In the Kitchen

A passion for sourdough

By Lucy Herrman
Posted 6/16/20

A friend from back East recently posted a photo of her rustic sourdough loaf on Facebook. Crusty, brown and picture perfect, I experienced serious baker envy.

My husband took one look and said, …

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In the Kitchen

A passion for sourdough

Posted

A friend from back East recently posted a photo of her rustic sourdough loaf on Facebook. Crusty, brown and picture perfect, I experienced serious baker envy.

My husband took one look and said, “Why don’t you make bread like that?”

Since I had nothing better to do (or so I thought), I decided to take up the challenge. But little did I know that it would take over my life.

A baking frenzy seems to be taking place in households all over the country, and definitely here in Taos. For many of us, even those who have never baked bread in their lives, the idea of baking brings solace in a way that few other activities do. Baking nurtures us during these uncertain and stressful times. We are reassured by the rising loaf that life will go on.

Because of this appeal, the internet is flooded by pictures of homemade artisan sourdough bread. Why sourdough? For one thing, sourdough does not require yeast. The lack of availability of yeast has sparked an interest in this ancient technique.

Real sourdough utilizes wild yeast, which floats freely in the air. Through a process of fermentation, enough leaven is produced to make bread, and the long fermentation enhances the flavor with a rich piquancy. Much of today’s artisan bread can be hurried along with yeast, but if you have time, the slow rise bread is unforgettable.

Making sourdough starter is easy, but requires a long time and daily vigilance until you can use it for baking bread. In Taos, the altitude and dry climate helps the starter rise and fall and rise again quickly, so I got mine done in a week. In some places, it can take upward of two weeks for the starter to cure enough.

Finding flour and yeast during the coronavirus quarantine has been challenging. From the start of the pandemic, store shelves were quickly emptied of almost all baking supplies. Flour that does appear on store shelves immediately gets snapped up. But there is flour to be had if you are patient and persistent.

When you begin creating a sourdough starter, you stir together a small amount of water and unbleached and whole wheat flours, and set the bowl aside to ferment at room temperature. You feed it every day for at least a week to keep it alive – that is, by adding a little sugar or honey – but you discard more than half of it when you do! And that can mean throwing away a lot of flour in the process.

Food waste of any kind does not sit well with me. To dump all that fermented flour in the trash? No way! In these times of quarantine and shortages, I could not imagine squandering the precious discarded starter. So I looked for ways to use use the discard – see KingArthurFlour.com for recipes. I sought additional recipe ideas that used the largest amount of discarded starter and the least amount of flour.

I first tried Sourdough Pizza Crust and topped it with my own sauce and some shredded cheese. My husband had been craving pizza for weeks so he was very happy to partake in pizza for dinner.

“I’ll be your guinea pig anytime,” he said.

The next day, I found myself in the same quandary. Too much starter.

“How about more pizza?” my husband suggested hopefully.

Tempted though I was, the Sourdough Cinnamon Crumb Cake looked really easy and tasty. And I knew the crumble topping would be a big hit with my husband. The finished cake surprised us both when it mushroomed above the sides of the pan. Next time, I think I will use two pans and freeze one.

For my next experiment, I baked Sourdough Crackers — possibly the best crackers I have ever tasted. Then I used more discard to make the batter for Classic Sourdough Waffles and Pancakes, which rose in the refrigerator overnight. The next morning, we enjoyed a batch of waffles —crispy and lighter than air.

“Oh, my god! These are so good!” my husband said as he reached forward to spear another waffle. Now I began to understand the “Quarantine 15” phenomenon — too much good food and not enough exercise!

On Day Five, I faced the ultimate challenge. I needed to start feeding the starter twice a day. Pretty soon, I had starter and discard in every container in the house. There was starter on the counter and starter in the refrigerator. I texted friends and offered to give it away. Only one said yes. The others recognized the responsibility involved and pretended they were not home.

At one point, my husband opened the refrigerator door and cried out, “Lucy, get in here! Your starter is exploding!”

I ran to the kitchen and I discovered the discarded starter I had set aside for later had pushed the lid off the container. The lid floated lightly on top of a balloon of dough — it had not spilled yet, but I needed to immediately switch it to a larger tub. I then discovered that I only had one large tub remaining. Every glass, ceramic and stainless steel bowl and every plastic storage vessel had already been filled.

Things were getting serious. I could no longer keep up. I wondered if making starter had been a bad idea.

Once again, I searched for a recipe that used the most starter and the least flour, and this time, I doubled it. I chose to make Sourdough English Muffins. Unlike store-bought, these little gems were softer, taller and versatile — delicious toasted with butter and jam, but just as great as slider buns. And a double batch made plenty to share or freeze for later.

The next day, I made a double batch of Buttery Sourdough Sandwich Biscuits — flaky and scrumptious, although too flat to use for sandwiches.

When I reached the seventh day, my starter had “arrived” — fully cured, and I now only needed to feed it once a week. I divided the starter, set aside what I needed for the bread recipe, and placed the rest in a covered crock to live on in the refrigerator.

And at last it was time to make bread.

For my first loaf, I chose the recipe for Extra Tangy Sourdough Bread. I mixed the sourdough starter with the ingredients from the recipe. I placed the dough in an oiled bowl to rise for five hours. Once an hour, I lightly folded the dough from four sides of the bowl. When the initial rising was complete, I divided the dough into two traditional round loaves and placed them on a parchment-covered baking sheet. The loaves rose for another three hours.

When ready to bake, I slashed the tops of the loaves with a lame (a French razor blade used for this purpose), although a serrated bread knife works pretty well. Then I slid the baking sheet with the loaves onto the middle rack of the preheated oven. I sprayed the loaves with water to steam and crisp the crust, and baked for about 25-30 minutes, until the crust turned a rich golden brown.

I placed the baked loaves on cooling racks. Once completely cooled, I wanted to enjoy the fruits of my labor. That first slice is best eaten plain to appreciate the subtle flavors of the bread. Then my husband grabbed a slice and went for the butter.

Needless to say, we both thought the Extra Tangy Sourdough Bread was heavenly. I may bake it again soon, or try another rustic bread recipe. In the meantime, I will definitely keep feeding my starter every week.

I love sourdough, my new passion. My sourdough starter is like family now. I might even name it. I like the sound of Fred. Rhymes with bread.

(Note: Sourdough bread keeps well for several days at room temperature, and longer stored in the refrigerator. Just wrap it after cooling completely.)

You may be inspired to try your hand at sourdough. Here is a suggested schedule for creating and feeding your sourdough starter, and for using up the starter you have to discard.

Day 1: Make first starter batch.

Day 2: Divide the starter as directed and feed (with sugar or honey) the starter. Save the discard.

Make Sourdough Pizza Crust with the discard.

Day 3: Divide the starter as directed and feed the starter. Save the discard.

Make Sourdough Cinnamon Crumb Cake with the discard.

Day 4: Divide the starter as directed and feed the starter. Save the discard.

Make Sourdough Crackers with the discard.

Day 5: You will now be feeding your sourdough twice a day. Yes, every 12 hours. Go for 8 a.m. and 8 p.m., or whatever works for your schedule.

Divide the starter as directed and feed the starter. Save the discard.

Make Classic Sourdough Waffles and Pancakes with the discard.

Feed again 12 hours later.

Ask your friends if they would like some starter.

Day 6: Divide the starter as directed and feed the starter. Save the discard.

Make Sourdough English Muffins with the discard.

Feed again 12 hours later.

Ask your other friends if they would like some starter.

Day 7: Divide the starter as directed and feed the starter. Save the discard.

Make Buttery Sourdough Sandwich Biscuits with the discard.

Feed again 12 hours later. 

And now your sourdough starter should be ready for you to bake bread.

(Recipes and instructions for making sourdough starter and bread, as well as recipes for using the starter discard, can be found on the King Arthur Flour website at KingArthurFlour.com.)

sourdough

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