Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Sourdough Starter

When I lived in Italy and France, the list of foods I missed from the US was, it must be admitted, pretty paltry - good bagels, real lemonade, chocolate chip cookies, and... that was about it. Except for one food. One of my absolute all-time favorite foods and one I completely took for granted for the first ten years of my life (I was 10 when I took my first trip abroad) - good, San Francisco sourdough bread.

Up until that first trip abroad, I had no idea sourdough bread was so scarce in most parts of the world. I didn't even know sourdough was a specifically 'San Francisco' thing - it was the standard bread for me. Little did I know how much the rest of the world was suffering from a terrible terrible lack of sourdough...

As it turns out, there is actually a reason that sourdough is so easy to find in Northern California and so difficult to find everywhere else. It seems that sourdough bread arises from the combination of certain yeasts with a particular kind of bacteria (generally a type of lactobacillus, the same bacteria that feed on milk and give us wonderful things like yogurt and cheese) which loves acidic conditions, gives the bread its sour taste, and is a native of... the San Francisco area. In fact, it even has an appropriate name - lactobacillus sanfranciscensis!

For this reason, it may be harder to grow a sourdough starter in other parts of the world, but people do seem to do it, and it's certainly worth a shot. Even if you don't end up with the sourest of sourdoughs, you'll still get a nice starter which will add a lot more flavor to your bread than a simple packet of instant or active dry yeast.

To make my starter, I used the wonderfully clear instructions posted by SourdoLady on The Fresh Loaf, which is a great site for anyone who loves bread and baking.

In a nutshell, here's what I did:

First of all, I bought some nice hard wheat berries at a local foods store (because I wanted to capture local yeast). I ground them up in my coffee grinder, which took an exceedingly long time and gave my right arm its workout for the year. Then I mixed two tablespoons of the ground wheat flour with two tablespoons of freshly squeezed orange juice.

SourdoLady recommends using either orange or pineapple juice (no extra sugar added) because the acidity helps encourage the right kind of bacteria. She also says you can use rye berries or a mixture of rye and wheat, but I stuck with just plain wheat.

After mixing the flour and orange juice, I let it sit in a closed plastic container for 24 hours. Ideally you should use a glass jar that closes almost, but not fully to alow in just a little bit of air, but unfortunately I had no such jars on hand, so I had to make do with plastic, although it ended up working fine.

After 24 hours, I added another 2 tablespoons of ground wheat berries and 2 tablespoons of orange juice, stirred, and let sit. I repeated this on the third day.

The fourth day, things change. First I stirred down the mixture, measured out 1/4 cup, and threw the rest away. Then I added 1/4 cup regular whole wheat flour (I think you can use any sort of flour from here on out), and 1/4 cup tap water. Stir everything, and again, let sit for 24 hours.

I repeated the day 4 procedure for about a week and a half longer, to help the starter develop its flavor, and that was it - it was ready.

I now keep my starter just sitting on the counter, and every time I use it to make bread I save 1/4 cup, use the rest in the dough, and 'feed' the saved 1/4 cup with 1/4 cup each of flour and water as before.

If you don't bake bread often enough to be feeding your starter on a regular basis, you should probably keep it in the refrigerator which slows the yeast action. Just take it out a day or two before you plan to use it and let it sit out a few hours after feeding before putting it back in the refrigerator.

I also have a small container of 'back-up starter' which I keep in the refrigerator and plan on feeding every couple of months or so. This is just in case something happens to the main starter and it gets contaminated or otherwise damaged and I have to throw it out. This way, I don't have to start all over at the beginning if such an unlucky event should occur.

For more on sourdough, see the Wikipedia article which is quite lovely, and good luck growing your own starter!

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