October 29, 2012

Adventures in Sourdough

I love to make bread. Everything about it. The smell of the yeast, mixing with my hands, kneading, baking, eating. Mmmm. Eating might be the best part. But nothing quite compares to the smell of freshly baked bread. 

Our 4.5 years living in the South were nearly devoid of home made bread. Our kitchen, for whatever weird (poorly built) reason, was either 45 degrees or 110 degrees. Not friendly conditions for yeasted bread. The hot times in the kitchen would have been OK for the bread, I suppose. But heat and I do not get on well. Turning on the oven when the house is already over 100? Who in their right mind would even consider such a thing? I don't claim to be in my right mind, but I certainly do not ever choose to make the heat more unbearable by increasing the temperature voluntarily. Oh-no. I have tricks for activating yeast and making dough rise in cold, drafty spaces. So I did make bread a couple times in NC. But working in a freezing kitchen where all tools and vessels were cold to the touch was not pleasant. Hence, not much bread was made.

Having fallen out of the habit of baking bread, it's taken me over a year in Ohio to attempt it again. I jumped in with both feet to a method new to me. I've never worked with a starter before now. The idea appeals to me. Essentially, a starter is a perpetual source of active yeast. You care for it and feed it and it feeds you in return. It was with great joy and anticipation I bought a portion of 35-year-old whole wheat sourdough starter (seen here) from ArtistryFarm, a local maker of goat cheese, goat milk soaps, bread, beeswax candles, and art in various media. (Coincidentally, it was through this purchase that I became a member of the cooperative Art Shop. Serendipity at work. Love it.) 
Here's the starter after feeding it (adding flour and water and allowing it to bubble and ferment) a couple of times. Look at all those lovely little pockets created by gasses. In this case gas is a good thing. Trust me.
dough after 1st rising
Not having ever worked with a starter, I turned to my bookshelf of cookbooks for guidance. I enjoyed reading Beard on Bread for the ?? time. I highly recommend it. However, I was disappointed to find only one sourdough recipe in the book. Included reluctantly, I might add. In Beard's words, "Despite my own feeling that sourdough bread is much overrated and is difficult to perfect at home, I am including one recipe in this collection because interest in the subject is so tremendous." I was all set to follow his recipe to the tee. It was not to be. Beard's recipe includes an addition of activated yeast. To my thinking, why add yeast to raise the bread when that's the job of the starter?
deflated dough before 2nd rising
Next I turned to Rose Levy Beranbaum's The Bread Bible. (There are at least 2 books with this title by different authors, Bernabaum's is the way to go.) Here we go, I thought, an entire chapter on sourdough breads! I must admit a was a little intimidated by all her talk of liquid starters versus stiff starters. Uhh, I think my starter was somewhere in between. I could have followed the directions to transform my starter to a stiff starter, as recommended, but the instructions called for throwing away most of the excess starter that the process would produce. Actually, all the instructions - from making your own starter from scratch to reviving a neglected starter - called for throwing away large amounts of the starter each time you use it to bake a loaf of bread. Sorry Rose, I can't abide that kind of wastefulness.
attempting a 3rd rise in loaf pans
To the internet I turned. Oh dear. There's a huge amount of sourdough recipes out there, no two alike. With bread making terms I don't fully understand, like sponge. Not all recipes included a sponge stage, but enough of them did that I felt I couldn't ignore it. Did I make a sponge? I'm not sure. (I can't be sure since I'm unsure what a sponge is.) After checking one last bread resource on my shelves, The Tassajara Bread Book, I ended up choosing parts of Beard's recipe and parts of a recipe on Sourdough Home.
still warm from the oven
The Sourdough Home recipe cautioned against adding too much flour. So I kneaded a very moist dough. It was a little sticky, but not bad. It didn't stick to my work surface, just a bit to my hands. Well, the final result is too moist. Go figure. But it is wonderfully sour. Which, with bakery breads I've tried, doesn't usually come through as strongly in 100% whole wheat sourdough. And the crust is nearly perfect. So, good crust, great flavor, texture of the crumb needs work. Not the best loaves of bread, but a good first attempt and bread nonetheless. And the smell. Ecstasy.

I had my usual problems with multiple risings of the dough. (I forgot about these challenges until I relived them.) The first rising goes swimmingly. The second rising is a bit sluggish. The final rising in the loaf pans is nearly non-existent. Any ideas why this happens to me every time I make bread? 

PS I forgot to share this little synchronistic gem in the last post.
I found this beauty while flipping through my box of library discards. It's from Work Simplification: Creative Thinking about Work Problems by Robert N. Lehrer © 1957. The picture is on page 280 with the caption Figure 21-5. What is the sign on your brain? (Courtesy of American Business) The volume I have is the 5th printing by Prentice-Hall, Inc. This little tome includes motion studies, diagrams for work-flow simplification, and - - wait for it - - THE Work Simplification Formula:
SWS = (PWS + tws)HF
SWS represents Successful Work Simplification
PWS represents Philosophy and Attitude of Work Simplification
tws represents Tools and Techniques of Work Simplification
HF represents Consideration of the Human Factor

Oh, Work Simplification Formula, where have you been all my life?

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