Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Making Your Own Sourdough Starter or Harnessing Wild Yeasties 101

So, we have a bit of an obssession for the microbes in our household. Jefferson is a killer home brewer (he brewed 30 gallons of beer for our wedding!) and now the (seven foot-tall, 2 ton) ManTastic Beer Cabinet is filled to the brim with brewing supplies and beer bottles. (This could be a guest post in the making....)
The ManTastic Beer Cabinet 
I make my own yogurt, mostly because we eat yogurt like its OUR JOB, and it made me die a little inside every week when I threw out those plastic containers.  I make my own sauerkraut, or should I say Jeff's sauerkraut, 'cause I don't touch the stuff.  And now, with our powers of wild yeast combined, I AM CAPTAIN PLANET.

Suffice to say, at one time, we had 4-5 different products fermenting in our house.  That's no big deal for the avid home-maker foodie enthusiast, but for your average American, that's "Whaa?!?"-inspiring awesome.

And when I first started the whole sourdough thing, I read the trials and tribulations of others about how onerous and horrible and difficult and persnickity those little wild yeasties are.  That they died really easily, that you had to feed them just right, that it was basically like getting a PUPPY to keep a sourdough alive for use.  (Not that I am against puppies. No. I have a solidly pro-puppy stance.)

Well folks, I am here today to tell you that all that microbe-fueled angst? Is a load of malarkey.

Sourdoughs are easy to cultivate, easy to use, and easy to keep alive. If you have a spider plant in your house, you can build, use, and feed a sourdough.  You know how hard spider plants are to kill, right? That's why we give them to college students.

'Kay. So, what follows is instructions to build your own sourdough starter, harnessing the power of the wild yeast that is present in your home at this very second! Amazing! In fact, so amazing, that that's how sourdough started in the first place.  Its how beer started, yogurt, and all those other good by-products that come from a food source (starches in flours, sugars in grain, lactose in dairy) meeting up with wild microbes, microbes party hard all night long, and hutcha-hutcha-hutcha: bread. beer. yogurt. So, if some Sumerian with no knowledge of modern science can do it, surely, we modern-day folk can manage.

One more note of awesomeness before instructions: what this means is that not only can you build a sourdough anywhere, the wild yeast present in the micro-environment of your kitchen will produce a slightly different sourdough than any other kitchen.  I have built 3 sourdoughs in 3 different houses, and they've all tasted different. From very subtle to extremely sour. So, starting your own sourdough is a very local action. In a way that makes you feel more connected and grateful for the uniqueness of your own place in the world. Plus the end product: looks like this ------>

I could continue to wax culinarily poetical, but I digress... Hit "Read more" for the Sourdough Manifesto.

Starting your own Sourdough

P.S. If you like to bake bread, and you don't own a book by Peter Reinhart, just do yourself a favor and go get one. He's lovely.

Step 1: Building a seed culture
Decide on a flour. You can make a whole wheat starter, rye flour, regular white bread flour, whatever.  I use a whole wheat starter to make all my breads, and just add in other flours during the actual baking process

Mix 1oz flour with 2 oz water. Use a glass or plastic container (we're looking for non-reactive here, so avoid metal), and mix these 2 together. If you don't have a scale, the amounts are 3.5 tablespoons of flour and 1/4 cup of water.  But really, what you're doing is effectively building a 1:2 ration between flour and moisture.

Whisk and cover.  So, this is where it begins. Whisk these two together, and then cover with plastic wrap, and leave on your counter at room temperature for 48 hours.  2-3 times a day, pull the plastic off, whisk the mixture, and re-cover.  What you're doing is introducing air into the mixture, which introduces microbes in the air. As long as you continue to whisk the mixture every now and again, mold won't grow.  Eventually, as this process continues, the helpful yeasties produce by-products that fight off the bad-guys.  Cool, right?

Watch for bubbles. Within 2 days, you should start to see bubbles appearing on the surface of the mixture after its been sitting, or on the sides. These bubbles are the wild yeast digesting starches and releasing carbon dioxide. Its this process that makes bread dough rise, and that makes you sure that your sourdough is ALIVE!!! When these bubbles appear, proceed to step 2

Step 2: Feeding the Seed Culture
Give 'er some gas. Add another 1 oz of flour (3.5 tablespoons) and 1oz of water (2 tablespoons) to the culture.  Whisk and repeat the step 1 procedure.  Whisk a couple of times a day, and look for signs of fermentation.  When the culture is very bubbly or foamy, go on to step 3.  This could take from 1-4 days, but as long as you whisk the culture regularly, it won't grow anything nasty.  By now, you can also SMELL the by-product of the yeast. If you give it a whiff, it might smell sour or slightly boozy. That's good. Another microbe by-product of digestion: alcohol. (See "beer". Yum.)

Step 3: Feed the Need...Again
Add more flour than water. As you feed the starter this time, you'll give it 2 oz. of flour (7 tablespoons) and 1 oz. of water (2 tablespoons).  Add the new ingredients and stir, or knead with wet hands.  Place in a larger bowl or measuring cup, cover with plastic, and again knead or stir 2-3 times a day.  The yeasts needed a lot of moisture to grow and access the starches in the flour, but as the yeast colony has grown, we begin to change the ratio of flour to water to make it easier to work with in a dough (eventually), and to increase its mass (for storage).  

Within 48 hours, the dough should nearly be "rising" or expanding in the bowl.  If not, wait until the mixture doubles in size.  If it becomes very active very soon, don't wait! You've got a live one! Move on to step 4.

Step 4: Final Seed Culture before Metamorphosis
Measure 4 oz of the starter and discard the rest. That's 1/2 cup to give away. Or use it to create a back-up starter, if you're hard core like that. 

Add 3 oz. of flour (10.5 tablespoons) & 1 oz of water (2 tablespoons).  Again, this step is to increase the size of the starter and give it some more gas. The ratios are continually prioritizing flour (fuel for yeasts) over water.  Add these new ingredients, knead the starter to form a soft dough. Cover with plastic wrap again, and leave out until it becomes active. This could take 4 - 24 hours to happen.  If its doesn't look like its fermenting after 24 hours, leave it out and aerate by kneading twice a day. Be patient. Don't worry if at any step, it takes longer than you think it should. Just keep mixing it and it'll eventually get around to rising.    When the culture has grown and smells acidic or sour, you can test the PH, or not.  If it smells sour, you're in good shape.  Go to step 5, or, put it in the fridge for up to 3 days and then go to step 5.

Step 5: The Mothership Starter
Build your base. This is the starter that is going to live in your fridge all year, that you'll feed every now and again, and that you'll use to make dough for bread.  A little starter goes a long way, so you'll only need HALF of the seed starter, about 4oz. Again, you can discard the rest or give it away.

Combine HALF  the seed starter, 12 oz. of flour (2 3/4 cups), & 9 oz. of water (1 cup plus 2 tablespoons).   Mix these together in a mixer with a paddle attachment, or with your hands or a spoon until they come together into a shaggy, slightly sticky ball.  Knead for 2 minutes until the starter is fairly smooth, and ingredients are fairly well distributed.  

Let it rise slightly.  Let the yeast get started on their new food.  Put the starter in the plastic container you'll be storing it in (I use a yogurt container), and put the lid on but don't tighten it. Leave it on your counter for 4-8 hours until it doubles in size. This will depend on the potency of your starter, and the temperature of your kitchen.

Stick it in the fridge, stick it in the fridge, stick it in the fridge.  Once its doubled, knead to de-gas it, form back into a ball, cover tightly, and put it in your fridge.  Now, Peter says you can use this for 5 days before you need to feed it, but i have gone WEEKS not feeding my starter. Here's what I say: put this in your fridge.  Use it when you need to. If its been there for 2-3 weeks, check it. It will smell extremely boozy, and may have a gray color to the top (that's flour discolored from ALCOHOL, the drunk little bastards), and will have the consistency of potato soup.  If this is case, you can still scrape starter from underneath the gray bit (there's still yeast in there) to build a bread dough.  But its probably time to feed the Mothership.

Feeding or Refreshing the Mother Starter
Give 'er some gas. So, Mr. Reinhart gets a little persnickety here, but here's basically what you want to do to feed the old girl. She needs a little flour, a little water, and a little time in a warm place to be reinvigorated.  You can make any amount of starter, but you want to work in the following ratio:

1 parts by weight of OLD Starter
2 parts by weight of Water
3 parts by weight of Flour

This is by weight, remember, so you can take 4 oz. of old mother starter, add 8-9 oz. of water, and 12 oz. of flour.  (See step 5; you're basically repeating the recipe there). Toss the rest of the old mothership out.  If you, like me, don't need so much starter laying around and end up tossing at least half of your mother starter before you use it, well, when you refresh, make a smaller mother starter. 2 oz. of mother starter, 4-4.5 oz. of water, and 6 oz of flour.  Mix it up, let it rise at room temp, and once it doubles, degas it and stick it back in the fridge.

Whew. Okay, that may have been a diatribe on sourdoughs, but they're TOTALLY worth it. (See gorgeous french bread creation above.)

Give me a week. I'll post how to USE your sourdough starter once you've grown your own little microbe farm.

Any creative thoughts about other ways to use microbes in the kitchen?

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