February 15, 2009

Making a Sourdough Start

Bubbly Starter

I've been baking bread for almost 20 years, but I've never attempted sourdough bread. Until now.

Let me quote a sentiment from Nancy Silverton, of the award-winning La Brea Bakery:

"There are those who will tell you that great bread takes very little time to make. They will praise the efficiency of bread machines and the wonders of fast-rising yeast. I am not one of those people. Great bread, in my opinion, does take time. Great bread is not, however, difficult to make." - Nancy Silverton's Breads from the La Brea Bakery: Recipes for the Connoisseur

Experience leads me to agree with what she says here. I'm not against bread machines or fast-rising yeast1. There are applications for both. But the best bread I have ever made was made slowly.

Another book, Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day, is the #1 cooking book at Amazon right now. There is clearly an interest in baking, but fitting it into your own lifestyle. Part of what that book (which I own and recommend) gets right is that it allows the dough to ferment in the fridge; the 5 minutes it refers to is the relatively small time investment when you're actually doing something.

But really, all bread takes more waiting time and a lot less time on task. The innovation of Artisan Bread in 5 is that the timing (when you bake) is up to you. Sourdough takes time, but it also takes a little bit of timing and planning, too. Once I've actually baked some sourdough bread, I may write about that. But my best success with bread, in flavor, has been with slower breads as those in Peter Reinhart's The Bread Baker's Apprentice: Mastering the Art of Extraordinary Bread.2

For now, I'm maintaining the starter, which is almost like having a pet. Depending on whom you ask, it has to be fed a couple to three times a day. You can store it in the fridge, and feed it once a week or so, but that retards the bacteria and makes the starter less sour. So, what to do? It doubles every time you feed it!

Here are some useful links on sourdough baking, and then a word on my own starter.

I got my starter culture from the website above - Friends of Carl Griffith's 1847 Oregon Trail Sourdough Starter. Carl is no longer with us, but a group of dedicated volunteers keep his starter culture alive and will share it with anyone who sends them a SASE (self-addressed stamped envelope). It comes dormant and dried, so you have to rehydrate it, feed it, and nurture it for a few days until it becomes active again. I'm at the active stage now, and on the threshold of my first sourdough baking experience. I'll keep you in the loop.

1. Actually, small amounts of fast-rising yeast can be used to make bread slowly!

2. The best balance between difficulty and flavor is the Low-Knead Bread I have written about in the past. I wonder if an addition of vinegar and beer to the Artisan in 5 method would result in a similar improvement in flavor. The long, long rise of some sourdough recipes is very similar to the low-knead recipe. But there is something that feels wrong about simulating sourdough when it is possible to just make real sourdough.

Posted by James at February 15, 2009 12:33 PM
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I'm going to try the starter with the five-minute recipe. I don't know if it will result in award-winning bread, but hopefully it will be as good as what I've made so far, if not better.

Someone on the Carl's Friends site has a brief (less than half-minute) video in which he prepares a nice-looking loaf of bread using the low-knead method. The first half of the video is him scraping the dough out of the bowl. The second half of the video is him slapping the dough around for about 10 seconds.

Posted by: Julie at February 15, 2009 2:24 PM

I might try that.

Posted by: James at February 15, 2009 5:13 PM

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