Monday, March 28, 2011

Cracking The Sourdough Mystery

When it comes to bread baking, sourdough is one of those mystical realms that has always fascinated me.  I'd heard talk of wild yeasts and bacteria cavorting.... whispers of 'getting someone to give you a bit of theirs...' (know anyone who has any? Me either.) ...Of feeding the culture regularly with any manner of foodstuffs, but I was never sure exactly what was involved.  The whole world of sourdough baking seemed shrouded in secrecy and enigma.

So I decided to do some reading and discovered some really simple instructions and explanations on this website. So simple, infact, that it inspired me to begin my starter right there and then.

Simply by mixing equal amounts of plain flour and warm water in a container and leaving it to sit at room temperature on my kitchen bench, feeding it every 24 hours, for a week or so made a sour yeasty smelling bubbly starter that I actually began to think of as a new member of our family.

One very slight hiccup was that at the end of the first week, we were scheduled to go interstate for the weekend. I had organized child minding and someone to feed the goldfish, but neglected to organize feeding of the sourdough culture! When I returned, and lifted the lid, I was nearly knocked over by the fumes smelling of acetone. That's correct.... acetone! My neglected, unloved yeast had responded to it's mothers absence by throwing a tantrum and produced nail polish remover.

I managed this as I do in any first world, modern day crisis. I headed straight to google to find answers. And sure enough, I discovered when yeast that has used up all of  it's food, becomes stressed, or if the wrong microbes take over, it starts to produce acetone.

After a bit more, very regular feeding, this condition seemed to correct itself and the starter went on to produce a fabulous loaf of bread, with the appropriate amount of lightness and crispy crust. The webpage that gave me even more easy to understand advice is found here.

The thing that I really love about baking bread is that it combines science, art and cooking into something so lovely that you can share and that everyone gets so much enjoyment from consuming. When you bake with any kind of yeast, you are actually dealing with a living ecosystem. A living, breathing, reproducing piece of biology that changes and develops. It's quite magical and I personally get such a kick out of it. I find it endlessly rewarding and I only wish I had more time to experiment and develop my skills. Making something great out of next to nothing is a truly satisfying venture.

But on to.....

Recipe for the starter

1cup plain flour

1cup warm water

Mix together in a clean container with a lid to cover. Every 24 hrs, discard half and replace with half a cup plain flour and half a cup of warm water. I used mine after about 2weeks but I have read that you can use it as soon as it shows signs of life ie bubbling, a yeasty smell and increasing volume.

Combine 500gm strong flour with enough starter to form a dough. If you have a mixer with a dough hook it makes this first step much easier, but you will still have to kneed the dough by hand for a bit. Kneed until dough becomes elastic and silky on the surface.

Cover with plastic and place in a warm spot until dough doubles in size. 

Knock air out of risen dough. At this point you can replace in warm area to rise a second time or you can skip the second proving and go ahead to form into desired shape or place in loaf tin.

Allow loaf to rise again and bake in hot oven until golden. I brushed my uncooked loaf with milk and sprinkled it with some fine polenta for some extra crunch and texture.

If you have ever tried baking yeast products before, be prepared for the rising process to take longer than using manufactured yeasts. This type of baking takes some patience but, like any slow cooking, will be well worth it in the end.

A quick word before I sign off.....

I did some baking for my childrens school fete this weekend (for my non Australian readers, this is a fundraising festival which usually includes homemade goods). I made more than 150 of  my very popular brownies as my contribution, and was so pleased that every last one sold! I have never actually sold anything I have cooked before so needless to say, it was very satisfying to see total strangers appreciating my efforts. I should declare that several of my friends showed up and bought their share too. Fantastic encouragement from my friends and I thank all of them for their appreciation and support for our school.

You can find the recipe for my brownies here.

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