Wednesday, 30 April 2014

Let's Bake Bread # 1 - The Starter (or Leaven)

Traditional Sourdough baking

Now, let's get into this process.

Wherever you live in the world, you can make sourdough. If you live in a humid climate such as Brisbane or Florida, great - those yeasties grow mighty quick in sweaty weather. But if you live in a cool, dry clime, don't worry, it will work for you too!

Summer is over in Bondi and the month of May sees the cool setting in. My bread is not tripling in volume any more and I need to wrap it in plastic wrap and a tea towel and put it near a warmer or heater to get a double rise, but it still looks and tastes fantastic.

That's the thing about sourdough - no two loaves are ever the same, as natural processes are the ones who do the work, and they decide how they're feeling on any given day!

Some people tend to overcomplicate the whole process: 26 steps over 24 hours and so forth. While there are a lot of steps, they are simple steps which require minimal effort (except the kneading). I’ve discovered a few tricks to make the process go quicker and smoother (plastic wrap is so helpful on cooler days!) – a little trial and error of your own will perfect the process!

What kind to make is an endless choice, I generally make half rye-half white sourdough, as rye has the most dietary fibre but lately I've been making wholemeal, but I always use organic flour. I've also made brioche with white flour and even blinis and pocket bread. My favourite thing to make is sourdough pizza, truly unbeatable - you will want to eat every bit of the crust! I will post some pizza photos when next I make some - which is quite regularly in our house! In fact, if it has yeast, then you can use sourdough starter to make it!

This process sounds complex, but take it a step at a time, and it is really quite simple. You’ll be doing it with your eyes closed before you know it!

Part A
Making your ‘starter’

You’ll need:
- 1 big bowl (ceramic, metal etc)
-1 cup Filtered water or a boiled water, warmish (just above lukewarm, around 50 degreesC) (Chlorinated tap water doesn’t work)
-1 cup organic plain white flour
-Wooden spoon
-Sterile glass jar of about 600-800g capacity
-Muslin cloth or paper towel (or plastic wrap if the weather is quite cool)
-Boiling water for sterilising (after the first week or two, you won’t need to sterilise your implements as the lactic acid kills everything foreign that enters its environment, but you will need to keep things pr etty sterile at the beginning as it matures).

Above: Starter in its early bubbling stages
  1. Rinse bowl and wooden spoon with boiling water to sterilise.
  2. Mix in bowl 1 cup flour, 1 cup water
  3. Place into sterilised glass jar
  4. Cover loosely with clean muslin or paper towel
  5. Leave somewhere warm and airy, around fruit and veg and away from toxic chemicals such as cleaning products. The windowsill is a good place.
  6. Check daily for ‘foaming action’. My first starter went crazy within 24 hours. Or it could take 5 days. What you are looking for is for the mixture to begin to bubble, a few at first and then lots of bubbles, which will look like (and smell like!) beer foam.
Feeding & Caring for your starter

  1. When it starts to foam an d basically double in size, then you have life! But you have to keep it alive, especially in the initial stages. When your starter is hungry, it will be still and flat, with possibly a layer of greyish or amber coloured liquid on the top that will smell funny – like beer – but not ‘off’. This is called hooch, and it’s the by-product of the yeasties when they feed on the flour. It is actually alcohol!
  2. The idea is to feed the starter before you see this ‘hooch’. The best time to feed it is once a day in the beginning stages. The time to feed is when it has stopped foaming and is just starting to recede in the jar and lose its bubbles.
  3. Feed it by pouring HALF the contents of the jar into a clean, sterile bowl and mix in equal proportions of flour and water. Put this new paste back into an empty jar. The reason you remove half the starter before feeding is because the starter grows and doubles its weight – if you did n’t remove half of it the starter would overflow and keep growing until it covered your whole kitchen……!!!!
  4. Discard the leftover (in a few days or weeks you’ll be using your leftover starter as yummy pancake batter but it’s probably not strong enough yet).
  5. Continue feeding the starter in this way daily for around two weeks and it should be strong enough to b ake your first loaf. It’s a wait, but it’s worth it!
  6. By this time it will be quite strong and you will not need to sterilise your implements any more, just keep using wooden spoons and make sure your bowls are nice and clean.
  7. Keep your starter in a jar in the fridge – once it’s matured after a couple of weeks. It doesn’t need to fill the jar, half a jar or less will be enough to keep the generations going. There it will lie ‘dormant’ and you need only feed it once a week with a couple of tablespoons of flour and water.
Note: My first starter foamed and bubbled in 24 hours then decided to go out of action and I couldn’t revive it. Sometimes they begin quickly and run out of puff. Other times they start bubbling really slowly but if you keep feeding them they spring to life. You are dealing with living creatures here, and they set their own pace. It’s really trial and error to get a strong starter, but it’s not difficult. My third ever attempt is the starter I still use today. It’s about 12 months old. If you’re starter is starting to ‘limp’ (i.e you feed it and instead of bubbling a few hours later it is still and hooch-covered) there are things you can do to jump start it. The easiest method is to discard all but one or two tablespoons of starter and in a clean, sterile bowl, rapidly whisk the small amount of starter with a cup of warm filtered water to get the oxygen in, then mix in a cup of flour, pour into a clean jar and wait….)

Extra note: Clean any active starter off your benches, cutlery and dishes while it’s still wet – it turns to cement when it dries. You could tile your bathroom with it! In fact, in the pioneering days settlers plastered the walls of their homesteads with it!

Next Blog: Time to Bake!

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