Not all posts here will be about death, transfiguration, and other “deep” stuff; it isn’t that kind of a blog.
Anyway, last week I splurged and bought a San Francisco sourdough starter through Amazon. I was an apprentice baker at a natural foods bakery for a little while back in the 1980s (that whole period will require its own series of posts eventually), and really had been casually interested in bread baking since reading Casella’s A World of Breads back in the 1970s (it was sort of required reading for a certain type of ’70s girl/woman, but I also tried out many of the recipes, and a couple of them are still my favorites). Along the way, I tried out sourdoughs, using recipes from a variety of sources, and made a few loaves which were tasty but dense; today, they are called artisan loaves, and are nice enough sometimes, but I still prefer the puffy “sandwich-making” kinds of homemade bread that the commercial bakeries initially tried to duplicate and have since turned into a thing most aptly called “product.”
Choosing a sourdough starter and activating it
I hadn’t believed you could make a light loaf of sourdough until I ate some San Francisco sourdough a few years ago. That was both tangy and “normal” in texture, so when it came time last week to try my hand at bread baking again (conditions at home not having been conducive for it until recently), that was what I turned to. So far, it is working out better than any previous sourdough attempt in the past.
I followed the instructions to activate the starter, but they weren’t clear on whether you’re supposed to wash the bowl each time you feed the starter this early in the process (you definitely do it later on, when the starter is going). It really starts off slowly for a few days, and I wasn’t sure if it could take the big change. To find out what worked best, I divided the starter in two, kept one going in the same bowl without washing it, and cleaned the other one out thoroughly with each feeding (twice a day) with soap and a very mild bleach rinse followed by a hot water rinse (you could just scald it). Not too surprisingly, the “superclean” one did much better than the “same bowl” one, and I have switched over to that. It has been about five days, and it began to go well today. That may have been due to my setting it on a towel put over one of the hot water radiators here (the weather turned cool) or it may have just been time, or a combination of both.
They recommend using unbleached white flour (there are specific starters available for other flours, too) but just suggested filtering the water. I used distilled water at room temperature, and that worked fine.
You have to be rather obsessive about cleanliness and keeping down the likelihood of other yeasts mixing into your starter, especially when it is vulnerable during the activation process. This is why I used the mild bleach rinse on the utensils, followed by a straight hot water rinse, as any bleach residue would be harmful to the starter. Pouring boiling water over it works just as well, but takes a little longer.
If you don’t have much practical experience to go by, you probably should be rather obsessive about the instructions that accompany the recipe in terms of amounts used, recipes, etc. My apprenticeship in the bakery showed me, that unlike doughs for cakes and other quick breads, bread dough gives you some leeway. It’s more important to know the right texture and to be able to spot when enough gluten has formed while kneading (this is crucial when using a dough hook, which can damage dough). My schedule is very hectic right now, and it was wonderful to just relax and start eyeballing the dough when I fed it, aiming for a certain texture.
Cooking with sourdough
Less than a week into the process, I’ve already made biscuits and a raised loaf with the starter. For the biscuits, I adapted the recipe that accompanied the starter, not using the soda, as this diminishes the “sour” taste. They were okay, and the rise in the oven was spectacular because the recipe had called for double-acting baking powder (2-1/2 teaspoons, which I have found generally works as well as the usual 1 tablespoon that many quick bread recipes call for, but tastes better in the finished product). They were good straight from the oven, but totally blah after 24 hours. Now that starter is bubbling away, the next biscuit project will take the longer road, with no leavening but the starter.
Yes, I made a raised loaf just a few days into the activation process. I cheated and used about half a packet of commercial regular dry yeast (keeping everything well away from the starter’s “home” bowl to avoid contamination). The rise was good, and there was a bit of an oven spring; what’s more, the sourdough taste came through strongly, especially the next day. The crumb was more dense and moister than typical white bread, but nowhere near as coarse and dense as an artisan bread. My goal now is to reproduce the “normal” light texture of that wonderful San Francisco sourdough bread I had a while back, but I will also try a straight sourdough rise without a yeast cheater and see how that goes.