So its no secret that I've been experimenting with making sourdough bread. And today, I have my first edible (delicious!) batch of loaves, so I thought I'd just talk about my experience so far and share what I've learned. There are a whole lot of people who know much more than I do on the subject, so mainly this post is going to give a few links to pages other people have put together, and give a few comments on how they have been helpful to me.
Also to ramble a bit. Because this is my blog and I can.
Here I go.
Growing up I always liked sourdough. With most breads, I had to toast it AND butter it AND smother it in jam in order to actually enjoy eating it. Sourdough toast was my favorite, however, and all it needed was a bit of butter to taste delicious. I never really knew what it was that made sourdough sour and didn't worry about it. I remember very clearly that once dad mentioned he had a friend with some "sourdough starter" he could share with us, but I never asked what that meant or found out any more about it.
Fast forward to now. We recently moved across the country and have been trying to figure out the area. We've been trying different restaurants and stores, trying to find things we like. (We haven't managed to find a restaurant out here that we especially like, unfortunately.) Once, when Richard was getting groceries for us, he grabbed a loaf of bread for us to try--a multi-grain sourdough bread.
It was delicious. Amazingly so. It has been our favorite bread to buy since then.
After discovering that bread, I thought that it might be cool to make some sourdough at home, and tried looking up some recipes. When I found out I'd have to leave out flour and water and let little things grow in it, my interest was lost. It sounded kind of gross, and also like a lot of work, and we had a grocery store a couple blocks away that would sell us delicious multi-grain sourdough bread with far less effort.
Another time when we were getting groceries, Rich convinced me to pick up some whole wheat flour along with my accustomed all-purpose, because he actually likes the flavor of whole wheat. So then I started to try to bake things with it for him, with varied amounts of success.
I had mentioned to my mom that we had found this amazingly delicious multi-grain sourdough bread, because I thought she'd appreciate that I actually liked multi-grain something. Which she did. She also mentioned to my grandma that I loved this sourdough bread, and my grandma decided that that must mean that I wanted some of her starter.
Which I did, I just didn't know it at the time.
Now, last I'd heard my grandma had a gluten sensitivity (or allergy, or something). And now she was all excited about making bread? That's weird. Turns out that (real) sourdough can break down the gluten (or something?) so that it doesn't cause problems for people with certain types of gluten sensitivity. Who knew?
So when we went home for Christmas, Grandma was all excited to give me some of her starter and show me this book about baking sourdough ("The Art of Baking with Natural Yeast" by Melissa Richardson and Caleb Warnock). And I thought, well, I guess I might as well take a look at this book since she went to all this effort to bring it to me. (And, well, you know me and books.)
So I opened it up and started reading from the beginning, even though this sourdough thing seemed like a whole lot of work... and I got interested despite myself. This natural yeast stuff was actually pretty cool. And super healthy to boot. (Of course it was. Grandma likes it.)
So I took the starter home (still a bit skeptical) and started feeding it. And now I finally have a nice batch of sourdough loaves to munch on! I already ate 3 pieces. I kind of want another one. (And now Rich came home and we finished off the first loaf. Fortunately there is more.)
Here is what I've learned so far:
Leaving water out uncovered to let the chlorine dissipate actually works.
There are so many sources on this one, and I don't remember where I first read it, but I've seen it on multiple sites about sourdough. Chlorine is put in water to kill all the little things living in it. This is a problem, because you want to encourage things to live in it. So if you live somewhere (like maybe upstate New York ;-) where they put a lot of chlorine in the water when they clean it, try leaving it out on the counter overnight and see if your starter perks up when you use that water--mine did. Now, I just keep a tall glass of water out on the counter by my starter, and re-fill it each time I feed.
Your starter won't double (or even grow much at all) if it is too thin. Err on the side of too much flour if you're not sure how much to put.
My main source for this is this blog post (by one of the authors of the book Grandma showed me). For awhile I was making my starter too thin and, even though it was doing a bit better with my de-chlorinated water, it still wasn't rising as much as it should. I think there were two things that led me to do it wrong. First was the description of the correct consistency as being "like pancake batter". This may be the fault of my preferring thin pancakes, but when my starter looked like pancake batter it was too thin and would barely rise. The other misleading thing for me was the "equal parts flour and water" instruction. Most sites make it clear that it should be equal WEIGHT not equal VOLUME. But I don't have a scale in my kitchen and I just fed my starter using my measuring cups. When you use measuring cups, keep in mind that you'll put a greater volume of flour than of water--so if you put in 1 cup water, you might put 1 1/3 cup flour (give or take).
When baking with whole wheat flour instead of white all-purpose flour, use slightly less flour and let the dough rest for 20-30 minutes before kneading it.
I made a couple batches of mediocre, heavy (commercially yeasted) whole wheat rolls before figuring this one out. Well, I didn't figure it out--I found this awesome blog post, with lots of great pictures, comparing rolls and breads made with all white flour, all wheat flour, and half white/half wheat flour. There is a lot of great info on that post, but the summary is this: when converting a white flour recipe to wheat flour, let the dough rest for half an hour before kneading it to give the flour time to soak in the moisture and it will rise like it should. If you don't want to do pure whole wheat, you can do half white/half wheat and you don't need to alter the recipe or wait to knead the dough.
When you're just starting with sourdough and trying to figure things out, keep your starter on the counter. Then, once you've figured things out and you've decided to bake less frequently, keep your starter in the fridge.
I don't have a source for this one, I just made it up. I kind of did it by accident, but its worked out really well for me.
When my starter was barely rising I decided to keep a bit of it in a glass on the counter and see if it would do better in the warmth. This happened pretty early on in my starter-keeping, and has now been going on for about two weeks. All my learning and progress and baking so far has been done with my counter starter--I've fed my fridge starter, but haven't really done much with it.
Why do I suggest doing this?
Well, think about it. You're all excited to develop this new skill set and figure this sourdough thing out. Now, if you're like me, excitement for a new thing sticks around for about as long as that thing is new--a few weeks at most. Since I've only had my starter two weeks, lets use that as an example.
In two weeks, you would feed a fridge starter 2-4 times (depending what kind of schedule you are following--once weekly or twice weekly)
In two weeks, you would feed a counter starter 14-28 times (again, depending on your feeding schedule).
That is a whole lot more times! I would barely be figuring out the chlorine thing or the thickness thing I mentioned earlier if I was only on my fourth feeding of my starter. But since I've been keeping a starter on the counter, I've fed it more than twenty times, and I've had plenty of times to get it wrong and try new things and see what works. I've been able to do this when this is still new and exciting, rather than waiting a whole 'nother week to see if it will work, and not being able to bake bread until this sourdough thing has already gotten frustrating and old. Its also gotten me used to thinking about my starter more often because I've been able to keep it out where I'll see it any time I'm in the kitchen.
And no, I haven't moved my counter starter to the fridge yet, I've just fed the fridge one on schedule--using the things I learned from feeding my counter starter to help it, and it has responded similarly. From everything I've read, a counter starter will take a little while to get used to being in the fridge, but shouldn't have big problems. Or you could do it like I did and keep one on the counter and one in the fridge. Whatever works for you.
Because of the longer rising time of sourdough, you really need to cover it well or grease the outside of your dough so that the outside doesn't harden. If it hardens, it will form a hard shell that will keep your dough from rising.
Learned from experience.
I've found a lot of other helpful sites and recipes to try, which I've been collecting on my sourdough pinterest page. I'll continue to add to that as I learn more about sourdough.
Thats it for now. When I figure more things out I'll let you know :-).
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