Saturday, October 17, 2009

DIY SOURDOUGH STARTER - HOW TO TAME WILD YEASTS

Mature wheat starter with a lot of gas
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When I moved to Maine my stomach eagerly adapted to lobster rolls, crab cakes and blueberry pie.

But it developed an instantaneous dislike for American bread. The squishy, soft Wonderbread from the supermarket made me really wonder what was in there - besides additives, enhancers and preservatives.

Wonderbread - a modern miracle created by food chemistry!

And the so-called "Artisan Bread" wasn't much better - it had a crust, sure, but thick and rubbery.

My stomach kept complaining, until I made an interesting find at the "Grasshopper Shop" in Bangor: "French Farmhouse Cooking" by Susan Loomis. To my delight it listed a sourdough bread, including a RECIPE FOR HOMEMADE SOURDOUGH!

Inspiration for my first sourdough bread
Soon as I was home, I got to work. To be on the safe side, I had also purchased a package of sourdough extract at the Natural Living Center.

I wanted to bake two identical loaves, one with a DIY-starter, the other with sourdough made from the extract. At least one of them had to work!

Mixing flour and water in a bowl, I hoped that wild yeasts and lactid acid bakteria, from flour and air, would accept my friendly dinner invitation, and show their gratitude by rapid growth.

Lactobacillus, Saccharomyces & Co. returned my favor, and my first starter was born. And thus began my bread baking career.

Of course my first trials led to rather modest results. If you are completely clueless about bread baking, a working sourdough alone doesn't do the trick.

You also have to know how to handle dough, shape and bake it.

Though dense and hard like bricks, we bravely consumed my first loaves (we still have all our teeth!) At least the taste was definitely better than the one from Wonderbread.

During this stage, homemade and ready made sourdough still ran head-to-head, but the more I refreshed both starters, the more the "wildling" inched past the tame one. After three months it surpassed the store-bought starter by far in aroma and activity!

Mature wheat sourdough with typical spongy structure under the surface

The formula is very uncomplicated, just water and flour, and it worked every time, when I accidentally used all my saved starter, and there was nothing left to feed a new one.

What kinds of flours are best for a seed starter? Flours that contain a lot of starch as food for the sourdough cultures: wheat, rye or spelt.

Wheat and spelt sourdoughs are rather mild, compared with rye sourdough with its stronger sour taste. Once you have an active starter, you change it just by feeding it with another kind of flour, for example turning a wheat into a rye sourdough.

Some baking book authors swear by adding acidic fruit juice, chopped onions or other (more or less exotic) ingredients to prevent undesirable (leuconostic) bacteria from interfering with the wild yeasts. I never experienced this problem, my yeasts always grew well.

And if an alien invasion overwhelms the flour mixture, before the sourdough bacteria can acidify it sufficiently? If it ominously changes its color, or even grows a moldy "fur"? Has a yucky odor, instead of emitting a light vinegar smell?

Then you simply throw it away, wash the bowl thoroughly, and start all over again - for a few cent!
But be careful, during the fermentation process a somewhat unpleasant smell (like throw-up) might temporarily develop. No worries, this will vanish when yeasts and bacteria got comfortable with each other, and will be replaced by a pleasant fruity-acidic aroma.

German Many Seed Bread, made with rye sourdough

WILD YEAST SOURDOUGH STARTER   (adapted from Susan Loomis: "French Farmhouse Cooking"

(Ready to use in 4 - 5 days)

2 cups flour (wheat, rye, or spelt flour)
1 cup lukewarm water (no warmer than 104ºF/40ºC - otherwise you'll kill the yeasties!), more as needed, to achieve the right consistency.

DAY 1
In a medium-sized bowl, mix 1 cup of the flour and 1/2 cup of the water. The mixture should be like thick pancake batter. (Whole grain flours absorb more water, add a little more, as needed.)

Cover the bowl with a clean kitchen towel and leave it in a warm place. (In this nurturing environment the wild yeasts and sourdough building bacteria will start to grow. Most of them are clinging to the flour, but some are floating in the air.)

DAY 2
No action is required, just let the microorganisms do their job.

DAY 3
Check your starter. It should be lively, puffed up, with little bubbles, have a slightly sour smell and possibly a darker surface: this means the yeasts and bacteria are doing just fine.

Add the 2. cup of the flour and 1/2 cup of water, (or a bit more, if you use whole grain flour) to the starter, and mix well. Cover the bowl again with the kitchen towel, and let it sit in a warm place for 24 to 48 hours more.

DAY 4 or 5 
Your seed starter is ready when it emits a nice sour smell, forms little bubbles and its surface has turned slightly dark.

Transfer starter to a container with a lid (big enough that it can rise again, after deflating somewhat from the transport,) and place it in the refrigerator.

Your starter is now ready to be used: the mother starter for all your future sourdough breads! But don't expect top performance from your newborn sourdough - it ages slowly and needs several cycles of refreshing, before giving the bread its typical tang.

WARNING: Never use all of your mother starter, always keep a small amount, enough to refresh it, and make a new sourdough starter!

Bauernbrot - German Farmer's Bread (made with a white starter)

SOURDOUGH MAINTENANCE
Keeping an "allround-starter" is the easiest option: one that requires low maintenance and can be used as base for every kind of sourdough you want. For this purpose a whole wheat or rye starter works better than a white starter, and a less liquid sourdough keeps better than a high hydration one.

My standard mother starter is a whole wheat sourdough with a flour/water ratio of 100 : 75. This 75% starter is medium acidic, and keeps at least 2 weeks in the fridge, without being fed.

This is the formula (in baker's math the amount of flour always equals 100%):
100% whole wheat flour + 33% mother starter + 75% water

Feeding a whole wheat starter (75%) 
60 g whole wheat mother starter (75%)
180 g whole wheat flour
135 g lukewarm water

Mix all ingredients (by hand or at low speed,) until all flour is hydrated. Knead for 2 minutes (by hand or at medium-low speed), then lest rest for 5 minutes. Resume kneading for another 1 minute.

Cover, and leave for several hours or overnight, until the starter has visibly grown (the time depends on the prevailing temperature) Transfer starter to a container with lid, and place in the refrigerator.

Due to its lack of gluten, a rye starter looks more puffy then spongy

Conversion into a rye sourdough:
 Feed with 180 g whole rye flour instead of whole wheat. When mature, it will only look puffed, but doesn't develop a spongy structure, due to its lack of gluten.

A white starter has a very spongy structure and sticks to the bowl

Conversion into a white sourdough:
Feed with 180 g bread flour, but add only 113 g water  (white flour needs less water than whole grain flour). Formula: 100% white flour + 33% mother starter + 63% water.

Many bakers like keeping their starters at room temperature. Since sourdough cultures multiply much faster in a warm environment, such a counter top starter is high maintenance and needs feeding every day.

But what to do with the all that surplus? People who don't bake every day, and don't go through a lot of sourdough, will have to trash it, before their kitchen turns into a Little Shop of Horrors ("Feed Me!")

I don't like throwing out something perfectly good and usable. Therefore I keep my mother starter in the fridge.


STARTER SURVIVAL GUIDE
You are dreaming of sun, beach and a Margarita, but don't want your precious sourdough starve to death at home?

Dreaming of sun and beach? What about your sourdough?
1. Stuff it: you should always feed your starter the day before your trip. A regular feeding (see above) is okay for a 2-week leave.

If you plan a longer trip: double the amount of flour and water.

2. Dry it: smear sourdough in a thin layer over a large cutting board. Leave it for several days (at room temperature) to dry completely.

Scrape dried starter flakes on a piece of paper, and empty them into a container with lid. Dried starter keeps basically forever in the fridge.

To revive it, simply mix it with an equal amount of water (by weight.) After 2 hours soaking, feed it with flour and water as usual.

3. Freeze it: though this is possible, it will take much longer to wake and activate your starter, since many yeast cells will die from hypothermia. 


DEAD OR ALIVE?
You won a several week long cruise, but were so excited that you forgot to feed your starter before you boarded the Queen Mary?

Or, one day, you make the horrible discovery that your starter lies prone in its home and looks more dead than alive?

You climb up Mayan temples in Cobà - and your starter?
How do you know, whether your starter has finally bit the dust, or can be resuscitated?

Even, if the starter looks dark and shriveled, with a puddle on top, and smells more like a cheese:

Always looks for signs of life before you trash it!

Remove the dark top layer with a spoon:
if you find lighter colored sourdough with its typical spongy structure beneath, there is still hope!

Salvage some of the healthy part, feed it with flour and water, and the seemingly deceased will come to life again.

RED FLAG:
Hands off, if your starter has grown a "fur". A moldy sourdough has to go in the trash. R.I.P.!

BACK-UP:
Even if you don't win a trip to Cancun: it's always good to have a dried starter as back-up in the fridge!

Let's end this wild yeast starter 101 on a "sour note": and check what Stanley Ginsberg, NYBaker and co-author of "Inside the Jewish Bakery", has to say about sourdough maintenance: "Sour Notes - a Carmudgeon's Take on Sourdough Starters."

Cranberry Power Bread, made with wheat sourdough

(Sources: Susan Loomis: French Farmhouse Cooking, Peter Reinhart: Whole Grain Breads,
Martin Pöt Stoldt: Der Sauerteig - das unbekannte Wesen)

Completely updated and re-written 1/15/2014

12 comments:

  1. Very well written ! All the beginner needs to know concerning sourdough starter. I keep a 100 % white starter and a 80 % rye starter. Works for me :)

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    1. So many people seem to have difficulties with starting a seed starter that works. And then there are those who create a whole cult around starter maintenance, with a holier-than-thou attitude. Did you read Stanley Ginsberg's "Sour Notes"? It's really funny.

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    2. No, I didn't. Have to check that out. Any other recommandations on bread related books , Karin ?? :)

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    3. If you like whole grain breads, Peter Reinhart's "Whole Grain Breads" is really the way to go. His method (almost all the flour is pre-soaked or pre-fermented) works really well. I used not to like 100% whole wheat breads (brittle and "too healthy" tasting) until I made them with this technique. I only reduce the amount of sweetener in his formulas.

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  2. I have been living in the US since 2001, but only about six months ago I started baking my own bread. I'm still learning and am thankful that finally I have found a good and understandable explanation about how to start and maintain a starter. Thank you!
    We actually can get quite good bread in our area, but in the end it's always the same and I love some variety. Today was the second time I baked Seelen that we loved back in Tübingen, and it was already better than the first try. I am learning!
    Great blog!

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    1. Thank you, Carola! You will see, the starter gets livelier and your bread better, the longer you keep going. And I'm happy to answer question, if you have any.
      Thüringer Seelen I only saw in other blogs, so far, but didn't try them, yet.
      I always complain to my husband: So much to bake - so little time :)

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  3. Hello again, ok starter is at 7 days now looking good smelling great. I saw the picture of the Bauernbrot and can seem to find the recipe for it. I found several recipes on line but was not quite convinced. Do you have a personal favorite recipe or one that you make. I would have to hate wasting my starter on something that is not authentic. Also my bf has totally taken over the whole starter thing and has turned into a bread scientist lol
    Thx for any suggestions ,
    Bis bald, Sabine

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    1. Sabine, ich hab das Bauernbrot nie gepostet, kann dir aber gern das Rezept geben. Schick mir eine Mail: drkarinanderson@gmail.com, dann maile ich es dir.
      LG, Karin

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