Gardening. Learning to sew. Making jam and pickles. I do enjoy a project, and I recently decided that I would learn how to make sourdough bread. I’ve been baking bread for a long time now but sourdough has always seemed an entirely different realm – the “wild frontier” of bread baking in more ways than one.
If you don’t know already (and I had to do quite a bit of reading to find out myself) sourdough is generally not leavened with commercial yeast. Instead, most sourdough involves a loose mixture of flour and water or a “starter” which begins its potentially long existence by being allowed to sit and ferment in order to capture and develop the wild yeasts that exist in the flour and in the air around it.
“Developing” is the tricky part though. Consensus doesn’t seem to exist on how long the process actually takes. One simply feeds and stirs and brews and smells the starter until it’s “ready” …but what does this mean? A primed starter is supposed to have “a few bubbles” or “some bubbles.” Come on, already, how many bubbles are we talking about?
A spoonful of a starter that is ready is supposed to “bob gently in a cup of room temperature water.” Well, what if your spoonful looks and smells ready (at least to one’s own untutored eye) but plummets to the bottom of the cup like a bag of sand? Was the water too warm? Too cold? Was the spoon of starter too full? Not full enough? Is the moon in the wrong phase right now thus making any alternative baking project a vain and laughable endeavor? Maybe sourdough never blooms correctly in an election year…a fact that everyone else knows, and I would have too, if I’d only been paying close enough attention. Woe is me.
I suppose that’s what I get for choosing to grow my own starter instead of purchasing one or obtaining some from an acquaintance. The latter would have been the sensible course of action, but I suppose there’s a big part of me that often wants to do things the hard way. In any case, after about a week and a half, I got tired of fiddling with and poking at my starter and decided to just dive in. Ready or not…I would bake some bread! And…it worked! Much to my astonishment, my maiden loaf of sourdough rose high and proud, the crumb was well-textured and the crust crispy. It tasted great…if I do say so myself. Call it beginner’s luck (I know I do), but I have more hope now for the possible success of future sourdough adventures. What I also have is a starter that should remain happy and active as long as I take care of it. This means keeping it from getting too cold or too hot and keeping it fed on a regular basis. It’s sort of like living with a pet…albeit one that you grew yourself…but I don’t mind as long as I can keep making tasty bread.
According to this story that NPR ran in 2006, sourdough is quite possibly the oldest form of leavened bread, well- known to the ancient Egyptian, and as is probably true of other foods that we find yummy, such as yogurt, cheese and Toll House chocolate chip cookies, was discovered by accident. Of course, the images that come to my mind when I think of sourdough are wagon trains full of settlers heading for the American West or would-be millionaires flooding the Yukon during the Klondike Gold Rush – folks who traveled far away from places where commercial baking powder and yeast were available. There are stories, in fact, of miners sleeping with their sourdough starters during the Alaskan winters in order to keep the precious mixtures from freezing.
Do you think you’d like to give this interesting form of baking a try? If so, I recommend the following resources from DCPL.
San Francisco has long been considered the American epicenter of sourdough and one of the acknowledged masters is Chad Robertson who co-owns Tartine Bakery in the heart of the Mission District. Robertson’s Tartine Bread will provide you with a little bit of San Francisco in your own kitchen. You won’t find an encyclopedic collection of recipes here – Robertson’s primary concern is conveying technique – but you will discover how to make really terrific bread and pick up a few ideas on what to with it on the way.
Another well-regarded master of bread is Lionel Vatinet. Vatinet is a founding instructor of the San Francisco Baking Institute and now co-owns La Farm Bakery in Cary, North Carolina. Vatinet’s bakery (which is also a restaurant) produces bread baked according to traditional methods that incorporate slow, careful development. The sourdough “boule” possess an aura almost mystical in the enthusiasm it inspires and, at five pounds, the loaf boasts heroic proportions. A Passion for Bread shares Vatinet’s exceptional body of knowledge with the home baker. Learning to bake good bread can be frustrating and exhilarating in equal degree. This excellent book is like having a bread professor at your elbow guiding you every step of the way. I highly recommend it.
I’ll repeat at this point that sourdough is a fermented substance but don’t let that fact give you pause. Let me assure you that Charlotte Pike’s beautiful book Fermented will ease any qualms that you might harbor. Pike is a cooking instructor and food writer in the United Kingdom and she knows her ferments. Sourdough baking is one chapter in a book that encompasses fermented fruit and vegetables like sauerkraut and dairy products like yogurt and labneh, but Pike’s instructions are excellent and those sourdough recipes include much more than bread. I, for one, can’t wait to bake the Sourdough Chocolate Cake.
Sourdough baking is, for me, turning out to be a pursuit much like gardening has been – a fascinating and sometimes frustrating process in which the journey has been worth the trip. If you decide to take your own little jaunt…well, happy baking..and let me know how it goes!