23 October 2006

Loafing About

Bread-making is easy and fun.  Once you get the hang of it, you'll never willingly eat store-bought bread again.  We've been baking our own bread for (probably) a couple of years now, and yesterday was a crowning moment when we cut into a warm,Sourdough Rye Bread stuffed with Olives, Rosemary and Garlic.  So good it needs nothing else.
About a year ago we were still using bought-in dry yeast, but the price had almost doubled in less than a year, and we still had a nagging feeling of not being as self-sufficient as we could be with the whole deal.
So we learned how to make our own yeast starter and to keep it going.  As a result we nowadays eat only "sourdough" breads.  A short business trip toJohannesburg last week that reminded me just how tasteless, lightweight and unsatisfying commercial breads are.  After all, the goal of a commercial bakery is to sell you as much air as possible.
I figure I'll write a few articles on bread-making, but before we can get into some of the more interesting recipes, we need to get going with creating a sourdough starter.

Care And Feeding of Your Very Own Yeastie Beastie.

To make your very own Sourdough Starter, just bake a loaf of white, brown or rye bread, using whatever yeast the recipe recommends.  Wholewheat will do, too, but you'll end up with a lot of chaffy bits in the starter.  Note that commercially-produced wholewheat flour is but a pale and pathetic imitation of the Real Thing, having been torn apart, bleached, "fortified", purified and then put back together in some way that maximises the mill's profits.

Make a little more dough than the recipe calls for - perhaps an extra cup of flour - or just accept that your bread is going to be a little smaller than usual.  When you've finished kneading the dough, break of a lump of dough the size of your fist, or a bit bigger, and place it in a bowl.  Cover with a cloth, and leave this in a warm (not hot!) place for three or four days.  Bake the remainder of the dough into a conventional bread.
After your lump-o-dough has sat around for some days acquiring wild yeasts from the air, add a couple of cups of white-bread flour and enough warm (body-temperature) water to make a stiff batter.  This is your first starter.

You should also add a couple of tablespoons of sugar - brown sugar is better, simply because it tastes better.  Or use molasses, honey or malt-extract instead of sugar.  What you choose here will have an influence on the taste of your sourdough starter in the long term.  Sugar or molasses is sucrose; malt extract is maltose; and honey is a complex mixture of stuff.  What you use will influence which sorts of yeasties thrive in your starter, and which varieties of yeast are discriminated against.  Some yeasts prefer maltose, some sucrose, and so on.  Then, too, the kind of flour you use will also exert a small influence.

Bung this lot into the refrigerator until you're ready to bake your first sourdough loaf.  When you do bake, scoop out a couple of cups of your starter into a bowl, add two cups of flour and enough lukewarm water to make a stiff batter again.  This lot you keep for next time, and the remainder of the starter you use to make your bread.

For the first several generations your starter probably won't taste very "sour".  It takes time for the starter to acquire a distinctive yeast ecosystem.  It also means that every sourdough starter is absolutely unique.  Nobody will be able to imitate your breads!  Very, very occasionally you may get unlucky and find the starter acquiring an "off" taste.  Chuck it and start again.  Mostly this won't happen though, because you've started with a very strong yeastie population from the commercial yeast in your first starter, and these yeastie beasties will outcompete any of the unpleasant wild beasties that may stray into the mix.

After four or five generations of starter you should have a fine, distinctively sour starter, and you'll never need to buy yeast again.

People who are exceptionally more organised than we might like to try keeping several strains of starter - one lot fed on (say) malt and rye flour, another lot fed on honey and wheaten flour, and so on.  Please let us know how it turns out.

Remember and give thanks to the little yeastie beasties who leaven our bread and beer.  Without them life would be much less palatable.

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