- Written by Maria McDonald
Adventures with Sourdough…
Has anyone ever tried making sourdough bread? Like from scratch? Like even the starter from scratch? Without using yeast?
Well, it’s a lot harder than it looks! I’m starting to think it’s a skill in a class of its own entirely!
I’ve always wanted to try making sourdough bread, but I kept pushing it off till we moved to the farm because I wasn’t sure I could make the starter with our chlorinated town water. (in the meantime I read on a website that apparently it does work with chlorinated water, but I still somehow doubt it would have worked for me!) And so, now that we are out at the farm and…yes…it still is winter, why not finally give the sourdough a go. So I do some research and am even lucky enough to stumble over a book all about bread including lots about sourdough!
I think I am finally ready. I find an appropriate container (a 4 cup Purex measuring dish) and flip open my book. I follow the recipe exactly: mix ½ cup freshly ground whole wheat flour (mine was not freshly ground but I keep it in the freezer so I hoped that….
(small side note: remember the last blog I wrote about how all my blogs now get written in sessions? Well, up until now I had to give the rice a stir that I’ve got cooking on the stove for supper-5minutes-run upstairs and put Emma back to bed-20minutes-wait for my computer to stop goofing around-15minutes. I know, I know, a lot of you non-rookie moms will just be smiling and saying ‘welcome to the club’ but once in a while I’m still adjusting to the new way of things!)
…now where was I…Oh, yes, freshly ground whole wheat flour! Ok mix the freshly ground flour that’s actually not freshly ground but been in the freezer with 1 tbsp milk and 2 tbsp water. I’m a little leery about mixing milk with flour intending to let it ferment, especially pasteurized milk but, oh well, I don’t have any raw milk so here goes. It’s supposed to be a firm dough and a firm dough it is; about the size of a baby’s fist, a small little lump of a thing and I don’t know what I was thinking but somehow it wasn’t this. Usually when I cook I have some idea of how things are supposed to look as it progresses but with this little chuck of flour, water, and milk (oh my!) I have no idea. It says to cover with a damp cloth and put in a warm spot. I wet a dish cloth, cover, and leave it sitting on the counter. Now leave it for 2 days. Okey-dokey!
…two days later…
Ok, time for the next step. My little dough lump looks a bit off, it’s got a brownish crust on the outside and didn’t really change at all in size. The recipe says:
“Pull off hardened crust and discard” (Oh, so the crust is fine!) “Scoop out the moist centre that is about the size of a hazelnut and should be aerated and sweet smelling and place in a clean bowl” Then you are supposed to mix in more water and flour, cover it with plastic wrap this time and leave for another 2 days.
Well my little aspiring sourdough-starter-lump did not seem aerated at all and I don’t know what the definition of ‘sweet smelling’ is exactly but mine smelled a whole lot more like a rotten egg than anything I would define as ‘sweet’ but then how would you describe the smell of a rotten egg without using the words ‘rotten’ and ‘egg’... maybe sweet? Or maybe sickly sweet?
Anyways, here I stand, toss it? Or mix in more flour? It sure seems to stink. Maybe it’s the milk? Maybe it’s the bacteria in the dish cloth? Maybe it’s supposed to smell like this? Well, better safe than sorry so I chuck it and start over.
This time my little dough ball is a teensy tiny bit softer but by all means still firm. And instead of putting it on the counter, I put it in a drawer that’s just above the heat register so it should be good and warm in there. I also debate if I should put milk in at all but my new book says that the flavor of the bread depends greatly on the ingredients you use to start it, and I wanted to do the San Francisco Sour Dough so I better follow the recipe and put the milk in. I debate if I should use a wet dishcloth again or maybe just plastic wrap right away and again I decide to follow the recipe and do the dishcloth.
A day later, my little lump… doubled in size! What?! My dishcloth has dried out and instead of wetting it I just put plastic wrap on right away. I put it back in the drawer for another day, but it doesn’t change much till day two. Once again I pull off the crust and proceed to scoop out the soft insides which this time is very aerated! But…it still stinks! What to do? Well, this time I decide to mix in more flour and water and see what happens. Back in the drawer it goes and we wait again.
Two days later I have a huge bubbling mass! I’m so excited! I pull off the plastic wrap and give it a cautious sniff…and the smell has changed! No more rotten egg, now it’s distinctly sour smelling; a good kind of sour. So I go to mix in more flour and water, all excited that it seems like I’m well on my way to getting my very own sourdough starter. But sourdough starters are one of those things that you shouldn’t count before they’re ‘hatched’…I open my cupboard where the flour is supposed to be and discover that the bag is empty! Really?! No one to blame but me. I can’t believe it. What to do?
The problem is that at this stage I need white flour.
I’ll try to explain the way I understood it…in the beginning you use whole wheat flour, preferable organic and freshly ground because there is a large array of different bacteria on that kind of flour including the kind that we need to make sourdough. Then when you add the water and sometimes other ingredients the different bacteria try to take over the starter and the way it’s supposed to work is that eventually the good bacteria (the kind that will make bubbles and a good taste) will overpower the bad bacteria (the kind that doesn’t smell so good and/or does all sorts of other stuff we don’t want in starter or our bread). So then once you realize that the good bacteria has the upper hand so to speak, you want to add unbleached white flour, because that kind of flour has less bacteria in general and it will be easier for the good bacteria in the starter to make sure that it stays in control than if you added a bunch more bad bacteria with a new batch of whole wheat flour.
And that’s where I screwed up. I ran out of unbleached flour. And the store in town only has regular bleached flour and I think the reason you’re not supposed to use that is because bleached flour is pretty dead…too dead to properly support sourdough bacteria. So I put my newborn starter in the fridge and hoped that it would still be good by the time I found some unbleached flour.
In any case, if I hadn’t run out of unbleached flour…you continue to feed your new starter very often (basically what you are doing is feeding good bacteria) and the older the starter is the stronger and more stable the good bacteria are which means you will get more consistent bread and you don’t have to worry as much about some other bacteria taking over. Apparently you are not even supposed to use starter that is less than a week old, and I know that there is starters out there that are years old, can you imagine that?!
But all this is still very theoretical for me, as I haven’t reached that level yet. I’m still somewhere right in the beginning with my rotten egg smelling whole wheat starter lump. (by the time I did get the unbleached flour, the stuff in the fridge was ripe for the trash and I decided to start over) Which by the way I am about to attempt for the FOURTH time as the third time I tried it the dough was too soft and it just turned into a weird mass that had not ‘crust-free’ centre.
So like I said…definitely and art AND these adventures are to be continued! I still have to successfully manage the whole feeding bit and then, months later, maybe I’ll get BREAD!
If anybody has any sourdough tips, send them my way!