Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Sourdough starter

In third grade, I attempted sourdough biscuits for my entire class as part of a project on Alaska. They didn't turn out well -- hard and flat -- but I did learn an important lesson: serve any bread hot and dripping with melted butter, and most people will eat it, no matter how hard or misshapen it is. Over the years, I created many starters from various recipes. Most suggested a paste of flour and water, leaving it open to the elements to capture the wild yeasts floating around. The end product was unsatisfactory in terms of both flavor and texture. Usually the sour taste was absent or off, and the bread rose poorly. I wanted the wild, local flora that I had harnessed to yield a perfect bread, but I never came close. Some of this had to do with my beginner bread-making skills, but it also had to do with the quality of the starter. Perhaps if had captured wild yeast from San Francisco's touted microclimates, the flavor would have been better. I enjoyed the process and the idea of what I supposed to be making, rather than the actual finished product.

So, dear reader, I cheated. While visiting my best friend in New England, we went on a big family outing to the King Arthur Flour company. That store is a baker's paradise. It sells all the tools and raw materials you could ever want, although I am a little disappointed in how many pre-made mixes they were hawking. High on a shelf in the bread section, I found a tiny envelope of LA-4 French Sourdough starter. I bought it, for an astounding 10 dollars for 5 measly grams. King Arthur sells this starter as a single-use product that you add to a sponge dough to create an "assertive sourdough flavor". A little bit of research revealed that they were merely selling a dried version of the "right" wild yeasts. There was no reason not to refresh it and reuse it, except perhaps that you wouldn't keep paying too much for more of their product. The only caveat I found was that over time the "wrong" wild yeasts might infest the starter and the flavor would change for the worse. Since the envelope gives you enough for at least 5 starters, I don't think this will be a problem. And clever DIYers out there suggested that while the starter is still young and the flavor is "right", you spread some of it on a cookie sheet to dry, crumble it up, and store the powder as a source of the future "right" yeasts.

The bread it produced was great: sour, chewy and a decent rise. Admittedly, I added a tiny pinch of standard commercial yeast for good luck. I basically just created a sponge (a slurry of starter, water and flour) and let it sit for a day. Then I mixed it into a wet dough (more flour, some salt, pinch of commercial yeast). I saved a bit of the sponge to rebuild the starter. After that, I followed the basic principles of Jim Lahey's "no-knead bread". Lahey's method of baking in a Dutch oven works quite well, approximating the environment of a blazing hot stone or mud oven. I just borrowed Build Your Own Earth Oven by Kiko Denzer and Hannah Field from the Chicago Public Library. Building a bread oven from my own mud is on my home project life list. For now, given the restrictions on our space and our fire insurance policy, I will bake my bread in a Dutch oven.

Now my little crock of tasty sourdough starter is bubbling away on my counter. I'm not sure it is something I'll be using on a weekly basis, as my son and husband favor softer, sweeter breads. I am satisfied that I have finally achieved good homemade sourdough flavor, albeit with a boost from King Arthur. I am going to try the starter in our weekly pizza dough, and imagine the day that I'll be baking it in my hand-built adobe oven. My dreamed-of goats will be prancing around me as I do this. For now, I'll settle for a prancing toddler.

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