Sourdough part 1.
Living in the United Kingdom, coming from the Netherlands and France, has been quite a shock where it comes to the quality of the bread. I love bread and I love sandwiches so we always have bread in the house. Unfortunately, the UK seems to be stuck with the ubiquitous “sliced white”, a tasteless and soggy excuse for a loaf of bread. The UK has even re-invented the process of bread making (the Chorleywood process) to be able to make it even more tasteless. 80% of the UK’s bread is made using this process, which allows for the use of lower protein-level flours and quicker baking in huge factories, creating a loaf that only does a very poor impersonation of bread.
Unfortunately, we don’t have a baker in the village so, a year ago, I thought it would be fun to try and make my own bread. I did have a very critical audience though; mrs. Urban Wildman comes from a baking family, having grown up in the very successful family bakery. So, any bread I was going to make would have to be good enough for her exacting standards.
I started out using standard baking yeast and the results were OK, still lacking a lot of the flavour I was looking for in a loaf. Therefore I made the plunge and embarked on the path of sourdough, never to look back…
Sourdough is great; it is natural and gives bread with great flavour and texture and isn’t that much more difficult than baking with standard yeast. It does the same thing as standard yeasts, only slower. This slower process means you have to do a little more planning, you can’t wake up in the morning and bake a loaf ready for lunch the same day. Otherwise, almost everything that can be achieved with baker’s yeast can be achieved with sourdough, it just needs a bit more experimentation and understanding of the process and what takes place in your mixing bowl.
In essence, a sourdough culture or starter is just a mix of water and flour in which naturally occurring yeasts from the air surrounding you grows. Because these yeasts ‘eat’ sugars in the mix and convert them to carbon dioxide, they give rise to breads whilst at the same time creating lactic acid which gives the bread a slightly acidic taste.
An added benefit is that it feels as though sourdough bread is easier to digest than standard breads made with baker’s yeast. It createsless bloating and you don’t feel overly lethargic after yet another overly laden sandwich.
How to create a sourdough starter
After I had taken the decision on creating my own starter, I of course turned to the magic of the internet to figure out how to do this. Turns out there are several ways, including buying a ready-made or freeze dried starter from another batch. The whole point of sourdough is that you create this mix of flour and water which then forms a healthy feeding medium for yeasts that occur in your house naturally. So buying another culture seemed pointless as I figured the yeasts would be replaced anyway. Plus, as always, I thought I could do better myself…
I wasn’t too confident that we’d have enough yeasts floating around in our kitchen, so I started looking at ways to kick-start the process. I found quite a few methods incorporating fruit and especially apples or grapes in the water-flour mix. The idea is that there are yeasts present on the skins of these fruits that could start growing. Over the course of time, this culture would start being replaced by my kitchen yeasts and the fruits would dissolve in the mix, so it seemed a good idea to give this a try.
Bad idea, the whole thing turned mouldy and bad in a matter of days and I ended up throwing the whole thing out, a little deflated.
A couple of days later, I still thought I wanted to give it a try so I went for the basic recipe:
100 grams of flour and 100 ml of water.
The great thing with sourdough is that this is pretty much all you need to remember when you start. The idea is that, as your culture eats its way through the flour, creating all the good gases and acids, it starts to run out of food and will need topping up or feeding. To create your culture, you need to do this every day, or even twice a day. I did a daily refresh for 10 days, after which I started baking with Graham, as I started calling him (named after the Urban Wildgrandfather baker). I had well and truly created life (cue dramatic music) so now it was all about keeping him alive! Obviously we have quite a few organisms living in our house, because he’s still alive today!
On day 1, start by mixing 100g of flour and 100ml of water in a container. You can use any kind of flour to do this, I would always recommend using an organic wholemeal flour (wheat, rye or spelt doesn’t matter), non-sterilised of course (sterilisation would kill the yeasts that occur naturally). You don’t have to use the full 100ml of water or you might need some more (the great thing about sourdough is that it is not an exact science), as long as the resulting mix has the consistency of thick wallpaper paste or pancake batter. Don’t choose your container too small as the mixture will stay in there for a while and will rise and fall. Nothing will happen, your mixture will just look like a very strange kind of pancake batter. . Leave on your kitchen counter in an open container overnight.
On day 2, you can expect to see little gas bubbles in the mixture. This is exciting, as this is a sign you’ve got activity in there and are on your way to working with sourdough. If you see bubbles, you will notice a change in the smell as well; it will smell a bit fruity and yeasty maybe, but not mouldy or rotten.
Even if there is no sign of activity yet, it is time to feed the mixture. Start by throwing about half of your mixture away (it makes a great addition to your compost) because otherwise you will soon run out of space in your container. After this, add another 100g of flour and 100ml of water and mix. Leave out again for another day.
Repeat this process of throwing half of your mixture out and feeding with 100g of flour and 100ml of water for a week to 10 days to create a stable culture. You will start seeing more and more activity, bigger and bigger bubbles and your mix will start to smell beery-y and fermented, but still smell fresh. You will also get to know your creation, see how fast it reacts to a feed and how much it rises and falls. A good way to measure this is to actually mark the level on the outside of the container, it should double in size between feeds.
Now that you have your culture stable and strong, it is time to think about how often you will use it. If you intend to bake daily, you can keep him out of the fridge , as long as you feed him every day. I bake only once a week on the weekend, so Graham lives in the fridge during the week. The cooler temperature slows down fermentation, allowing for more time in between feeding. Otherwise, if you weren’t baking every day but kept your starter at room temperature, you would still be throwing half away every day and feeding, making a lot of waste and requiring a lot of flour.I still feed him with 100g of wholemeal flour and 100ml of water. After he has doubled in size and is creating loads of bubbles, I use 150g of starter to bake my bread, the rest of him goes back in the fridge.
He has gone through 2 weeks in the fridge without feeding and was fine. The longer you leave it in between feeds, the more it starts looking for nutrients, eventually converting sugars to alcohol! This looks like a greay scummy layer of liquid on top of your starter and smells boozy. Don’t worry too much about this, you can tip it away or stir it back in, along with the feed of flour and water. This alcohol used to be called ‘hooch’ and I’m sure was seen as the baker’s privilege, a little tipple before starting the bake!
If you want to, you can even freeze part of your culture, it will stay dormant for a very long time. When you are ready, take it out and thaw it, feed it and you’ll see, it will come back alive!
So that’s it, this is how to get started with sourdough and creating a starter culture. I thoroughly recommend it, as the result is so much nicer that store-bought bread and hey, how cool is it to actually create life in a jar?