Saturday, October 6, 2007

The Great Sourdough Throwdown

There are several definitions for the term throwdown and not all of them are pleasant. In this instance, I'm using it as a verb: "To make something happen in a big way. To perform well, brilliantly, with virtuosity." I'm not only inviting y'all to join me, I'm going to do my best to make it absolutely as easy and muss 'n' fuss free as I can. Yes, you, too, can throwdown like a champ.

Why the focus on sourdough? Well, several reasons. For one thing, it's totally versatile and, in spite of its name, is not always "sour." In fact the term "sourdough" is actually fairly recent, stemming from our Gold Rush days. In the real world, the use of wild yeast to leaven breads has gone on for thousands of years, long before anybody came up with domestic yeast.

For another, wild yeast breads are healthier and more digestible than other breads. Quoting from an article at Notebook, sourdough is number one on a list of 20 Super Foods: "Naturally fermented sourdough starters produce a tremendous amount of enzymatic activity, breaking down starch and gluten in the flour. Because of this, sourdough bread is much easier to digest." Folks with assorted allergies and similar problems can often effortlessly assimilate wild yeast breads when they can't go near any other kind.

Still another reason: the built-in Zen of getting back to basics, of really noticing fundamentals and blissing out on them. Hey, it only looks complicated if you haven't done it. I promise, sourdough bread craft is not only hugely satisfying, methods have been discovered that make it happen almost like magic. While it will take longer to develop the rise and the flavor of a loaf, the actual time you have to spend doing anything is less -- and so is the effort expended. On the other hand, that is quality time. You get to have the fun without raising a sweat.

Sourdough lends itself so totally to artisan breads that you can't help but have fun exploring the different shapes and flavors. But it's not limited just to breads. You can do your pancakes and your waffles and your muffins and -- brace yourself -- you can even make sourdough chocolate brownies!

So come on, Coffee Mates. Just for the sheer fun of it, let's explore and discover. I don't want to alarm anybody but the holidays are pressing fast upon us. Wouldn't it be neat to learn how to effortlessly whip out a few gift baskets or bags or boxes with your very own perfectly baked artisan loaves of nirvana?

The usual suspects are all gathered in the lineup for your inspection. What we have here are three sourdough starter batches. The middle one is a flour and water mixture powered by domestic yeast and, though only two days old, has already produced two loaves of delicious bread and one batch of gingerbread cake that I'd rather not discuss. (But I'll explain later.) The bowl wearing the shower cap (just kidding) was started today and is geared to gather in wild yeast. It uses the same basic flour and water combo but because the proportions are different, it's a thicker mixture than the other two. The plastic container on the right is also a wild yeast trap and decidedly non-traditional, in that it uses pineapple juice as the liquid for the first couple of phases.

A couple of things you should know about the care and feeding of your yeasty beasties: you can keep them happy in plastic or crockery or glass but don't use metal unless it's stainless steel or enameled. As for lids, make sure they're loose-fitting unless you like the excitement of having stuff blow up all over your kitchen.

While you're waiting to see evidence that you have successfully lured a colony of yeasty beasties to live with you, you can safely keep the starter out at room temperature. Atop the refrigerator is good. The air is warmer up there and the container will be out of your way as well as undisturbed. Also, once you start actually making bread with it, as long as you are using it at least once a week, you can keep it out. Otherwise, it's best to store it in the refrigerator, where it will go into semi-dormancy and you won't have to feed it as often.

The art of sourdough can be as complicated or as simple as you choose it to be. There are countless sources of good information only a Google away. Don't let the quantity overwhelm you and don't let the contradictions confuse you. Browse for the big picture and keep in mind, whether they agree with each other or not, those methods all work for somebody. Half the fun is deciding which method you want to try. Speaking of which, our first choice is the starter.

ONE: This one will have you making bread the fastest because you're going to use domestic baker's yeast. Your flour-to-water ratio is a matter of preference. I keep it equal. One cup flour and one cup warm water and one package (2 1/4 teaspoons) yeast. Mix well. Keep at room temperature. It will bubble and froth and increase in volume when the yeast starts working. Then it will drop back down and will develop a layer of clear, yellowish liquid on top. If you lift the lid and inhale, it will smell just a bit like beer. That's because your little yeasty beasties are producing alcohol in there. This is, after all, a fermentation process.

The liquid is known as hooch and this is one of those things folks disagree about. Some say to pour it off and others say to stir it back in. I'm from the "stir it back in" school. All it is, is a signal from the yeasty beasties that they've cleaned their plates and would really appreciate it if you'd feed them again. Give them some more flour and water and they'll be perfectly happy.

TWO: This is a very basic, traditional starter that follows a schedule and starts off small. If you don't see any evidence of action after a week, toss it and start again. The first day, mix together 2 tablespoons of flour and 1 1/2 tablespoons of warm water. Loosely cover the container and leave at room temperature for 24 hours. On the second day, add more flour and water, in the same amounts, then cover and set out for another 24 hours. Do the same thing each day for six or seven days. You should start seeing little bubbles by the third day but don't give up if they haven't shown up yet. By the end of the week, you'll have about a cup-and-a-half of starter which you can now transfer to a permanent container and refrigerate. Assuming, of course, that it's bubbly and active.

THREE: This one takes just a bit more fussing but nothing serious. You just have to remember to give it a stir two or three times a day but I wouldn't worry about it if you happen to forget. This time you mix 3 1/2 tablespoons of flour with 1/4 cup unsweetened pineapple juice. Cover and set aside for 48 hours but give it a stir 2 or 3 times each day. On the third day, add 2 tablespoons flour and 2 tablespoons pineapple juice. Go for another 48 hours, stirring 2 or 3 times a day again. You should start to see some activity during this phase. On the fifth day, add 5 1/4 tablespoons flour and 3 tablespoons warm water. Mix, cover and set aside for 24 hours. On the sixth day, add 1/2 cup of flour and 1/4 cup warm water. The starter should be good to go at this point. You can see an excellent video about this at Breadtopia.

Your choice of flour in any starter is up to you. Whole wheat or rye is suggested in the very beginning because they are likely to have more of the desirable yeast spores and bacteria. I really would have liked to use the whole wheat myself but I'm out, at the moment. That's okay. The all-purpose flour will do fine.

So you choose which of the above starters you want to mess with. Tomorrow I'm gonna tell you more about the hootch. How's that for a cliffhanger?


John Bailey said...

Ah! I was wondering where the yeasts came from. Hadn't thought of the starter flour. Ok... I'm persuaded. Thanks, Dee!

Jo said...

Don't forget to tell us about the gingerbread sourdough..., :-).