Life's too short to eat bad food - Me

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic - Arthur C. Clarke

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Confessions Of A Serial Starter Abuser

May it please the Court, I admit it freely - I abuse my sourdough starter on a regular and consistent basis. I do so by ignoring the advice of most of the experts I respect and admire. I do so with willful disregard for their words . My only defense it that it works - regularly. And, if I may offer Your Honor an extenuating circumstance, the fraking Sourdoughs of the Gold Rush kept their sourdough alive in cold weather by placing the starter under their clothes near their unwashed bodies. This isn't rocket surgery people.

So, why do I raise it now? The Jewish Holiday of Passover is upon us and so my mind is upon yeast. Or rather the lack thereof. You see, while it probably occurred much earlier in history, the first archaeological evidence of yeast fermented dough comes from Egypt. At some point somebody realized that if you mix flour and water together, and let it sit for a few days, it to begins to bubble. When baked the dough cooks up much lighter and tastier. If you kept some of that first batch and added it to the next, it was ready sooner. You can get the details of this from far better sources than me.

The bottom line is that when my Israelite ancestors were fleeing from Egypt, they didn't have time for this biological miracle to occur. Thus, I have been condemned to most of the past week lunching on things that can be spread on a matzoh or stuffed into the dreaded Matzoh Meal Bagel aka the Horta.

If you want a brief overview of sourdough bread, I'd recommend this article in Culinate by Hank Sawtelle. For a more detailed discussion I'd try Mike Avery's excellent site.

On to my sourdough. There are two gripes one hears about sourdough: 1) some folks don't like the taste, and 2) there is so much waste in maintaining a starter. Unless you bake bread on a daily basis, you will be throwing a lot of flour down the drain.

I avoid this by keeping about 1/2 cup of starter in the freezer (with a backup that I dehydrated and stored). Nothing wrong with this - I keep my yeast there as well. It sleeps, rather than dies, in the cold. When I am going to make a sourdough bread, I pull it out and thaw it. When it is thawed, I transfer it to a clean plastic container. I add some warm water, and stir in some flour. I scrape down the sides, cover the bowl with one of those hotel shower caps and put it up on the top of the fridge.

That's my first sin. I know there is an arcane formula for refreshing a starter, but I don't care. I thin it down with water, and then add flour 'til it gets that to that thick batter state I want. Sin two - I don't follow a regular feeding schedule, several times a day style. Once a day, when I remember, it gets the same treatment, some water, some flour, a stir and a scrape - done.

 By the first day it's bubbling away. The great Peter Reinhart sees "thousands of yeast cells eating and then burping." Wrong. They are farting, not burping. Farting carbon dioxide and alcohol. After two days, the starter is up and running. Heavy bubbling and a layer of the well named "hooch" on top (it is alcohol - a relative of kvass). It is now ready to be prepared as a straight sourdough starter "liquid or stiff". It can be transformed into a rye starter, a whole wheat starter - heck any kind of starter.

As my friend Bob delGrosso pointed out, you can even use it to start vinegar! What you are seeing to the right, is the active starter, the firm starter and the firm starter the next day - ready to be incorporated into bread.

The bottom line is that this is the simple result of the combination of three things: water, flour and yeast. I happen to think that most people overthink this, and come up with unnecessary rules. If you mix the flour and water the rest happens by nature.

So let's examine the advice I ignore.

Water: Filtered water, spring water, bottled water, distilled water - the point seems to be that chlorinated water may interfere with the propagation of yeast. Feh. I have done dozens of starters using only Chateau Erie County Water Authority. If you live in a place like Phoenix, where the water tastes like it came right from the toilet, by all mean choose another source of water, but for most of us the tap is just fine.

Flour: Most experts call for unbleached bread flour. I think the idea of bleaching flour is silly, but I get 50 pounds of bleached bread flour for $16, and 25 pounds of all purpose for $6.30. Even store brand flours cannot compete with that price. But, bleached or unbleached, all purpose or bread flour, you can get and a maintain a starter with any of them.

Yeast: here is the real bone of contention, and a discussion that I think is ultimately irrelevant. When you start a starter, where does the yeast come from? The flour? The air? Grapes or some other vegetable? Bakers yeast. Mike Avery says its the flour, period, and that using other things like grapes is the "wrong" yeast. . Peter Reinhart notes that yeast spores are everywhere. Look. There is one there. And another. And one more. . . Bob delGrosso thinks the initial yeast comes from the flour, but more importantly he notes that it's a silly thing to think that only one strain of yeast is present in or on a particular substance.

I think it is all moot.

I have made starters by just about every method except using a purchased starter - more about that later. I have made starters with just rye or whole wheat flour. I have done it with all-purpose flour. My regular starter is the descendant of one done with grapes a la Nancy Silverton. I have started one with commercial yeast. Yes, I know the pH of sourdough starter is inhospitable to bakers yeast, but for me it seems to jumpstart the process, and when the pH lowers, other yeasts take over.

That leads me to my theory. To quote Ms. Ann Elk of Monty Python fame it is "my theory, which belongs to me, is mine." I don't think it matters how you start the starter. I do think that once it is up and running, the yeast microflora that take control is what is roaming around your house and is used to your particular environment. That's my gripe with purchased starters - a) they are free if you do it yourself, and more importantly b) that San Francisco or French Starter you paid $10 for, if maintained, will become a {insert your location here} starter. My proof? Harold McGee:

Eventually, the "mother dough" or "starter" would come to be dominated by the microflora characteristic of the local area: contamination by airborne spores would dilute the initial yeast population.

You want to fight with McGee?

So don't sweat it. If an Egyptian peasant or an illiterate gold miner can make it work, so can you. And it's worth it!


Bob del Grosso said...

Yesterday I put a chunk of uneaten pretzel in the jar of starter that I keep on my countertop. Also in there are old grapes, rye flour, flour that was left over from dredging chicken. The yeast doesn't care where it's sugar and starch comes from and neither should anyone.

As long as the thing is churning, it'll make good bread.

Jon in Albany said...

Enjoyed the post. I like the vinegar idea. Hope the judge lets you off with time served.

ntsc said...

I've tried commercial starters twice, I've two nice containers in the basement now.

Perhaps I'll try again, but the summer is going to be more about gardens than cooking. I also get to replace my deck.

JacquelineC said...

Well said. If my experience is any measure, your laid back style would certainly work. (but flour left over from dredging chicken?! BdG is gonna get those food safety Nazi's all frothy.) Makes Ruhlman's stock of death sound tame.

Scotty Harris said...

You should have seen the one he did with the tears of clubbed baby harp seals . . .

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
- Arthur C. Clarke

Life's too short to eat bad food -