sourdough: getting started
By Lorelei Kellogg
There is nothing quite like home made bread. The smell as it fills your kitchen, the warmth of the oven as it’s baking, and especially the taste of it as you sample the first slice while the loaf is still steaming. While making bread can seem like a daunting task to first timers, especially at this altitude, it can actually be fairly straightforward. The whole process is made even simpler if you utilize something called a “starter”. This is the foundation of sourdough bread baking.
A sourdough starter is a live organism made from a combination of yeasts and bacteria. The leavening, or “rising” effect, gained by a sourdough starter is a result of the gasses released by the yeasts and bacteria as they consume the sugars found in the flour. The sour aspect of the starter, which is transferred to the bread once finished, is a result of the lactic acid produced by the lactobacilli culture found in most starters. By feeding your starter regularly with equal parts flour and water you can maintain it for years.
There are several ways to go about getting a sourdough starter. They can be shared with friends, ordered online from various places and even made at home. I encourage you to try making your own starter as it is not only rewarding but also creates a unique starter that only you have. It really puts the home in home made.
In order to make a starter yourself follow these simple directions:
Combine equal parts flour and water in a non-reactive container.
Let sit, covered at room temperature, for 24 hours.
Stir down any liquid that might have risen to the top and add a teaspoon of sugar.
Let sit for another 24 hours and repeat this process until the mixture develops a bubbly consistency and smells slightly yeasty (think beer).
This process usually takes between four and seven days. The additional sugar is added in order to feed the yeasts and increase the colony but has little to no effect on the taste of your finished product. In the event that the concoction ever starts to mold or develop an unpleasant odor you will have to toss it and try again. You can also purchase a starter online from one of the sites listed in the resource section at the end of this article. In either case your starter can be stored, covered, in the refrigerator for over six months. As long as it is covered and not contaminated, the cold temperatures in the fridge simply keep the yeasts dormant but do not kill them.
In fact it has been my experience that starters are very hard to kill. The closest I came was when I turned my oven on to pre-heat on a particularly cold evening, then placed the bowl of sponge mix, covered with a dishtowel, in the oven without remember to turn it off. Luckily I was alerted to my mistake by the faint odor of hot cotton and rushed to the kitchen in order to rescue it from what I assumed was an inferno. Luckily for me, the heat hadn’t managed to penetrate into the sponge and while my starter survived, the dishtowel was toast…literally. And I do not recommend repeating this experiment at home. The yeasts and bacteria found in starters are much more susceptible to high temperatures than low.
Once you have a starter, the next step in your bread making is to create a sponge. This is the process of fermenting the dough and allowing the yeast colony to grow in order to create the leavening for your bread. Combine your starter in a non-reactive bowl with equal parts flour and water. One loaf typically requires a cup of each – one cup flour and one cup water. Cover and let sit at room temperature in a draft free location for about 12 hours. I generally do this step before I go to sleep at night. I simply place the sponge mixture in my cold oven and then let it work its magic while I get some zzzs.
Depending on the ambient temperature and the specifics of your starter, a proper sponge can take as little as 8 hours or as long as 16 to form. What you are looking for is literally a sponge-like consistency. You want it to be light and fluffy, similar to what a soufflé mixture is like. Unlike yeast doughs, it is hard to over-proof your sponge, however it is easy to under do it so when in doubt, leave it for another hour.
Once you have your sponge to the proper consistency, reserve about ¼ cup before starting your bread mixture. This is your new starter. Place it in the fridge for the next time! The rest of the mixture will be used as the basis of your dough. This is where sourdough bread making gets especially interesting. Depending on your preference you can add different flours, nuts, seeds, oils, sugar, even milk to finish your final product. There are a variety of recipes out there. I have listed my favorite here, but I encourage you to experiment!
Honey Wheat Sourdough
2 C. sponge
1 C. all purpose unbleached flour
1 ½ C whole wheat flour + extra for dusting
1 t. salt
2 T. butter
3 T. honey
Over very low heat, melt the butter and honey until it is easy to pour. Add the butter and honey mixture as well as the salt to the sponge and mix briefly. Add the flour to the dough and knead until combined, using additional wheat flour as necessary to keep it from sticking. Form a loaf and place in an un-greased 9×5 inch loaf pan. Cover and let rise in a warm, draft free location for one hour or until doubled in size. Bake at 350 degrees for one hour.