Thursday, February 9, 2012

Thanksgiving - Sourdough

Simple sourdough bread and
converted recipe crescents.
       Did the Pilgrims bring sourdough with them on the Mayflower? Probably not. From what I have read, food was desperately short during that voyage and I expect that any available  flour was used for immediate consumption. You may recall from an earlier post that the ship had only an open metal container for holding a fire and the weather was so poor during the later part of the trip that a fire was too dangerous to risk, so the only bread on the ship was hardtack. Even these hard, dry biscuits were reportedly inedible weeks before landfall. Because their November landfall coincided with the onset of a frigid New England winter, they would have had no opportunity to catch wild yeast and if they somehow had managed this trick, they would, again, have had no flour to fed it. There was, of course, no grocery store nearby, or even an accommodating neighbor to borrow from. The Pilgrims' first-year wheat crop failed so it is unlikely that the Pilgrims had sourdough bread for that first Thanksgiving
       For years I have been intimidated at the thought of using a sourdough starter, but now I wonder why. Settlers carried starters with them across the continent in covered wagons, for Pete's sack, without benefit of refrigeration, subjected to freezing, without coddling of any kind. And it survived. You can find stories about starters that are a hundred years old or more. Even prospectors in Alaska used sourdough starter. They reportedly carried it in a jar under their clothing so the yeast could "work," which it cannot when frozen, though freezing does not kill yeast. (I store opened packages of yeast in the freezer.) Most directions I find say to refrigerate the starter after it is frothing nicely, but others claim that a starter will keep indefinitely as long as it is renewed on a weekly basis.
       You may wonder why anyone would bother with starters when yeast is so readily available. For starters (plays on words are always intended), there's the flavor. If that isn't enough to get you going, consider the health benefits attributed to sourdough bread, particularly whole wheat sourdough bread. It reportedly will help you lose weight, reduce the risk of coronary heart disease, helps with digestive concerns, stroke, type 2 diabetes and digestive cancers, improves elimination and lowers cholesterol. I read somewhere that whole wheat sourdough bread is pound for pound the most nutritious bread you can get. Then again, being able to make leavened bread without yeast could prove useful if the zombie hordes ever make it to your neighborhood.
       Why make your own bread at all? Reading the list of ingredients on a commercial loaf answers this in part, but what that list does not say is that some commercial breads are produced in as little as forty minutes from raw ingredients to finished loaf. The nutrition in breads develops during the time the dough is rising. When in that forty minutes is there time for this? I can make a bath of yeast bread in four hours start to finish. Converting that same recipe to using sourdough starter, the time may extend to twenty-four hours or even more! Don't be put off by this! The task is not labor intensive!
       Unless you also grind all the grain by hand. But we won't go into that here. See yesterday's post about a multigrain sourdough bread recipe. This was an experiment that worked. How can you know if an experiment will work unless you try it? You could simply follow blogs like this one or surf the net for information, but that doesn't put bread on your table. Here are a few recipes that may help you do that. These are not written in stone. My feelings will not be hurt if you want to use a recipe you find elsewhere.
                                                   Dried Yeast Starter
1 package (2 1/4 teaspoons or .25 oz) active dried yeast
2 cups unbleached white flour
1 1/2 cups warm water (105 to 115 degrees, NOT hotter)
1 tablespoon honey

or                                            Whole Wheat Starter
1 package active dried yeast
1 cup whole wheat flour
1 cup warm water
1 tablespoon sugar

For both recipes: Mix the ingredients in a non-metal container that will contain as much as three times the original bulk of ingredients. Cover loosely and leave it in a warm place to bubble and ferment. If you seal the container as with a jar and screw-on lid, you could wind up with a broken jar. Bubbles should start to form soon afterwards, but it takes time for the process to work through the entire mixture, perhaps twenty-four hours. By this time, the starter should have developed the characteristic sour smell. You can stir it down at this point and refrigerate it, or keep it at room temperature as I'm doing.
       One source noted that when using the starter, it doesn't start working after refrigeration until it has reached room temperature. This one place was the only place this caution was given, but it still seems worth consideration.
       Each time you use some of your starter, you will need to replace approximately what you took out. For instance, if you use a cup of starter, mix a cup of flour and about a cup of water back into the starter. Always leave at least a couple of tablespoons of the original starter to get the new stuff going. If your recipe calls for more starter than you have available, make more by adding equal quantities of flour and water and giving the starter time to develop again. If a week goes by and you haven't used any starter, feed it by adding equal parts of flour and water. If you fear your starter has lost its strength, save a little and start it again with a mix of flour and water. Keep in mind that a temperature of 95 degrees will kill the yeast.
       Don't be afraid of this stuff! Experiment. Have fun.
       There are a multitude of sourdough recipes on line so I'm not going to give you any here, but....
       You may want to convert some of your favorite recipes to sourdough use.
       If your yeast recipe calls for less than six cups of flour, replace the yeast with about 1/4 cup starter. If the recipe uses more than six cups, go with about 1/2 cup starter. Mix the starter with some of the flour and water from your recipe. Remember to recalculate the amount of flour and liquid you will need to add later. The 1/4 cup starter will replace about 1/4 cup flour from the recipe and a little less than 1/4 cup liquid. For a baking powder recipe use up to a cup of starter even for recipes using only two or three cups of flour.
       Let your starter, flour, and liquid mixture work for 4 to 24 hours. How long it works before you use it determines the degree of sourness in your finished bread. When you are ready to bake, follow your recipe. I suggest you try some sourdough recipes before you try this conversion. You'll have a better idea of how best to mix things. For instance, you may want to warm the liquid and mix in your sugar, salt, oil, etc., before adding it all at once to the flour mixture. Be sure to let the liquid cool to room temperature before adding it!
       Baking with sourdough starter requires more time than regular yeast baking. If you plan to serve crescents tomorrow night, you may need to start them the night before. My yeast breads normally have a last minutes burst of rising after I put them in the over, often "springing" a couple of inches. This doesn't happen with sourdough. Allow your dough to rise to very close to the desired level before it goes in the oven. Don't be discouraged if you don't see significant rising for far too long. My crescents looked like a flop, but they did rise in the oven, breaking the rule I gave you two sentences ago. So....
       Experiment. Have fun. Yes, I know, I said that already, but it's worth repeating. Remember too, that I'm still at the experimental stage with sourdough, and much of what I've written here is book learning, not experience. Please share with me your own successes and lessons learned.


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