Thursday, March 5, 2009

Yeast Gone WILD!!!!!

And now for my next baking adventure. I've introduced brown bread - a simple soda leavened bread. I've had a first attempt at using sprouted wheat (haven't tried sprouted wheat bagels yet, still on the list).

These aren't quite doing it for me... I really have a craving for a nice, chewy crusty loaf.

Through all the research and experimentation I've done (OK, I admit - not that much, but I have read my two baking cookbooks and I have really good reading comprehension) , I've come to realize that this is not such an easy thing to come by. Soft, tender, yeast leavened sandwich bread is pretty easy to make at home, and it generally only takes a few hours. But this wasn't what I wanted. The more recipes I read, the more I realized that the crusty, chewy texture of French, sourdough, and other types of artisan bread comes from growing a starter for a minimum of one night, and often more.

After browsing a few choices, I decided to attempt a sourdough starter completely from scratch - no yeast, nothing except water and whole wheat flour. I've heard that sourdough starters can be extremely finicky and difficult to make, but what's the worst that can happen... I'll throw a bunch of flour away? Thank goodness for Boulder's Curbside Compost Pickup - that helps alleviate the guilt!

I chose a method from King Arthur's Whole Grain Baking. The basic steps are as follows:

  • Combine 1 c. (4 oz) whole wheat flour and 1/2 c. (4 oz) cool water. Cover and leave at room temperature.
  • The next day and the day after, feed the mixture by discarding half of the mixture and mixing in the same amount of flour and water. Cover and let sit. By the third day, the mixture should show signs of expansion and smell fruity.
  • Every day thereafter, the mixture needs to be fed every 12 hours with the same amount of flour and water.
  • After the 5th day, the mixture can be used as a starter.
What does all of this mean? It sounds so mysterious. Why do I have to wait for 5 days if the mixture starts to expand after two? Well, I found lots of conflicting information, but the explanation that seems to make the most sense to me is a great explanation I found from Mike of Sourdough Home.

Basically, whole grain flour is loaded with lots of different yeast and bacteria. Through regular feedings, the two that you are interested in - yeast and lactobacillus bacteria will eventually thrive and kill of all of the rest. This takes about a week. If you aren't regular with your feedings, your starter will either stop growing or start growing other things you don't want, like mold. He recommends that you use a starter when it is at least a week old and doubling in size every 12 hours.

By the way, you discard half the mixture at every feeding unless you want an exponentially growing starter (doubling every 12 hours and doubling the amount of flour needed to keep it from starving). I like bread, but I'm not planning on making that much.

So how did mine go?

The initial mixture was a very thick, dry paste. I was skeptical. See picture on the right...

The next day, I didn't see any sign of activity, but it did smell distinctively yeasty. That seemed positive. I fed as instructed.

By the third day, it was growing like crazy. It looked bubbly and smelled fruity, just as described.

I faithfully fed it every 12 hours (or so!) and by the sixth day it was still going strong and I was dying to use it. To the right are pictures of my growing blob after this morning's feeding and this afternoon when I got home from work. You can see why I call it a blob - I could have nightmares about this.

So it seems that in Colorado it is not so hard to get a sourdough culture started... I would have liked to have said that my next post would be about the great bread I made with it, but I'm afraid this will take a little more practice. I attempted my first bread tonight and after about 2 hours of rising, the dough hasn't risen at all.

Well, I'll have another blob of excess starter ready in the morning for attempt #2. If it doesn't get me first ...

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