Tag Archives: #breadthoughts

Fermented life

Four years ago, I made my first sourdough bread with a homegrown starter named “Stinky”. If you’ve ever made your own fermented food, you can relate to the name. Starters go through many stages of existence over the course of time, and some of them are more funky than others. Stinky developed well enough, but I learned early on not to keep him on the counter near an open bottle of wine or beer. Yeast is in the air all around us, and unless it is a flavor you are going for, an opened bottle of Chardonnay will completely change things. Let’s just say the bread made that week was not bad, but it did have a lot of white wine characteristics. It took about two weeks of daily feeding to get the flavor back to what I wanted.

To consistently bake good loaves, you need to research and practice. Sourdough is a little different than a regular yeast bread in a few ways. First, it takes 2-3 days per batch instead of a couple of hours. That takes a conscious effort for planning the timing of the steps. If you work outside of the home like I do, it can be tricky. I’ve pretty much gotten the timing down so I can bake before or after work. The unpredictable variable right now is the summer heat. We hang around 100-105F July-early September, with relatively low humidity. The best way to combat this is to watch your dough and know how it reacts in different season. When you make sourdough, be patient. You can only push the dough so much because the microbes work at their own pace. I have made hybrid breads with adding a little yeast and sugar, but the timing is harder to manage when you are also working. I’ve had more than a few batches proof merrily along, then zip past the optimal window for baking. The over-proofed loaves taste and texture were still good, but not so much if you are trying for a more open crumb result.

Have patience with your starter (levain) and feed it on a regular schedule. I don’t agree with the “toss half and then feed” idea. It is very wasteful. If you are consistent and careful, you can feed your starter once a week and put it in the fridge. I pull Tex or Stinky out a day before I need to use them and feed them. Since they are both mature starters, they wake up pretty quickly. After I pull the levain for the recipe, I lightly feed again and return the starter to the fridge. If you keep it on the counter and feed on a more regular basis, just use the discard to make frybread, biscuits, or pancakes.

Another major difference between home baking with a starter or yeast is how you handle the bread. With a yeast loaf, there is a lot of time spent kneading the dough, letting it rise, kneading it again, then usually a final rise. With sourdough there is a bit of mixing/kneading early on, but that’s where things change. You fold and coil instead of kneading after the rise, and even that changes depending on the dough hydration, the type of bread (whole wheat, spelt, cornmeal addition, etc.). If not done right, you wind up with a tasty frisbee that makes very thin toast, croutons, or breadcrumbs. Don’t get discouraged if that happens. Even if you are using a recipe, keep track of what you do and what the result is. Some people have beginners luck. Their first loaf or two comes out amazingly beautiful with a distinctive ear or crust, and then the rest are so-so. I figure that if it tastes good and you are able to correct what didn’t go 100%, then you have (mostly) won. No one will know any different if the panzanella salad was made with a pretty loaf or one that didn’t get a good rise. There will always be another loaf in your future to bake again.

One final thing. Unless you know what you are doing or have made the recipe before, DO NOT freestyle bake and swap out ingredients and quantities willy-nilly. Different grains have completely different hydration rates and needs, and some breads really do need oil, milk, or egg added. Baking powder, baking soda, yeast, and starter (levain) are not always interchangeable. Follow the recipe at least once, and even then only swap out 1/4-1/2 cup flour at a time. I know my husband teases me because I don’t log my baking and cooking as much as I should, but I do know any changes I make in ingredients, baking times, or temps to know what went right (or almost right).

Ready to try an easy yeast bread? Try this one on for size and let me know how yours came out.

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