(Please read this blog as well as the next one on Sourdough Starter 2. Both are equally important)
The lockdown due to the Corona virus wave, has given rise to several other waves and ways to keep people busy while confined to their homes.
One is witnessing a slew of hitherto latent talents (and non talents I might add :-D) but the point is that people are keeping themselves gainfully occupied as far as possible.
Speaking of gainfully (with pun completely intended), in my case there has also been the gaining of much weight, brought about by a constantly sampling of whatever I am making but let us not digress … like my hips have.
So I am seeing a new and in some cases, a rekindled love for cooking, among men, women, children and apparently toddlers too, going by some of those videos out there 😀
Baking seems to be leading the list of culinary processes and a plethora of cakes, cookies, breads and other goodies assail my senses and throng my news feed on social media.
Having been a baking enthusiast in the days of yore (read 3 years ago before the travel bug hit me and I renounced the love for my kitchen in favor of my wanderlust), I of course have jumped back on the band wagon and this time with a vengeance that has acted like a catalyst for me to take up certain pursuits that I had not mastered earlier in the world of baking.
Yes Sourdough (let’s reduce that to SD right away), that exotic entity that most of the world is suddenly developing an interest in during lockdown, motivated in no small measure by the rapidly dwindling availability of commercial yeast and also the urge to show off a nice ‘open’ crumb. The latter of course is a matter of skill and practice but the great thing about SD is that it is not just confined to light and airy breads with an enviably ‘holey’ crumb but also has a versatile profile as seen in many other products that do not require as much skill.
The SD starter is the foundation of the entire science and is a gloop of fermented flour and water, which is created by natural fermentation aided by the inherent yeast and good bacteria in the atmosphere.
Let me tell you right at the start(er), that I am no expert but am learning by the day and whatever I note here is basically what I have experienced and gleaned from several sources. The main origin of my information is my friend and guide, the sourdough guru Ponnanna. Credit for most of what I currently know, is totally due to him. He also conducts SD baking classes and runs a very nice bakery called Honore Boulangerie in Indiranagar in Bangalore, India.
So let us now proceed to find out a little more about this mysterious being called SD and discover how it can suck you into its addictive grasp, once you get a grasp of its workings.
As I said, the SD starter is the first ingredient that one should posses in order to create any SD based product. Loosely defined, it is a live culture which is a gloopy mass made up of flour and water, that behaves as a leavening agent. This takes the place of the commercial yeast that one uses to bake breads. SD does a similar job albeit with a slower but healthier outcome, which is a result of the prolonged and natural fermentation process that it enables. I will not attempt to go deeper into the science of it here but will head straight to the method of making/obtaining a starter.
It might of course be helpful to explain its existence by comparing it to the starter that we use in making curds. Just as a little bit of curds is added to milk in order to produce more curds and just like we retain some curds everyday for this process, likewise our SD starter will become a permanent member of our fridge family and will live with us for as long as we wish to produce and consume SD products.
The topic of SD and its science, is an infinite one and so are the methods of making starters and SD products. I will stick to the ones that I know since I have tried and tested them … and also because that is all I currently know 😀
I will also briefly touch upon how to maintain a starter, how to gainfully utilize the discard, how to prepare your levain before baking and a few tips. If you have any more questions you could please mention them in the comments here and I will answer to the best of my ability.
SD starter –
Basically a starter is a combination of flour (mostly maida aka All Purpose Flour/APF) and water. It is just these 2 simple ingredients that plot together to trap natural yeast from the surrounding environment and with the help of good bacteria (Lactobacilli), the mix then ferments into a substance that acts as a natural leaven which when added to flour and moisture, then releases Carbon di oxide that helps to raise your dough and also ethanol which imparts flavor to the final product.
How to obtain a SD starter –
Well one quick method is to buy a ready made starter but I do not think that this is easily available in India.
The other method is to depend on the generosity of one’s friends who have already created their starters are are giving us a huge complex with their astounding bakes 😀
But the method that will give us the greatest satisfaction, is where we make it ourselves because if our friends can do it, then why not us, right? Besides in our current locked down situation, we do need something to keep our minds constantly worried with thoughts of anything other than COVID 19 😀
How long does it take to create a SD starter –
Well I have seen recipes that produce starters in less than a week and some that go on upto over 2 weeks. There are several variables involved in this game and your ambient conditions, temperature, flour quality, water, karma and many more factors affect the duration of the outcome.
SD starter recipe –
So I have made starters a few times in my life. Usually a starter IS for life but special people like me, do manage to murder this so called immortal entity and hence the repeated exercise.
Now you are probably thinking that I am not really the best person to tell you how to maintain your starter but fear not. I know where I went wrong and I will advice you accordingly on what to do and also not to do, so that you do not follow my path of serial killing.
So far, I have tried 2 ways of making SD starters. Method 1 will be detailed in this blog post and Method 2 is available in the next post. You can go through both and pick what appeals most to you.
SD Starter Method 1 – (Sorry there are no pictures since I made this years ago but I will update when I get pineapples again)
The first one I made was from this site Breadtopia belonging to Eric Rusch, whose mild and gentle manner belies the kickass breads that he dishes up. This Breadtopia SD starter has been a no fail recipe for me, since I have created it a few times after every starter funeral. Why did they die? Because I did not take care of them in the long run as I should have … and other incomprehensible reasons.
The recipe renders relatively quick results and calls for fresh pineapple juice which is not difficult to obtain. It also uses whole wheat flour and that might appeal to those who do not like to use maida (APF). I also like all the videos and other information and recipes on his site, so do take a look.
Please note that his starter is based on volumes, while most starter recipes call for ingredients by weight. When you actually begin using your starter, you will automatically switch to weight.
For quick reference, I am giving the basic recipe here but do watch his video to get a better idea –
Clean glass jar with a wide mouth and preferably a minimum of 500 ml capacity (I prefer glass to plastic)
Whole wheat flour – follow the quantities in the instructions
Unsweetened pineapple juice – 1/4 cup + 2 tablespoon
Drinking water – follow the quantities in the instructions
1 – Take a clean glass jar with a wide mouth and preferably a minimum of 500 ml capacity. Mix 3.5 tablespoon (tbs) of whole wheat flour with 1/4 cup fresh pineapple juice. Cover and set aside for 48 hours at room temperature. Stir vigorously 2 to 3 times a day.
Use the standard baking cups and spoons.
2 – To the above, add 2 tbs whole wheat flour and 2 tbs pineapple juice. Cover and set aside for a day or two. Stir vigorously 2 to 3 times a day. You should see some activity of fermentation within 48 hours.
3 – Add to the above 5 ¼ tbs whole wheat flour and 3 tbs purified water. Cover and set aside for 24 hours.
4 – To the above, add 1/2 cup whole wheat flour and 1/4 to 1/3 cup purified water. You should have a very healthy sourdough starter by now.
A healthy sourdough starter is one that looks bubbly and enthusiastic, has a nice stringy texture, smells of ‘good’ sour, doubles in volume within 4-5 hours after being fed, etc. as in the picture.
Maintaining your SD starter –
A starter as I mentioned, is like curds. One retains a portion to start the next day’s curds and the story goes on. Likewise, once you create a starter, it is going to be a part of your kitchen system forever. The base starter is called the mother and this provides the culture for your bakes.
Storing – The mother starter can be kept at room temperature in places where it is used on a daily basis, as in commercial baking or in those homes where they love their bread so seriously that they actually bake everyday.
For the less frequent bakers and especially moody ones like me, it is necessary to refrigerate the starter or else it will get spoiled.
Feeding – Starters that are refrigerated are said to be immortal (until they sometimes come into contact with killers like me). However, they do have to be fed and refreshed before using them for baking. There is no hard and fast rule for the frequency but refreshing an unused starter once a week, should be good enough to maintain its health. Apart from that, the frequency of baking will also be a factor in how often one needs to refresh.
a) If I bake once a week, I will remove around 10 gms of starter from the mother and put it in a bowl, on the day prior to baking. Then I will first add to it 40 gm water mix well. Then add 40 gm flour and mix well (a 1:4:4 optimal ratio). I will then pour this into another clean bottle and place it back in the fridge. This will be continue to be the mother again.
The rest of the starter will be divided into what we need for the bake (the levain) and also the discard. More information on these is available below.
b) If I bake less often than once a week, I will refresh at least once a week. I will remove around 10 gms of starter from the mother and put it in a bowl. I will first add to it 40 gm water mix well. Then add 40 gm flour and mix well. I will then pour this into another clean bottle and place it back in the fridge. This will be continue to be the mother again.
The rest of the starter will be the discard.
You can also check the Breadtopia video on managing SD Starter.
Utilizing the discard –
While the term discard defines that which is thrown away, one does not actually have to do so. If you bake at least once a week, your discard is a great ingredient that can be used to create several flavorful products which do not need much leavening, like crackers, rotis and almost anything that your imagination can come up with.
I sometimes feed my starter only so I can get an excess of discard because we have now got addicted to several variants of crackers that I keep inventing with every ‘episode’. I will shortly have those recipes up.
Preparing levain before baking –
As mentioned above in the section on Feeding, the starter has to be refreshed before baking and a levain has to be prepared in advance. The levain is nothing but a freshly fed starter which is expected to double in a maximum of 6 hours and is used as the leavening agent in the upcoming bread. Depending on how much levain is called for in the recipe, one has to weigh out the starter and feed it, preferably in a 1:4:4 ratio.
For example if I need 90 gm of levain in the recipe, I will take 10 gm starter and feed with 40 gm water and 40 gm flour at least 6 hours before beginning to make my dough. If my starter is known to double in less than that time, I will create my levain accordingly.
The float test is a good method to see if the levain is ready. Drop a teaspoon of levain gently into a glass container of water. If the blob floats for a while and does not sink right away, the levain is ready to be used.
The next step will be as per the recipe that you are going to follow.
If you find the levain information confusing, fret not because this gets clearer when you actually start trying out bread recipes.
A few tips –
1 – Keep 4 identical or similar glass bottles for your starters. I maintain 2 starters, one whole wheat and one maida (APF).
I have two 500 ml and two 1000 ml glass bottles with screw top lids. You can transfer the newly fed starter to a fresh bottle and avoid the mess of getting SD starter smeared all over the inside walls.
I also prefer wide mouthed bottles where my hand can go in and easily clean.
2 – Weigh your bottles with and without lid and stick a label with a waterproof transparent tape on the side of the bottle or its lid. This will help you to know what weight of starter you have, without transferring it to another container.
3 – While feeding your starter, weigh out the water in a separate bowl (and not in the same bottle as the existing starter). Always mix the starter in the water first and then add the new flour. Whisk well and then pour it into the glass bottle. This method makes it easier to mix without a mess and also keeps the inner sides of the bottle clear.
4 – When making levain or feeding the starter, use a sticker or marker to indicate the original level, so that it will be easy to judge when the starter doubles.
5 – Do not close the lid too tightly while storing the starter because sometimes the gases may cause the pressure to build up and the container may explode. Maintaining a loose lid may result in an overflow, which messy though it may be, will nevertheless be still safer than exploding glass (look at the mess I made. Just missed entering my microwave vents).
I hope you will successfully try this recipe and I would really appreciate if you leave your feedback in the Blog comments.