Sourdough primer

Discussion in 'Recipes' started by Tango3, Sep 15, 2008.

  1. Tango3

    Tango3 Aimless wanderer

    Have not ever attempted this but looks like its good info...

    Sourdough primer: bread without "store- bought" yeasts


    about me

    Why Sourdough?

    Of all forms of leavening, sourdough is the cheapest, healthiest, most natural, and best tasting. It's the only one that's compatible with autonomy, that you can do yourself without any dependence on the industrial system. You can't make your own baking soda, plus it's high in sodium and it destroys nutrients. Commercial yeast has been chosen and bred for speed and force of rising, at the expense of everything else, just like purebred dogs that have lost intelligence and health to gain fashionable appearance, or cows that produce more and more milk of lower quality and greater toxicity.

    Commercial yeast is a single kind of organism that belches a lot of gas really fast and transforms grain into something that's even less good for you. Sourdough is two organisms, wild yeast and bacteria, in symbiosis. Together they transform the grain to make it more healthful, more digestible, and also resistant to getting moldy or stale. Many people with wheat allergies or "yeast" allergies have no problem eating real sourdough.

    How Does It Work?

    With sourdough, you are keeping and feeding a population of friendly yeast and bacteria, called a "culture," or a "starter." The population rises and falls, depending on where you keep it and what you feed it. When you make a loaf of bread, you are carefully managing a population explosion. The sour flavor comes from chemicals made by the yeast and bacteria, and when it gets really strong, that does not mean the sourdough is strongly active, but that it is depleted, that the population has already eaten its food and collapsed.

    What You Need

    Flour. Most grains will work, though only wheat has enough gluten to rise much without collapsing. White flour does not have the right nutrients for the sourdough, or for you! I generally use whole wheat pastry flour. It should be grown and processed without industrial chemicals, which will interfere with the yeast. For the moment "organic" is good, but big agribusiness will inevitably strip all meaning from that word, so I'm guessing in a few years you'll have to look for another word, or buy from local independent producers who care about quality.

    Water. The more filtered, the better. At the very least it needs the chlorine taken out, which you can do just by setting it in an open container for a day or so.

    A Glass Jar to keep your sourdough in. The wider the mouth is, the better. I used to use an old 16 oz Adams peanut butter jar, but these are no longer made, so I generally use a common organic nut butter jar, or a wide-mouth canning jar. Glass is ideal for sourdough. Pottery is good too, and probably wood. Plastic is bad for anything and metal is the worst for sourdough because it reacts with the acids. Stainless steel might be OK for bowls and it's fine for utensils.

    A Glass Bowl if you're going to make bread.

    An Oven or at least a stove.

    Catching Sourdough

    Some people have sourdough cultures that are more than 100 years old -- that is, they have been separated from nature for more than 100 years. I wonder how the yeast and bacteria have changed in that time, whether they're getting domesticated, losing their edge. So I like to catch a fresh culture at least once a year. People ask me for starter as if it's something precious that they couldn't get any other way, but catching sourdough is easy, easy, easy! Books make it sound like it's difficult and complicated and takes a long time. Using the following system, I have never once failed, and it usually takes less than three days.

    Mix equal volumes of flour and water, and set it in a glass jar, half to two thirds full, in a warm place. I don't bother sterilizing the jar. Some people say to keep the lid off so yeast falls into it from the air, but evidence suggests that the yeast is already in the flour, so I just put the lid on loosely so it can breathe. A loose lid is much easier than cheesecloth and works just as well. If you do keep the lid off, put it on a high shelf where less bad stuff will fall into it.

    What you've got now is a race between yeast and other microorganisms to take over your jar of food. If the yeast wins, it will smell strongly sour, probably with a layer of brown liquid on the top, but not moldy or rotten. If it gets moldy or rotten, it's almost certainly because you're using low quality flour or water. If it doesn't do anything, it's probably because of irradiated flour, chlorinated water, or a location that's too cold. Rye flour is said to work better for starting the yeast, and then you can switch to a different flour if you want. Another trick is to put it in a really warm place -- try a gas oven with just the pilot light on, or an electric oven with the inside light on and the door closed. To avoid accidentally turning the oven on with something inside it, you can remove the dial that turns the oven on, and put that in the oven too.

    I'm told that you can catch different strains of wild yeast and bacteria that behave differently, but I've done it many times and never noticed a difference. Do not try to "help" it by adding commercial yeast, or you will simply get a toxifying culture of that yeast. Anyway, it doesn't need your help -- it's easy.

    So: flour, water, jar, wait a couple days, it turns sour. By the time you're sure that your jar has been taken over by the good stuff, it will be much too depleted to use. So you need to dump out almost all of it, and add fresh flour and water, again in roughly equal amounts, and stir it well. Then it will rise, and be good enough to use, but still not as good as it will be after one or two more cycles (see below).

    Bubbly Sourdough

    This step is the hardest for most people. You've caught sourdough, but a jar of flour and water with the right yeast and bacteria is worthless if it's not bubbly. After the above step, ideally, your jar of culture will get full of bubbles and increase 50% in volume. If it doesn't, smell it. If it smells like nothing, or like flour, it needs more time and warmth (body temperature is perfect). If it smells really sour, but isn't bubbling well, refresh it again: throw out all but a little bit and add more flour and water.

    What you're aiming for is a jar of what I call peak sourdough. When sourdough is at its peak, it has risen to maximum volume, it's full of bubbles and living yeast, it's thick enough to hold the bubbles, and it's not yet very sour. That's when it's perfect for eating, or for going to the next step if you're making bread. When it passes its peak, it falls in volume, the bubbles go out, the yeast population crashes, and it gets too sour (too much acid and not enough sugar), and you have to throw out what you remove instead of eating it.

    If you want to use it instead of throwing it out, you can use it in a pie crust or something leavened with baking powder -- just don't use it for bread! A common mistake is to think, "Well, it isn't bubbly, but I'll try to make bread with it anyway." This is like trying to do a motorcycle jump from four feet back. To get your final product to rise, you have to build up momentum by getting good bubbly rising at every step.

    Taking Care of Sourdough

    It's not as hard as a baby, or even a dog, but it requires much more attention than a plant. It's a bunch of tiny living animals that need frequent food. If you neglect them, they'll eat up all the food and die down to almost nothing, and possibly other organisms will take over. But the nice thing is, they do everything slower at lower temperatures. Unless you're eating sourdough at every meal, or your kitchen is cold, you'll need to keep it in a refrigerator, where you can feed it as infrequently as once a week.

    To feed it, remove almost all your sourdough (ideally you will eat it) and add more flour and water to what's left in the jar. Some people say to remove only half but this not only gives you less sourdough to eat, it leaves an overly sour acid bath for the next batch. You can remove 99.99% and your sourdough will still be alive -- it will just take a long time to build its population back. I remove about 90% -- I just dump it all out and leave in whatever clings to the sides.

    When you add the flour and water, you'll have to learn through practice how thick to make it, depending on your flour. Some flour gets thicker after it soaks in water, so you have to start it runnier, and some flour gets runnier so you start it thicker. Lately I've been going thicker, so thick that when it's finished, I get it out by holding the jar upside down and maybe banging on it. If you need a spoon to get it out, it's too thick. If you're getting a layer of water in the middle, it's too thin. Also, as you'll quickly find out, you should only fill the jar about two thirds full, to give it room so it doesn't explode or run out everywhere. I always add the water first, and shake up the jar to evenly distribute the dregs of living sourdough, and then add the flour. If you do it the other way, you have to stir it more, or else only the bottom will get bubbly.

    If your sourdough develops a layer of water, just dump it off, and next time try making a stiffer mix, with less water or more flour, or try using a different kind of flour. Whole wheat bread flour loves to get water layers.

    It will often happen that you don't use your sourdough in time and it gets flat. The only thing to do is "reset" it: save a little bit, feed it fresh flour and water, and throw the rest out, or use it in something other than bread. You can save sourdough that has been neglected for a long time. Even if it's turned black on top and smells totally nasty, there's probably still some living yeast in there. Take a bit out and feed it fresh flour and water, and see what you get. And if it's dead, just catch a new one.

    Zen And The Art Of Sourdough

    Sourdough requires more foresight and awareness than industrialized humans are accustomed to using. For example, at noon, I anticipate that I will make a waffle at 10PM, and I know that I used and fed the sourdough last night and put it straight in the fridge, so it's nowhere near ready. If it's a hot summer day, I should wait until about 6PM to take it out, but if it's cold I need to take it out now to give it all day to get to its peak. If I need it fast, I'll put the jar in some warm water. Another trick is to leave it out, bring it close to its peak, and then (if you remember) put it back in the fridge, where it will remain ready to use for maybe a day -- if you remember! What I'm getting at is, you have to devote a permanent bit of attention to where your sourdough is in its life cycle, kind of like one of the programs that runs in the background on your computer.


    Sourdough Pancakes and Waffles. I just take sourdough that's right at its peak, and pour it straight on a hot oiled pan or waffle iron. That's it! If you want to mix in other ingredients, or if you stir it at all, you will pop the bubbles and you'll have to stir in some baking powder to get it to rise enough. A waffle, because of the greater surface area, is more forgiving than a pancake. Even when I do it perfectly, my pancakes are a little gummy, but imperfect sourdough can still make excellent waffles. You'll be surprised how good it tastes, with nothing but flour, water, and critters out of the air! Put on some organic butter and real maple syrup, and you've still spent a lot less money than with white-flour white-sugar aluminum-baking-powder hydrogenated-oil restaurant pancakes. Almost any kind of flour will work.

    Sourdough Tortillas. These are the next easiest thing. You still don't even need a bowl. Clear a space on the countertop or a big cutting board, pour some flour down, pour some sourdough on top of it, mix it with your fingers, fold it over a few times, add some more flour, and roll it out with a rolling pin or wine bottle. It will take some practice to get the proportions right and keep it from sticking. The more gluten is in your flour, the easier it is. With anything but wheat, you'll have to settle for very small tortillas.

    Sourdough Pie Crusts. If you want a light, flaky crust, forget sourdough -- follow a cookbook recipe and use mostly white flour. A sourdough crust will not have light texture, but it will have more interesting flavor and be better for you. I recommend whole wheat pastry flour. Whole wheat bread flour is slightly easier to work with but the crust will be brick-like, and non-wheat is so fragile and sticky that I wouldn't even try to roll it out, but just press it into the pan.

    In a bowl, cut some butter into some flour with your fingers. Sorry I don't measure -- after a few tries you'll get a sense of the proportions and then you won't have to measure either. Because I eat pies as a staple and not a rare treat, I use no more than a half stick of butter. Most recipes call for a whole stick or more. For you vegans, I recommend organic palm or coconut oil, or non-hydrogenated margarine (Earth Balance, organic in the green tub, is my favorite). Cheap hydrogenated oil is one of the most toxic substances mistaken for food. Liquid oil works too! Just dump it in at the same time as the sourdough. I recommend extra virgin olive or sesame. Canola is not terrible, but its healthful reputation is pure marketing.

    Now add the sourdough. 16 oz (full of bubbles) should be barely enough for a two-crust pie, or more than enough for a single crust. Mix it in with the flour, don't work the dough too much, get it firm but pliable, and roll it out with more flour. Pie crust is not easy! For a lot more info, check out my pie crust page.

    Sourdough Biscuits. In a bowl, cut butter or other solid oil into flour, then mix in some baking powder, and then dump in the sourdough. If you're using liquid oil, mix the flour and baking powder and then add the oil with the sourdough. It's basically just like a pie crust, except you need baking powder to make the biscuits rise. For a 16 oz jar of sourdough, I'll use one or two teaspoons of baking powder. Have your oven already heated and your pan already oiled, and when you add the liquid stuff to the dry stuff, mix it quickly and gently, fold it over a couple times, and form the biscuits. I either make a fat disc and cut it into six wedges, or if the dough is too sticky, I just drop six gobs of it in the pan. Bake it at 350-375 F for 20-30 minutes.

    Other Soda Breads can be made by varying the biscuit recipe. For example, to make scones, add sweetener. For blueberry muffins, add sweetener and blueberries and cook them in a muffin pan. For banana bread, add some mashed up bananas and maybe some nuts, and make one big thing instead of several little ones. For most of this stuff I'd increase the baking powder to maybe a tablespoon -- it's full of sodium but it's your insurance against the bread coming out wet and gummy.

    Sourdough Bread. Yes, 100% sourdough bread, no commercial yeast, no soda, no cheating. Back before the internet I looked and looked for a recipe and finally had to figure it out myself:

    I use whole wheat bread flour and a little white flour. As you move into whole grains and low-gluten grains, your bread gets healthier, but it gets harder to knead, harder to raise, denser, and more prone to being gummy and unpalatable.

    For bread, you have to manage two, maybe three yeast population blooms in sequence. The first one is just getting your working jar of sourdough bubbly. The optional second one is called the "sponge" -- basically you're making a larger quantity of peak sourdough.

    In a big glass bowl, mix some sourdough (called "starter" in this context) with a lot of flour and water. There are different ideas about how thick it should be. Maybe a little thicker than regular sourdough, maybe a little thinner. Then the trick is timing -- knowing/controlling/detecting how long it takes to build a large and still growing yeast population. If you start with a lot of sourdough already at its peak, and the room is warm, it might take only a couple of hours. If you want to stretch it out longer (for example overnight), use a smaller amount of starter, or put it in a cooler place.

    It's not easy to tell when a sponge is done. Unless it's very stiff, it won't rise -- and if it is very stiff (see below), you don't want it to rise much. The purpose of the sponge is not to make air, but to grow a higher yeast population, and also to give it more time to transform the flour. The best way to measure your sponge is by smelling and tasting it. It should be yeasty and just a little sour. Then you want to take that population momentum and throw it into the next rising. I add a lot more flour to the sponge, but no more water, knead it into a loaf, raise it for several hours, and bake it. With commercial yeast you usually punch down the loaf and let it rise a second time, but it's very difficult to get an extra rise out of sourdough.

    Lately I've been getting better results going in the other direction, basically making a bakeable sponge, or merging the sponge and loaf into a single long rising. I put the jar of bubbly starter in a big bowl, and try to add just the right amount of flour and water so that I won't need to add any more of either. It's going to be much stiffer than a regular sponge, but probably not as stiff as bread dough, because whole wheat bread flour tends to get stiffer after soaking in water.

    Then I let it sit eight or ten hours in a cool place, a refrigerator if that's all you've got, but warmer than that is better. Room temperature is too warm! The purpose of the delay is to get the flour fully "soaked" and give the culture more time to break down antinutrients. A little bit of rising is good, but not enough for the yeast to eat up its food. Then, if I've done it exactly right, I just have to knead the dough and put it in the pan. Usually I have to add a little more flour, which is fine.

    There are endless refinements in the art of making bread dough. At the kneading stage, you can also add some salt, sweetener, oil, or flavorings. It's good to know what effect these will have on the rising and on the final texture of the bread. Then you have to know how much flour to add, and you have to develop your kneading technique. The only important thing is that you repeatedly fold the dough over on itself, while adding more flour. Depending on how good you are, you should knead for 5-20 minutes.

    One of the trickiest things to figure out is when to stop adding flour, how to tell when the dough has the right flour-water balance. Recipes from the white bread era say it's when the dough "cleans your hands," but if you're using any significant amount of whole grain, it will never clean your hands, even when it's much too stiff. If great gobs of dough are still sticking to your hands, you need to add more flour. When the dough starts to feel like it's sweating, you've added enough flour, probably just a little too much, but go ahead and use it -- it's as close to perfect as you need to get. Wet dough rises faster and has softer texture, if it doesn't collapse. Dry dough won't collapse but its texture will be more dense and powdery.

    When your dough is ready, put it in an oiled and floured loaf-shaped bread pan, or if you're really good, put it on a flat pan where it will form a nice round loaf without spreading out too much, or if you're really really good, put it on a flat floured surface from which you will somehow transfer it to your hot baking brick without collapsing it. I just use a bread pan. Now you have to get the timing right on the rising, once again looking for the point where the yeast has eaten its food and transformed the dough and made lots of bubbles, but it hasn't started declining, which will make the loaf collapse because the air bubbles are no longer being filled. It should take 3-8 hours, depending on temperature and the density of the loaf. This is the hardest step for beginners. I can't describe in words how to tell if the loaf has risen too much or not enough. The more loaves you make the better sense you'll get.

    Now you put it in a heated oven, where ideally the warmth will give the yeast one final push of expansion, and then the heat will expand the air bubbles and fix them in place in a not-too-dense loaf. I bake it at around 350 F, for 30-40 minutes. The test for doneness is to take the loaf out and tap the bottom. It should sound hollow. Happy eating!

    Sourdough Pizza. The nice thing about pizza dough is it's so flat that there's no danger of it collapsing, so you can get away with a wet dough. Otherwise it's just like regular bread. I put some olive oil in the mix, shape it and raise it in the pizza pan I'm going to cook it in, and when it's ready, just put the toppings on and bake it.

    Cinnamon Rolls. Make a large batch of bread dough (as above, wet dough is OK), and then instead of shaping it into a loaf, roll it out in a big square, maybe 8 inches by 24 inches (20x60 cm). A great trick is to use cinnamon instead of flour to roll it out. Then spread sweetener, nuts, raisins, whatever, making sure to go all the way to the edges, and roll it up left to right, so it forms a short thick cylinder. Cut it into about six pieces, and arrange them in a pan with high edges and just a little room, so when they rise they will fill the pan. Rise and bake.

    Pan bread. You can also form bread dough into round flat shapes and fry them! So if you're squatting, camping, or living in your car, and you have a propane stove but no oven, you can still have homemade bread.

    An extensive Sourdough FAQ

    Two great articles about the health advantages of naturally leavened bread over commercially yeasted bread.

    A page on the advantages of fresh stone-ground flour, with a small section on sourdough.

    The Amazon reviews of what I'm told is the best book on sourdough, Nancy Silverton's Breads from the La Brea Bakery: Recipes for the Connoisseur (9780679409076): Nancy Silverton: Books@@AMEPARAM@@ by Nancy Silverton. (I do not endorse buying from Amazon.)

    And it doesn't have much about sourdough, but my favorite nutrition site is the Weston Price foundation.

    (last updated may 2006. public domain, anti-copyright)
    skyking, chelloveck and jungatheart like this.
  2. ghrit

    ghrit Bad company Administrator Founding Member

    Looks like a candidate for the recipes thread.
  3. Tango3

    Tango3 Aimless wanderer

    Mods please feel free to move it where ever it best fits....:)
  4. ghrit

    ghrit Bad company Administrator Founding Member

    Bump. Will it work with amaranth?
    chelloveck likes this.
  5. beast

    beast backwoodsman

    nice informative post
    been a while since ive used sourdough
    should get back into it
  6. BigZ

    BigZ Monkey+++

    iMHO sourdough pancakes rock!
  7. BTPost

    BTPost Stumpy Old Fart,Deadman Walking, Snow Monkey Moderator

    Momma (alaskachick) has a SourDough start that dates back to 1933 from an old Miner here abouts in Alaska. We inherited it from the previous WinterFolks when we took over in 1991... The Bread & Hotcakes are heavenly.....
  8. chelloveck

    chelloveck Diabolus Causidicus

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