Where The Wild Things Are

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Sour Dough Starters From Home

Something about winter calls out the baker in many of us. When my kids were little, we spent many rainy winter days making and baking, not just sweet treats but bagels, soft pretzels, and all kinds of bread. In these low-carb, gluten-free days, bread divides us into very different dietary camps but I don’t know anybody who doesn’t love the enticing scent of baking bread.

After several years of developing recipes that my long-suffering son could eat without repercussion, we’ve been set blissfully free by his rebounding health and well being (for which I am enormously grateful). I’ve also rediscovered my own deep delight in making bread, a tactile, visual and olfactory experience that culminates in marvelous medleys of taste and texture. Even in childhood, when asked what one food I’d take to a desert island, I’d always choose bread (and a book, since we clearly don’t live by bread alone).

Celebrating Resilience

Sourdoughs rank among the most forgiving of bread recipes, easily mastered by beginners and needing only minor weekly tending to stay alive. Back in the day, Western gold miners slept with their sour dough starters to keep them from freezing in deep winter, since they relied on lively starters for everything from flap jacks and doughnuts to hot rolls as well as their daily bread. We no longer need to take our starters to bed: Unless night temperatures in your home plunge into the freezing range, sourdough starter can live happily on the counter if you use it daily, or in the fridge if you only use it once or twice a week.

There’s also no need to buy packaged starter, since even the very cleanest home in the world hosts plenty of wild yeasts. To invite these wild things to come to work with you, simply mix a cup of water and a cup of flour, cover the bowl with cheesecloth to keep our fruit flies, dust and etc., and let nature happen. Within a day or so, your mixture will be light and bubbly and ready to use. You can always beg a little starter off a friend, but any starter you import will quickly be taken over by your own local strain of yeasts. Similarly, if you get impatient, you can stir in a little baker’s yeast to gets things going. Either way, within 24 hours, your starter will be your very own.

As Local As It Comes

That local strain will vary in flavor and quality, so in some regions, that initial capture may take a day or two longer. For whatever reason, it seems most effective to make your capture starter with unbleached white flour. After you get your first batch to work, you can keep it going by feeding with whole wheat flour or whatever you want. I’ve made wonderful all-rye starters as well but they usually require several days (and a small onion) to build up enough yeasts to make them workable.

It is possible to fail with sourdough, as with anything else. The main reason for failure is neglect: To keep a starter healthy, the old use-it-or-lose-it rule definitely applies. Starter used daily or several times a week can live on the counter and be refreshed with small frequent feedings through each day. Starter that lives in the fridge needs to come out, be poured into a bowl and brought up to room temperature, be fed and aerated, then allowed at least an hour of freedom in which to work before some is removed for use and the rest poured back into a jar and returned to Siberia. That process takes a while but active work time is under five minutes.

Why Bother?

Requiring only a modest amount of care, sourdough isn’t finicky to work with and the end product can be outstanding even if you aren’t a passionate or persistent kneader. Sourdough adds a delightful tartness to waffles and pancakes and can become crusty, rustic rounds or sliceable sandwich loaves as well as light-as-air dinner rolls. Sourdough toast is crisp of crust and a little chewy, with the slight give that’s a hallmark of great artisan breads. Perhaps best of all, sourdough breads are slow to stale, a bonus for small households where an ordinary loaf can outlast its goodness.

Here are a few of my current favorite recipes to start you off on your own sourdough adventures. I hope they bring you much pleasure, both in the baking and in the eating!

Sourdough Starter

1 cup tap water
1 cup unbleached white flour
Fine cheesecloth

In a bowl, blend flour and water, incorporating as much air as possible, Cover bowl with cheesecloth and let stand for 12-24 hours, stirring vigorously every few hours or when you think of it. When ready to use, add more flour and water in equal amounts and let work for an hour before removing some for use and storing at least a cupful in a sealed glass jar (lid only lightly screwed down) in the refrigerator for up to a week. Refresh as outlined above, feeding with 1 cup each of flour and water each time.

Basic Sourdough Recipes

Once you make a few successful loaves, you will probably want to branch out and try some variations: Orange peel bread? Walnut and dried tart cherry bread? Garlic and hazelnut bread? Caramelized onion rolls (like savory cinnamon rolls)… I do suggest that you start by using bread flour as suggested, since it gives the dough a lot of structure and reduces the need for kneading. If you are a robust kneader, use whatever flours you want and knead each loaf for 5-6 minutes before the second rise.

My hands and wrists have never really been the same after a pair of hand surgeries some years back so I am a huge fan of a gentle kneading technique called ‘stretch and fold’, which is pretty much what it sounds like. With this technique, you stir the ingredients together and let them sit in a warm place (I use the oven with the light on) for 45-60 minutes, then do the stretching and folding until the dough firms up (usually a couple of minutes). Repeat the relaxing and folding routine 1-2 times or until the dough feels bouncy and elastic. When it does, butter your bread pan, shape your loaf, let it rise until almost double (30-45 minutes or more). When the loaf is barely cresting the top of the pan, take it out of the oven and preheat to 350 degrees F.  Bake the bread to an interior temperature of 180 degrees F. (40-45 minutes, usually). Put the pan on a cooling rack for 5 minutes, then remove bread from pan and cover with a cloth. For the best results, let bread cool on the rack before slicing if you can stand to wait.

Sourdough Sandwich Loaf

1-1/2 cups sourdough starter
1/2 cup water
1 teaspoon sea salt
2 cups bread flour plus a little more for shaping
1 teaspoon butter or oil for baking pan

In a large mixing bowl, combine starter, water, salt and 2 cups flour, cover bowl and place in a warm spot to rise. See above paragraph for details…

Sourdough Cinnamon Bread

as above plus:
2-3 tablespoons butter at room temperature
2-3 tablespoons brown sugar
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 cup raisins, soaked in 1 tbsp boiling water (optional)

As above until final shaping: roll dough into a 12 x 14 inch rectangle. Blend butter, brown sugar and cinnamon and spread over bread, leaving a 1-inch border all around. Sprinkle with raisins (is using) and roll up into a loaf, pinching ends and bottom gently to seal. Bake as above.

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2 Responses to Where The Wild Things Are

  1. Shannon says:

    Thank you, Ann! The best waffles are always sourdough…and although I lose mine from time to time, you’ve given me the recipe to start up again with yeasts (bacteria) from my own environment. XO

    • Ann Lovejoy says:

      Hi Shannon, yes, the home made starter works just great, especially of you can remember to feed it often. We all need encouragement, right?

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