Many people have taken up hobbies this past year. Exercise, fiber arts, baking might be some of the top activities that have kept us occupied during the COVID quarantine over these past 12 or more months. Instagram is awash with millions of posts (successes and failures) of people who have tried their hand at sourdough. There are countless resources that help novices to experts try their hand at this artisanal craft. I have been playing around with sourdough for many years (before it was pandemic-cool), but the pandemic has allowed me to concentrate and experiment.
Making sourdough is easy. Water, flour, salt, natural yeasts and bacteria. Mix, knead, prove, shape, prove, and bake. Anyone CAN do it. But while this seems simple enough, there are reasons not everyone DOES bake sourdough. This simple process can go awry at any point and in a variety of ways. Even if it isn’t a complete failure, the results can be very underwhelming. So, while this post is not the ultimate guide, nor is it the final authority, we hope that you can learn from our year of experimenting and baking. Here are our lessons learned from a year of sourdough.
The first place to start is the starter. Water plays an essential role and the salt is essential for flavoring the loaf. But our biggest lessons learned were in the flour and the yeast. I grew up with a 50+ year old starter that my family cared for. We didn’t often bake sourdough bread but every weekend we enjoyed a special treat of sourdough pancakes. Sourdough starter is nearly the perfect consistency for pancake batter! Add a little oil, egg, sugar, vanilla, and baking soda and you’ll have robust, flavorful pancakes in no time. But when I moved away from my parents, I had to make my own starter. I tried a couple of different times before I landed on one that worked. But I didn’t realize how ‘bad’ it was until I tasted a different starter – one from Alaska. So I dumped my old batch and started fresh with an Alaskan starter. So, four lessons learned.
First, what makes sourdough sourdough are the natural (found in the environment) yeasts and bacteria that metabolize the flour producing carbon dioxide and giving the bread its light, airy texture. Many commercial breads use quick acting yeasts that will give the bread its airy texture within just a couple of hours. Natural yeasts might take a little bit longer to metabolize the flour and form all of those lovely pockets of air. Additionally, natural yeasts work in concert with natural bacteria that give the bread its slightly sour flavor. But not all natural yeasts are created equally. First, it is important to note that yeasts (types of fungi) found in Florida are different than those found in Maine. Yeasts in Iowa are different from the one found in California or Alaska. They are all different. No matter what types of yeasts you start with your sourdough will likely collect yeasts from the air where you currently are and start to take on those characteristics and flavors. I mentioned that I started with a strain of Alaskan sourdough yeast. There is a reason that San Francisco sourdough or Alaskan sourdough is famous. Those yeasts and bacteria make amazing bread. And it is hard to recreate those same flavors in different areas because they start to acclimate to the local conditions. I feel like my sourdough still has a lot of the flavor, but I’m sure it would not compare to the real thing in Alaska because it has started to accumulate more of our Iowa yeasts and bacteria from the air.
While you can start a sourdough just from the natural yeasts and bacteria in the air, an easier way is to use the natural microorganisms that are on the wheat. Flour is simply milled or ground wheat. That wheat was grown in a field and there are millions of microorganisms that are on those wheat berries when they are harvested. Lesson two is that using whole wheat flour will allow you to start a culture simply using what microorganisms are naturally present. Those microorganisms will be accustomed to metabolizing that kind of flour. By adding a little water and providing a hospitable environment, you can quickly get those little microorganisms active and reproducing. It is important to note that all purpose flour or other refined flours won’t have as many microorganisms because the outer hull and bran of the wheat berries have been removed, also removing many of the microorganisms. It is also worth noting that bleached flour will have very few, if any microorganisms since that refinement process is meant to kill any that might be present. So, if you want to make a starter, best to start with whole wheat flour. You could even grind your own from whole wheat berries.
Start the starter. Every farmer knows that you need to create the optimum conditions for your animals to thrive. Yeast farming is no different! We simply need to make the optimum conditions for those microorganisms to thrive. The flours serves as the food for the microorganisms. All living things need water. So mix the flour with a little water and you get the perfect slurry for things to start happening. Keep it at room temperature and within a day or two you might start to see little bubbles form. Those bubbles are the carbon dioxide being released as the yeast and bacteria start to metabolize and eat the flour. But this process takes time. The first bubbles are from the quick acting microorganisms. Those aren’t the ones you want. Everyday you’ll need to discard a little of the mixture, add a little more flour, and a little more water. After that first bloom of activity, you might have a few days where it doesn’t look like anything is happening. But as the desirable yeasts and bacteria start to out compete the less desirable ones you should start to see renewed activity – more bubbles. Keep up the daily ritual of discarding some starter, adding a little more flour, and a little more water until you get a robust, active starter (roughly ten days).
Microorganisms will be accustomed to what they are fed regularly. If you want to change up the bread making and make rye sourdough, it isn’t as simple as replacing wheat flour with rye flour. Lesson three is that you have to give the microorganisms time to adjust. Start with your wheat starter, then add a little rye flour and water for several days in a row. The microorganisms should start to transition over or adopt new microorganisms that are better suited for rye flour. You can use this same strategy for a variety of different flours – with varying degrees of success. For best results, though feed your starter the same thing consistently.
Most recipes and directions for starters suggest using lots of flours and lots of water. But one thing the pandemic has taught us is that it is more about proportions than it is about quantity. Early on in the pandemic when flour on grocery store shelves was in short supply, but a lot of people wanted to start experimenting with sourdough the quarantiny starter was invented. This lesson can be applied to many things in baking. It is about proportions. Want a bigger loaf? Increase all ingredients by the same proportion. Want two or three loaves instead of one? Double or triple the recipe. Want a smaller loaf? Cut the recipe down – proportionally.
Sourdough starter is living and breathing. It consists of multiple alive and active organisms. So it needs to be treated accordingly. Think of it as a pet or livestock that needs to be cared for. It needs to be fed and watered regularly. If you keep your starter at room temperature, you’ll need to feed it everyday. Practice the same procedure of discarding half and then adding equal amounts of water and flour. Starter also needs to ‘breathe’ or release carbon dioxide, so keep it in a jar or container that is not airtight. A slight gap will allow for the carbon dioxide to escape. If you keep your starter in the fridge, the cooler temperature will slow down the respiration so you will only need to feed and water it once a week. If you neglect if for longer than that you may still be able to revive it. (I’ve accidentally let mine go as long as four weeks). But it is never as good, and takes time to rebuild those active microbes with several sequential feedings.
Remember that every time you get ready to bake with your starter, you are going to want to save some for next time. The idea is to grow the starter enough that you can use some for baking and save some to keep your cultures active and growing. Add your water and flour to the starter the night before and let it sit over night. The next day when you start your recipe the first step, the very first step, is always to reserve a a portion back in your storage vessel for the next bake. Also remember, we are working with yeast and bacteria. Once you have a desirable starter you don’t want to contaminate it with other strains of yeast or bacteria. Wash and sanitize all your containers and bowls in-between uses to try and prevent any microorganisms sneaking in.
For a continuation of the story and baking bread, be sure to check out Part 2 here: https://iowaagliteracy.wordpress.com/2021/03/24/what-the-pandemic-has-taught-us-about-sourdough-part-2/