April 15, 2010

It's been a while since I've made sourdough bread with only wild yeast that I "caught"  right here at home or some that I'd started from sourdough cultures I'd purchased from other regions.  It's an interesting process and one that was a little daunting due to the constant maitainance required, or so I'd read, by the starter which begins to take on a life of it's own.  Feedings and care twice a day...may as well have my own dairy cow to milk!
Well, all that's in the past.  The booklet "Simple Sourdough" confirmed what I had thought about this fussy and demanding new "child" growing on my kitchen counter.  It was spoiled!  Catered to and coddled by an overprotective, misled mama!  No more.
In two days time, I was baking sourdough bread and it turned out very well.  The process was easy.
I mixed 1 cup of flour (wheat is recommended) with one cup luke warm water in a glass bowl which I covered with a plate.  This experiment, like most of the others, spent some time in the warm corner of my counter by the frig.  After about 4 hours, I began to see some activity and by the next morning, things were looking and smelling good.  The starter should be bubbly and have a sour smell.  If you catch the wrong microorganisms and your starter smells foul, throw it out and start over.
Wild yeast is all around us in the air and also in the wheat.  The blend of wild yeasts that we are able to catch depends on our environment.  Italian sourdough has a specific taste because of the region in which the yeast is captured.  Perhaps the most famous is sourdough bread from the San Francisco area with its slightly salty taste.  Before the industrialization of bread production, all bread was made with wild yeast.  In the mid 1800's sourdough was the only option folks had if they wanted a loaf of bread like we picture today.  When more and more folks started looking to buy their bread from others instead of making it at home, the corner baker couldn't keep up.  So the art of bread baking took a back seat to the new strains of yeast that were separated and grown for the purpose of making consistant bread products in large quantities.  Hence the industrialization of another traditional skill.  And the love wasn't the only thing that was lost.

Sourdough, like yogurt, is a semi pre-digested food.  People who are allergic to wheat can sometimes eat sourdough.  Toasting it can make it even more easy to digest.  Organisms in the wild yeast begin to break down parts of the wheat that are hard to digest or actually make it harder for the body to extract nutrients from the bread.  That's pretty easy to understand but another aspect of the sourdough process has to do with the fermentation of the dough.  Remember when we talked about the beneficial bacteria in yogurt?  Probiotics?  Lactofermentation?  Well, the sourdough process also allows time for the lactobacteria to multiply to the point where they can also break down other hard to digest parts of the wheat or gluten as well as protect the dough from harmful types of bacteria that may also be in the air.  Commercial yeast is added in quantities that don't allow time for this second step and only introduce certain yeasts to the dough.  Kind of a quick fix that leaves out some important ingredients that make the process healthy instead of increasing allergies and "leaky gut" syndrome that can cause a lot of other problems.  When food passes through the gut before it's supposed to the body's reaction to it is often the same as it's reaction to opiates. It's a more involved than that and if you want to know more, I'd be happy to go a little deeper.

Back to the process...
To the starter, I added 8 cups of whole wheat flour and enough water to make the consistancy that of pancake batter.  This is now called the sponge.  I cover the sponge and put it to rest in a warm area for a few hours or overnight.  The idea is to have the sponge at a luke warm temperature that is not too cold to keep the yeast from multiplying or hot enough to kill them.  The sponge is ready when it's slightly domed, smells sour and is stringy when you stir it.  If you leave it go too long, the wild yeast will eat the gluten strands and your sponge will be runny.  You can still use it but the bread will be more sour and much heavier.

Next, remove 1/2 cup of the sponge for the next batch. And add 2 tbsp salt to the sponge.

Now add 8 more cups of flour - one cup at a at time.  Stop when you can stick your fingers in the dough a bit and pull them out clean.  The less flour you add, the lighter your dough will be.  This is the step where you can make the bread any kind you want by adding different flour, like rye.  Wheat will give you the lightest texture.

Turn the dough onto a floured surface and knead until it's springy.  Then form into four loaves and put them into greased or oiled bread pans.  Cover the pans with a wet towel and put them in a warm place to rise for 3-4 hours or more.

Start baking with a cold oven to encouragement the loaves to rise a little more.  Set the oven at 375 and bake for 55 minutes.  Try to resist cutting in to the fresh baked bread for 1/2 an hour to allow it to finish baking.  This bread doesn't need to be wrapped or bagged and, if kept at room temperature, will not spoil or mold for about 3 weeks.

Thanks to Mark Shepard for making this intimidating process a lot more "user" friendly.  If you're like me, you don't have time to tend a fussy culture or plan a week ahead if you want to bake bread.  The time required is essential to keeping the process healthy but once the starter is made, you can store it in the frig in a loosely covered jar and it should stay good for about 2 months without another thought from you.  When you are ready to use it, just pour off any dark liquid that has formed on top.

Whole grain sourdough bread that is made like this today is often called artisan bread or European style and considered a delicacy.  Thus commanding high prices.  Why not try making your own?  Then start branching out into all the ways you can incorporate sourdough into your diet.  The possibilities are nearly endless! 

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