Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Things I Have Learned: Sourdough Starter

Okay, so you asked for it. :) Among my many yarn and fiber journeys is the journey to eat healthier and at home when possible. I know that many of you out there have started down this path too, given the overwhelming buzz about what we eat and the detrimental effects it has on our bodies. As a poor grad student for many years, and living with another poor grad student, we grew accustomed to comparing the cost per quantity of food so we could get the biggest bang for our buck. When there wasn't time to cook, we often hit the $5 footlong subs from Subway and other similar deals around our campus area. When we did cook, we picked food/recipes to be less than $5 per person per meal...otherwise it was cheaper to eat out. It was a constant struggle to eat well, and we did, but I fear that our 'eating healthy' amounted to more money in the toilet than in our bodies. In other words, we ate a lot of low fat/fat free foods which were full of empty calories, and I remember feeling so hungry not long after eating these foods.

Fast forward a year and a half, and now I make most of our meals with organic ingredients, we drink whole milk, and I never get those ridiculous hunger pangs right after eating like I used to. Being in Korea and not having access to many of the foods we're used to has forced me to look to the internet to learn how to make many foods from scratch. At one time, I remember making butter by accident while whipping up some cream for a homemade dessert and thinking that it was so cute because it reminded me of making butter in grade school. Now I make butter every other month or so by shaking up cream in a jar for 30 minutes. I have done it so many times now that I can describe each stage the cream goes through as it changes, and that slightly warm cream forms butter faster than cold cream. I even make homemade sour cream which takes about two days to sour.

But each of these recipes is a result of the need to have certain ingredients to fit our western palettes. Don't get me wrong, we love Korean food (and we like ethnic food in general). We just want a taste of home, and getting these ingredients is either difficult or impossible. And while we have enjoyed my homemade items, including fresh bread, I still craved the taste of fermented foods. Some foods are harder to make from scratch, like kombucha (but I may have found a source of scoby patties) and sauerkraut, but sourdough is a bit easier. Plus, there are tons of recipes for sourdough X: sourdough muffins, sourdough biscuits, sourdough pizza crust, etc., in addition to sourdough bread.

I first attempted to make a sourdough starter about 6 months ago, and it failed miserably. I was following this recipe to get it going. It didn't take, and I was a bit disheartened. After all of the holiday cooking I did, I didn't feel like pursuing anymore 'new' recipes. At around the start of April, I decided to give it a go again. I wasn't going to let defeat keep me from trying again. I followed the directions precisely, and the little scientist in my head yelled at me. Why? It's silly to perform the exact same steps of an experiment and hope for different results. In the world of baking, the ingredients matter--something I learned a week into my little kitchen experiment. Perhaps a new batch of flour was key...

First, I didn't quite follow the directions of the recipe I used. I didn't have any rye flour on hand, and I didn't want to wait another week for some to arrive from iHerb. So, I mixed up 50g of water with 50g of white flour. The next day it didn't look like it was doing anything, but I fed it anyway. I fed it for 3 whole days (doing it twice a day after day 1), and it still refused to look alive and smelled like a wet dog. Eww. Now, if you don't know me personally, you aren't aware that I have to smell everything. Everything. In how many of my videos have I told you to touch and smell the wool? The nose is an incredible organ. By day 5, the starter took on a horrible smell: acetone. It had started bubbling a bit, but it smelled awful. And completely unappetizing. Two days later, the smell hadn't improved. I whined on facebook for some help, and I got some great advice for better ways to start a starter. I was already 1 week into my adventure, and I didn't want to give up, so I did the unthinkable: I added whole wheat.

Adding in the proper yeast food made complete sense, and I can't believe this hadn't occurred to me before this point. I've been baking bread for many years now, and I generally know what bread needs to get it the way I want it. The water/flour mixture is the proper feeding ground for the natural wheat yeast to thrive..but it helps considerably to have a proper 3-course meal for the little guys (and gals). After one feeding, the acetone smell had nearly dissipated, and the bubbling was a bit more vigorous. Yay! I did it! Now came the hard part.

Sourdough flavors don't develop overnight, which leads me to the next ingredient: time. Sourdough starters can be little beasts when it comes to being fed at the right times. For this one, if I fed it too early, it wouldn't bubble much at all before the next feeding, which was 12 hours later. If I fed it too late, it would go from being super bubbly to a bubble wasteland in about an hour. One time I forgot to feed it and it practically wept--it had the consistency of thick potato soup without bubbles. The recipe I followed suggested that it might take 30 days for the mature sourdough flavors to develop and for it to be stable enough to store in the fridge. Let's just say that I was glad when I was able to recently put the thing in the fridge as it meant I was no longer tied down to the kitchen!

When you feed a starter like this one, you produce a lot of starter which can be used for recipes. So, I began making a million muffins of all varieties. Plus a loaf or two of sourdough bread each week. Here is the muffin recipe I ended up using:

Sourdough Muffins:

1 egg
1/4 t salt
1 cup sourdough starter (260g)
1 t baking soda
1/2 cup fruit (blueberries, cranberries, dates, etc.)
1 t vanilla extract
1/4 cup oil
1 cup whole wheat flour
1/4 cup sugar

Preheat oven to 425F (220C). Combine dry ingredients and wet ingredients separately. Incorporate the dry into the wet quickly. It should be lumpy and resemble thick pancake batter. Grease (and flour) muffin tins. Spoon in mixture. 2/3 full for rounded muffin tops, completely full for muffin tops which spill over and create poofy muffins. Bake for 20 minutes. Cool for 10 minutes, then eat about 3 of these.

I decided at this point to start looking for recipes for other types of breads: sweet ones, savory ones, griddle baked, and oven baked. It turns out that I don't know much about what 'real' bread bakers know. A word kept coming up, levain, and I had no clue what that was. I also saw a lot of recipes talking about 100% or 80% hydration, with a breakdown of the recipe by wet and dry ingredients and what their hydration level is. Huh? Okay, so these bakers really know how to bake bread! Knowing the hydration level of your starter is key to substituting your starter in a recipe for which the starter called for might be of a different hydration level than yours. Basically, if you know the ratio of wet to dry ingredients in your starter, you can adjust any bread recipe to accommodate a sourdough starter instead of the water + yeast method.

I'm not there yet. In fact, after 5 weeks of diligently feeding my starter twice a day and making (and eating) more muffins than I care to admit, I was happy to put it in the fridge for a while. I worked very hard to prevent any waste, so after the first week, I was using the throw away portion of the starter for my muffin and bread recipes. Each day, I made 6 huge muffins and on every 3rd day or so, I made a loaf of bread. I will experiment with using my starter with other bread recipes, but for now, I'm happy to have 'me' time again. I'll also remember to take some pictures, since I keep forgetting to do that. Now I have a bunch of baby seeds to look after, and my kitchen counter is covered in tiny green babies.