great and was fluffy. Just goes to show ya that many methods work.

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