The saying goes that man cannot live on bread alone, but I do have my days when I wonder if the same might not hold true for woman. I love bread in just about all of the splendid forms I’ve had the chance to taste it in, even stale if you toast it right. Fresh, homemade bread is, of course, the acme of yeasty perfection. Of all the types I have tried my hand at making, sourdough has risen to the rank of most beloved loaf in my heart.
The coolest thing about sourdough is that you need exactly three ingredients: flour, water, and salt. That’s it. Everything else is frill and furbelow, although a little commercial yeast is useful insurance when you’re first starting out. Sourdough, in its simplicity, is one of the oldest forms of leavened bread (if not the oldest), dating back to at least ancient Egypt. The problem with creating a complex end product from a very simple ingredient list, is that the steps of combining these building blocks are slightly less simple.
Slightly. The work of making an amazing, knock-your-socks-off sour loaf is very minimal once you get started. I sincerely love sourdough, so I’m going to share the brine-to-bread process with you. The starter and the bread are very different processes that require some time between them, so I’m going to explain the starter today and save the baking process until next week.
When I started out, I used the following recipe to get my starter going:
2 ½ C. Flour
2 C. Warm Water
1 pkg. Active Dry Yeast
1 Tbsp. Sugar
You can mess with these ingredients if you want. If you bake a lot of bread and have a baking center where the yeast is always mixing with the flour, you might do okay skipping the yeast, but…I wouldn’t. The sugar is even less mandatory, but it does help things get moving as the yeast will feed off it. I used plain ole’s all-purpose flour, but you can add a little rye or wheat if you want to play with the flavor. In short, starters are pretty flexible.
Where they’re less flexible is in the process. The temperature must be right, and they must have time to do their thing. Water temperature for working with yeast should be warm. If you’ve ever tested a baby’s bottle, the same test works. The water should feel comfortably warm on your wrist, but not hot enough to be painful. Too cold will kill the yeast; too hot will kill the yeast. Once you have the water temp right, mix ½ a cup of the water with the yeast and give it five minutes or so to wake up.
Once the yeast is awake, mix in the rest of the ingredients and cover the bowl with a cheesecloth or damp towel. Leave the bowl on the counter for five to ten days, stirring it a couple of times a day. It will get bubbly and start to smell like beer: these are good things. You don’t need to worry about it attracting any nasty bacteria. The fermenting yeast will create a very acidic environment in the starter, killing off everything but the particular non-harmful bacteria from which sourdough gets its deliciously sour flavor.
The warmer your room is, the faster the process will go. When the mixture seems to have stopped bubbling, you can use it or transfer it to the fridge for storage. I’ll talk about using it next week, so let’s talk storage. I have a ceramic container with a loose rubber-sealing lid for my starter. Key feature: loose-lid. I’ve seen plastic containers recommended for storing starter, but since starter is acidic and you’ll probably be storing it for a long time, you might want to consider finding a BPA-free container.
If you use your starter every week or even every month, you can probably just stick it in a corner of your fridge where it won’t freeze and forget about it until bread-making time. If you’re only going to use it once a year, you should feed it on at least a monthly basis. Yeasties are living little beasties, and they need energy just like you and I. To feed them, dump out a cup of starter and replace it with a cup of water and a cup of flour. Throw in a little sugar if you think they need dessert. Mix well and return to fridge.
Do not be alarmed when you pull out your starter. It tends to separate into a thick paste on bottom and a beerish liquid on top. Don’t throw it away as spoiled. Don’t drink the fermented top liquid. Just mix them together and carry on.
I found that my starter produced a fairly wimpy sour taste the first few times I made it, so take heart if you love the sourness. Keep working with the starter and give it ample time to ferment—the sour will come. Mine seems to have taken the better part of a year to develop a really rich sourdough flavor.
That’s really all there is to starter. Next week: How to turn smelly, fermented yeast goop into one of the oldest culinary pleasures of human civilization. Bring salt!
p.s. But don’t salt your starter. Just…don’t.