I felt comfortable enough to try a real heavy-duty experiment on the starter tonight (more on that later in this post), so maybe it’s time to sum up some things so far.
As mentioned, I bought a dehydrated San Francisco sourdough starter on Amazon and followed the instructions closely to wake it up and get it going, using distilled water and unbleached white flour (recommended for this particular starter; you can get them for many different kinds of flour). Right from the get-go, I’ve paid close attention to keeping everything clean and using a mild bleach solution (followed a hot water rinse to make sure none of the bleach solution is left to threaten the starter mixture), so other organisms won’t colonize the batch. It’s very time consuming, but worth it.
The instructions recommended feeding it twice a day, each time by pouring off all but 1/2 cup of the starter, and then adding 1/2 cup of water and a scant cup of flour, and said it usually took starters 3-7 days to activate. Also, they suggested that at the start-up you should be sure to mix in a lot of air, so I used a whisk.
I kept it in a Pyrex quart bowl, with the bowl’s plastic cover sitting loosely on the top, with a little weight on it. Things started off slowly, with the mixture looking more like a flour paste with one or two big bubbles in it for the first day or so, but then it started getting more active. The first thing I made was biscuits, modifying the recipe that accompanied the starter as described in earlier posts; also as per earlier notes, I did make a loaf in the first week, and it came out really well.
The starter seems to thrive on its diet, and is now regularly bubbling almost right after feeding. I have yet to refrigerate it, but given the cool temperatures outdoors and the regular feeding, it seems to be okay with that. Of course, if I had to leave it for a while, or could only feed it once a day, it would be necessary to either refrigerate or freeze it. It remains to be seen next summer how warm weather affects it; that might require its refrigeration, too.
The routine now is a feeding about every 12 hours, though I’ve gone up to 14 hours without getting any anaerobically-fermented liquid on it (judging from the smell, it was close). It’s not absolutely necessary any more to use the amounts indicated with the recipe that came with the starter, and I vary those according to what I’m planning to make, even going as far as making a second bowl of starter when planning a double-loaf recipe (although see below re: the experiment).
Use your common sense
A cautionary note: all these posts and recipes are meant as updates and reports, not as guidelines that are safe for everybody to use. I’m not a professional cook or cookbook writer–just interested in bread. Use your own sense if you decide to try this particular little corner of applied microbiology and be careful. Don’t get food poisoning.
I use the starter this way because I know what’s going on (the book Classic Sourdoughs by Ed Wood–no, not that one, this person has his M.D. and is a pathologist–helped a lot, as does the Internet nowadays). It has no off smell, hasn’t changed color, and it’s fed twice a day and its bowl sterilized twice a day; also, I happen to be living in a situation where I can control most variables (no pets, windows are closed because it’s winter, and so forth). Right now, it’s okay not to refrigerate it, but that could change. What works for me just now might not work for me next summer, and it certainly will always be different for you, in your circumstances. Comments are really invited here, to see how others are doing with this.
The basic recipe
Loaves are easy now. I also made bagels the other day, and this really worked out well, although it was my first batch ever, and the shapes at first left much to be desired. Everything starts out the same way for plain bread, so here is a description of the basic process.
It’s not for beginners, as you need to have an eye for when the dough has gotten enough flour and when it has been kneaded enough, and other things; just follow a few regular recipes for homemade bread and you’ll quickly develop the necessary feel for things. I don’t use a dough hook, because you can ruin dough with it. We did use a dough hook in the bakery, and I never lost a batch with it, but you really, really have to watch it closely. It is less work (and safer in terms of the dough) to mix up sourdough bread by hand–but it is still work and takes quite a bit of time. Anywhere, here’s the general scheme:
Around 12 hours before you plan to start cooking, feed the starter more than usual, but keep its texture the same (while it’s pretty liquid during wake-up, after activation it seems to do best when fed to a more pasty texture).
When the time comes, set aside the minimum amount (1/2 cup per this starter’s recipe), feed that, and get it going again, in its usual bowl (and the starter does best if you clean and sterilize it with each feeding, i.e., twice a day). Set it aside and forget about it.
Put the rest in a really big bowl. With this extra starter that you’re going to make bread with today, add the same sort of water you regular feed the starter with until it’s about the texture of pancake batter. Stir to get all the lumps out, and while you’re stirring, add a couple tablespoons of plain cooking oil (canola was what I had around the house currently).
Pour a little of the same unbleached flour you regular feed the starter with into a separate bowl, a couple cups’ worth. Add 1 tablespoon of salt (and it can be just plain old table salt). A little sugar doesn’t hurt (maybe a couple of teaspoons or so), and it adds a little browning to the crust, but that’s a matter of taste. Sift, whisk, or otherwise mix this flour/salt together thoroughly.
Things get messy from here on, so make sure you’ve got a floured surface ready (I use a silicone baking mat) and a source of extra flour–not the main bag/canister–that you won’t mind handling, if necessary, with very doughy hands during kneading.
Okay, here we go. Pour the flour/salt mixture into your soupy starter mixture, mix it up thoroughly and then started adding more flour until the texture is ready for kneading. You will be adding more flour in during the kneading process.
It was an article of faith during my apprenticeship in the natural foods bakery that white flour dough just couldn’t hold up to heavy use; I’ve also read that sourdough starter conditions the dough to the point where you don’t have to knead it as much as you would whole wheat flour. Well, neither of those has held up for me with this stuff. Expect to knead hard for 200 strokes, at least. Actually the dough kinds of firms up just before 200 sometimes; sometimes it takes more. After it has started to firm up, add another couple more tablespoons of oil and knead it into the dough. (This is something I learned from the Laurel’s Kitchen Bread Book back in my “natural” days; they said it lubricated the gluten and made the whole wheat dough lighter; I don’t know about that, but with this sourdough dough, you will immediately feel the dough “true up” when you add this last little bit of oil at the right point, so it’s important.)
[Edit: Forgot to put in the part about controlling the tangy taste by the number of rises you do. If you let the dough rise once in a bowl and then a second time in the pans, you will get the full tangy San Francisco sourdough taste, and I think it improves the bread texture, too. This starter is perky enough to easily handle two rises.]
When the dough is ready, divide it in two (this makes two Farberware 9 x 4 pans’ worth for me), shape it into two balls, cover with something clean so it won’t dry out, and wash up a bit so you can handle the pans and butter them up. The dough won’t absorb butter as it does oil. All this will take about 10 minutes–enough time for the gluten to relax.
Back to the dough. Gently knead the ball of dough to get the air out of it, shape it into a little oval and then into a loaf and put it in the pan. There’s a trick to this that I can’t quite recall from the bakery days and use on a small (2-, not 20-loaf) batch. It would be useful to re-learn that, because it does seem to add a spring to the final loaf.
You’ve got the dough in the pans now. You can gently cover their tops with soft butter, if you want, or wait until right after the finished bread comes out of the oven. In any case, smear some of that cooking oil on plastic wrap and cover the loaves with the wrap, oil side down. It’s important for rising and oven spring that the dough surface stays moist during the next couple of hours.
Put the pans somewhere warm (75 degrees or so, no more than 80 degrees, if that much), and don’t be too eager right away. Sourdough doesn’t take off immediately at this stage, the way dough made with commercial yeast does. It makes up for that later on, though. After 40 minutes or so, start watching it; things still should be going slowly, but at some point soon, it’s going to start lifting off, faster and faster.
Preheat the oven when the loaf tops are just about at the edges of the pans. Temperature? There are a zillion different things you can do here, and everybody has their favorite. Whatever you do with bread normally will work here; I bake it at 425 degrees for about 10 minutes and then drop it down to 350-375 for 35 minutes or so. I don’t use a stone just now, but of course lots of people do. No matter how you do it, it is important for the crust to get some moisture in there before you put in the loaves: a pan of boiling water will work, or spritzing the loaves with water right before you close the door (don’t get water on the oven light; it could break!).
From this point on, just bake the loaves like you usually do. I put them in when the dough is about 1/4 inch above the pan tops.
Feedback! I’d like it, if you try this, to see if I’m just really, really lucky this time, or if this works for everybody.
I felt confident enough of the starter today to just use a small bowl’s worth of it and then to really load it up, using scalded milk instead of water when starting the loaves, and a quarter pound of butter melted in the scalded milk while it was still hot, and about a cup of raisins plumped in the milk while it cooled (about 40 minutes or so), and mixing up spices in the flour (these are one more thing the starter has to lift), and finally throwing alcohol at it in the form of about a teaspoon of regular vanilla.
In short, I made a batch of sweet bread, just doing a single rise (with this particular starter you can control the sourness by the number of risings you allow; the second rise really brings out the sourdough taste).. The stuff is still on its towel, sitting on the hot water radiator, and it is rising much more slowly than it normally does. Other than that, it’s doing what it usually does, so maybe, just maybe, it will work. It will be a few hours yet before it is baked. An update tomorrow.