Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Sourdough Bread

My mother got me a pizza peel and baking stone for Christmas, and I just used it for the first time, to make a loaf of plain sourdough bread. I made my sourdough starter last summer, and have been getting better and better at making bread with it. I guess this is more of my do-it-yourself type of attitude; now I'm growing my own bread yeast!

I keep it in a Mason jar in the fridge with a plastic lid on top (sourdough supposedly doesn't like metal). Here it is when it's been recently fed and is all happy and bubbly. I used this recipe for starter. I like it because it didn't use commercial yeast, which is kind of cheating, in my opinion. I mean, if I want to use yeast from a jar, I'll just make bread the way I was doing before (and still do sometimes now, which I'll get to later). This starter is all wild yeast, that was either floating in the air, or was already on the flour. I heard somewhere that wild yeast is more adapted to live in a sourdough-type environment than commercial yeast, which makes sense.

One thing I'd like to note about that recipe, though. I had some mold issues with getting it started before I figured out you should stir it a lot, like twice a day. Otherwise I would always get mold on about the third day. I don't know why it helped, but stirring it either helped the yeast grow faster, or mixed the mold spores down into the starter where they couldn't grow as well, or both. Anyway, the trick to getting your starter started is that you want your favorable microbes (that is, yeast and lactic acid bacteria) to out-grow unfavorable ones (like mold). As time goes on they need less help from you, but the microbe balance is kind of delicate in the beginning.

The sourdough bread recipe I've had the most luck with so far is this one. I tried another recipe that didn't have milk in it and had more salt and less sugar, and it didn't work out. I think the milk and sugar help the yeast grow, while too much salt retards yeast growth. I always knead my bread in my KitchenAid stand mixer. The directions tell you to knead bread on speed 2 for 2-3 minutes. I've found it works better to do it on speed 1 for at least 10 minutes. Maybe even longer since I think I still have a problem with adequate gluten development.

I had been making this recipe in a loaf pan, which helps if your dough is underdeveloped. The sides of the pan help hold the rising dough up, while on a flat surface an underdeveloped dough just oozes out flat. Well, this time I decided to go ahead and give a round loaf a try.
Another thing I've figured out is that how you form your loaf is really important. It's hard to explain without showing you, but you need to work your ball of dough into shape properly for it to rise properly. Most instructions on how to make bread will explain how to do this. My point is that you can't skip this step! You kind of fold/roll it around to make a "skin" on the dough that holds in the bubbles of gas as it rises.
Then you have to let it rise until it's risen "enough". Again it's hard to explain. It looks and feels right when it's enough. If you poke the dough, the dimple pops back out. Under-risen dough still feels too dense, and over-risen dough kind of collapses into a pile of goo (not a pretty sight).

One of the downsides of using natural wild yeast is that the rise takes a lot longer. You usually only let it rise once, instead of with regular bread where you let it rise, punch it down and form the loaf, then let it rise again, but that one rise takes all day. It depends on temperature, but it takes something like 6-8 hours instead of two. If I didn't start my dough first thing in the morning (which also means I must have fed my starter last night right before bed) and want fresh bread by dinner, I turn to my jar of commercial yeast instead of my sourdough starter.
Another mistake I used to make is I slashed my loaves before they rose instead of after. No, it does make a difference. Slash your loves right before they go into the oven. The slashes are to let the bread poof up in the oven, not while it rises.
I needed more cornmeal on my pizza peel because it was a little hard to slide it into the oven, onto the waiting hot baking stone, but it finally went! Got a little jostled around, but not too badly.
Would have been prettier if I had bothered with an egg wash, but it still turned out well. I was sure to keep an eye on the loaf while it was baking since my oven has proven itself to be untrustworthy. I don't want more incidents like the burned fruitcake.
It's still flatter than I would have preferred, but it's not too bad. I'm certainly getting better at this bread baking thing. The texture of the finished product is getting lighter and chewier, which is what I want.

Bread made with wild sourdough starter is still different than bread made with bottled yeast, so I'm not sure if I can go quite as far as to "never use commercial yeast again!" like some sourdough aficionados say. I still manage to get lighter-textured bread with commercial yeast, though that could be due to inexperience more than being just the starter's fault. However, in addition to that, you can't use as much salt with sourdough, which I find noticable. It has a sour taste with very little salty taste. I have a nice recipe for a crusty Italian-type bread that uses nothing but flour, salt, water, olive oil, and yeast, and I just don't think a sourdough version of that would be the same. (Like I said, I tried a sourdough recipe that didn't have milk in it and had less sugar, and it didn't work out. Wouldn't rise.) I've also heard that sourdough doesn't get along with garlic or cinnamon. I would guess it's because of the antimicrobial properties of those ingredients. So better keep the jar of commercial yeast if I want to make cinnamon buns.

On the other hand, I finally found some rye flour, and am really looking forward to trying to make some sourdough rye. I think the sour taste would go really well with the rye taste, and I have centuries of European tradition to back me up.

Anyway, now that I know my baking stone works, the next bread recipe I'm going to try is this Harvest Squash Bread, which I found while looking for a squash bread that wasn't a sweet quickbread to use up some of my squash. I'm going to use some of my sourdough starter instead of the sponge they use in the recipe, and of course some of my pureed cushaw squash instead of the roasted acorn squash they use.

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