Let the wild (sourdough) rumpus begin!

They say that necessity is the mother of invention, but you can easily substitute the word  “leftovers” or “skepticism” for the word “necessity” and get the same result. I had an abundance of leftovers and skepticism so I was well poised for some inventing. I had to nourish my neglected sourdough starter last night, which left me, as usual, with about 8 oz. of uncertainty. I also had quite a bit of rapidly browning rosemary, half of a forgotten onion in the nether regions of my fridge, and some nice plump tomatoes. So, after a pleasant romp through some new and exciting bread books, I was back to haphazard experimentation with discarded sourdough bits.

A few weeks ago I began my sourdough starter according to the instructions in Bread Alone, but somewhere along the way I’m pretty sure that I flubbed up my proportions and no longer feel comfortable following the book’s sourdough formulas, as the hydration of my starter is likely a far cry from its intended state. This has left me with sourdough avoidance and guilt. When I removed 8 oz. of the starter last night, I replenished the remaining goo with more flour and water and put it back in the fridge with much lingering doubt. I threw 4 oz. flour and 1 oz. water into the starter that I had removed until it resembled something a bit stiffer but not too stiff (as Bread Alone instructs), and I left this on the counter to bubble, hoping that some disaster might befall it so that I could avoid using it altogether.

By the time I got around to thinking about using this intimidating mass of dough, I quite simply didn’t want to, and I put it in time-out in the fridge overnight. Then, the next day, with renewed Yankee thriftiness bolstered by guilt-inspired confidence, I decided I should man up and make an experimental loaf of sourdough something.

Here was my mind set behind the decision to make a sourdough focaccia: focaccia is flat and is supposed to look all knobby. It is also supposed to have tasty things scattered on top of it. If the dough is a failure and it comes out all flat and knobby, that is just superb. Even better, it has toppings behind which it can hide.

So, armed with a plethora of leftovers and a generous portion of skepticism, I began mixing up a dough. Since focaccia is typically a stickier dough with a higher water to flour ratio than, say, French bread, I was careful not to overdo the flour. I took my starter and mushed it up in 8 oz. water. I added 1 tsp. yeast because I wasn’t sure how potent my starter would be after all that neglect. Then I added 1 tsp. salt, 1 tsp. sugar, and 2 TB olive oil–the key to a nice soft focaccia. I ended up adding in just a little over 12 oz. flour, putting the dough at around 65% hydration–just where a focaccia should be, according to Mr. Reinhart.

Since the dough was pretty sticky, I kneaded for a brief time, and then tried ye olde stretch and fold technique again. I stretched and folded, waited ten minutes, and repeated the procedure a few times until the dough had firmed up a little.

It was still sticky, but now manageable. I coated the dough in olive oil, and let it rise until it had doubled, which took almost two hours. Then I chopped the dough ball in half and began stretching each piece into an amoeba-esque form. The dough very gladly stretched in every direction the second I picked it up, and probably would have stretched to the floor if I hadn’t stopped it. I didn’t want to over handle the dough, though, because some nice big bubbles had formed that would puff up beautifully in the oven. I then busted out my leftovers and covered each piece of dough with a security mask, in case of impending disaster. Each one received a coating of olive oil and a sprinkle of salt, and one got rosemary while the other got tomatoes and onions.

After a brief proofing of maybe half an hour, I awkwardly transferred the elastic dough onto the 400 degree oven stone, making mutant amoeba shapes even more absurd than before. The loaves cooked quickly because of their thin nature, and after very little time, my ugly duckling dough had turned into beautiful swan focaccia. The air bubbles that I had carefully avoided deflating made a nice little landscape on the surface of the golden bread, and the bottom had crisped up to just the right degree–not nearly enough to break your teeth, but enough to support the loaf and prevent it from buckling.

I ripped off a corner of the steaming loaf and was very pleased to see and hear a really nice crust and crumb. It tore easily and was filled with lofty air pockets. The bread was somehow simultaneously delicate and crispy–a hybrid soft-crunch that was very toothsome and satisfying.

Although I was sort of winging it on the salt, sugar and olive oil proportions, their flavors seemed well balanced, and were out-shined anyway by a slowly developing sourdough flavor that kicked you in the pants after a few moments of munching. I think because I neglected my starter for so long and made it spend the night in the fridge, the sour flavor really developed some strength. I personally enjoy a strong sour flavor on occasion if it is nestled in a nicely textured crumb, but if your taste buds are timid, you’ll definitely want to pay more attention to your starter than I did.

Regardless of your sourdough sensibilities, try experimenting! I’ve been following recipes and formulas pretty closely the last few days and it felt great to mess around and be foolish. Although I didn’t feel comfortable following any prescribed formulas because of my starter’s uncertain hydration levels, any dough that has been fermenting for a while is bound to add flavor and excitement to an otherwise straightforward bread, and should be added to the mix with zeal.

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The Three Little Loaves

The Three Little Loaves: a tale of blind experimentation, mis-matched techniques, and all sorts of other good stuff.

Act I: in which my sourdough starter turns one week old, and I goof up

The other night my gurgling little starter, having sat in the fridge for seven whole days, was ready for its one-week birthday feast. I stirred in the appropriate amounts of flour and water, stuck the little fellow back in the fridge, and went to bed. Yesterday morning, I realized that I had skipped a crucial step: removing a portion of the starter before adding fresh food. I rushed to the fridge to discover a yeasty volcano almost ready to erupt. I popped the top off just in time, and quickly poured out 8oz. of the fragrant goo, approximately the amount that I should have removed earlier.

Act II: in which I can’t bring myself to throw away sourdough starter

The only way I’ve learned (thus far) to use sourdough starter is to convert my entire starter seed into a levain, use a portion of the levain for bread, and convert the remaining levain back into a starter seed. Now I had only 8 oz. of recently fed starter seed, and no perfectly clear notion of what exactly to do next, other than to not throw it away. I decided that I might as well try to make the goo into a levain, and just wing it on the proportions, trying to use Bread Alone‘s sourdough chapter as, at least, a descriptive guideline. The true levain was described as being a rather thick dough, so I added 3 oz. white wheat flour to my 8 oz. starter seed. This made it just a bit too thick, so I added 1 oz. water to even things out. This seemed relatively promising, so I left my converted starter in a 75 degree oven for optimal development and went out to run some errands.

Act III: in which I read too many bread books and internet articles on sourdough, thus muddling my brain

I got stuck in the cookbook section of the book store while waiting for my laundry to be done, and started skimming through Peter Reinhart’s many beautiful books. Techniques, proportions, times, temperatures, tools and ingredients were flooding my brain, and once I got home I couldn’t stop with all the bread reading. I opened up the flood gates of the internet, and became so saturated with various and rather disparate bits of sourdough information that I started to feel overwhelmed. In the end, my sweet tooth directed me. I really felt like eating cinnamon raisin bread and since I had a nice little bread base already bubbling away, I thought it might as well be a cinnamon raisin sourdough.

Act IV: in which my dough is experimented upon

Since cinnamon raisin sourdough sounded odd enough to me to potentially be a disaster, I thought this would be an opportune time to play around with the various recipes and techniques vying for space in my head. I used the sourdough chapter of Bread Alone, along with a simple and concise sourdough website as general references for proportions and timings. I peeked at an actual cinnamon raisin sourdough recipe to inspire my ingredient additions, and, just for giggles, tried out the “stretch and fold” technique that I had briefly skimmed in Reinhart’s Artisan Breads Every Day.

After 5 hours, my starter had doubled and had become all nice and bubbly, ready to be made into dough.

To my starter I added 4.5 oz milk and 3.5 oz. water (I would have used milk for the full 8 oz. but I ran out after 4.5). I melted about 2 TB butter and 1 1/2 TB honey together, and added this to the mix as well, breaking the gooey starter up with my fingers. I next added 1 1/2 tsp. salt, about 14 oz. white wheat flour, and a dash of cinnamon. I thought about adding a little booster of yeast just in case, but I wanted to see if my starter had the strength to raise a loaf as it should.

I kneaded the dough for a couple of minutes until the ingredients were incorporated, and then tried out the “stretch and fold” method. I really didn’t read up on this technique thoroughly enough to understand it completely, or to implement it properly, but I gave it a go anyway. My very simplistic understanding of “stretch and fold” was that if you are dealing with a rather wet dough, as I was, you can avoid a long manual kneading by periodically stretching and folding the dough. Apparently this provides enough stimulation to develop the gluten properly. I thought I remembered Reinhart suggesting three “stretch and fold” episodes, spaced out by ten minute resting periods (although I very well could have remembered this incorrectly) so this is what I did. The dough was definitely still sticky but not unmanageable after all the stretching and folding.

I let the dough ferment for about 2 hours, punched it down, and let it rise again for maybe another 1 1/2 hours. Since everything about this bread was experimental, I got out the miniature loaf pans, because three mini cinnamon raisin loaves were bound to still be cute even if the bread was a disaster. I divided the dough into three parts, flattened each into a rectangle, and doled out a generous coating of melted butter, cinnamon sugar, and raisins.

I rolled the rectangles up, sealed the bottoms, and nestled each roll in a tiny tin, brushing butter over the tops for good measure.

These proofed for about half an hour, and then went straight into a 400 degree oven. When I peeked into the oven to check on the loaves, I was so happy to see that they were growing taller–a sure sign that my sourdough starter had some muscle. Once the little guys were golden brown and hollow sounding, I pulled them out and let them cool

I was most excited to cut into the bread not because there would be a raisin-y swirl to see, but because I really wanted to find out if the bread was tasty. I had played around with so many elements in this bread that I didn’t know quite what to expect.

Finale: in which my taste buds are pleased!

As the authors of Bread Alone had suggested, making a stiffer starter really did reduce the “sour” flavor in the bread, infusing a depth of flavor without the overwhelming bite. Although I love a good and sour sourdough, a gentle richness was more appropriate for a sweeter bread such as this. The crumb was beautiful–light and pleasant and quite unlike my first dense and chewy sourdough. The butter, honey, milk and salt that I added to the dough proved to be just right in proportion–the dough wasn’t competing with the sugar swirl for sweetness, and instead provided a nice soft base upon which the swirl could be enjoyed.

Since I was prepared for an epic sourdough failure, these little loaves provided a nice strife-free experimental opportunity. Although there is still a lot of information out there on sourdough approaches and techniques that I have yet to absorb, I feel a little closer to finding my own way and my own comfort level. The extreme tastiness of my experiment was an excellent bonus, and a most encouraging one at that.

Sourdough, Round One

Sourdough has always intimidated me a little. It’s like looking at the eleven-year-olds in the back of the bus when you are only six. You desperately want the prestige of sitting in those prized seats. You have no idea why they are so elusively enviable, but you know they must be really excellent. The only problem is that when you are six, you are pretty sure you will never be eleven. Until today, I felt that the whole concept of sourdough was shrouded in mystery, much like the back of the bus. When you’re up against stories of decades-old sourdough starters, it’s a little scary to start your own. Luckily, I was armed with an excellent book, Bread Alone, by Daniel Leader & Judith Blahnik, that allowed my six-year-old self to go sit in the back of the sourdough bus.

My infantile starter (or chef, I should say), years away from even being in its adolescence, was nonetheless bubbling away happily after four days of daily feeding.

Following the instructions of the brilliant authors of Bread Alone, I had begun my chef with 4 oz. of flour and 4 oz. of water (along with an added pinch of yeast, since there probably aren’t so many wild little yeasts in my kitchen just yet). Every day for three days, I added another 4 oz. of flour and water each. Yesterday, after tasting a very pungent nibble of dough, I determined that my little chef was ready to transform into a levain. Again per the authors’ instructions, I added 6 oz. of flour, effectively rendering the transformation. I let this mixture sit in the refrigerator overnight to slow it down, since I wouldn’t be able to get to mixing my final dough until a little beyond the recommended fermentation time.

This morning, I measured out the 18oz. of levain that I needed for my bread, and converted the remaining mix back into a chef by adding 2.5 oz. of flour and 7 oz. of water. I stuck this fellow back in the fridge, where he awaits a weekly feeding, and can now provide me with a starter every two days if I so desire. As long as I don’t neglect my chef too seriously, I am now officially on the sourdough wagon!

Following Bread Alone‘s basic pain au levain recipe, I used my hands to break up the 18 oz. of starter with 18 oz. of water (a marvelous gooey job that is just not spoon-worthy). I then added 24 oz. of flour and 1 TB salt. As I kneaded, I probably added in 3 or more oz. of flour until my dough reached just the right consistency. The dough then fermented for 2 hours, went through an awkward pat down/division (I desperately need a dough cutter) and then rested for another half an hour. I next shaped my loaves–one in a torpedo shape, the other in a loaf pan–and let them proof for a further two hours.

With much anticipation, I slid my torpedo loaf into my 425 degree oven, and had a whomp-whomp moment when I realized once again that my loaf’s dimensions exceeded those of my oven. I quickly poked and prodded the loaf as it sat on the rather toasty oven stone and managed to turn it into an S-shaped torpedo without singeing my fingerprints off. After a few rotations, and about 25 minutes, my inaugural sourdough loaf emerged.

It was a silly shape for sure, but it smelled like bread heaven. The scent was noticeably different from any other bread I’ve yet baked-not only yeasty but, well, sour I suppose. It seems that we usually associate “sour” with old milk, or taste bud annihilating candies (warheads, anyone?), but this “sour” was rich and fermented and delicious. My second loaf emerged shortly after, nestled in its ceramic loaf pan-a fantastic invention I was not aware of until this Christmas (thanks Beck!)

The first cut into my S-torpedo revealed a dense crumb with a nice thick crust, and a million tiny air pockets.

As I took my first bite, I was both pleased and surprised. The flavor was incredibly rich–almost nutty–and kept evolving the more I chewed. While my taste buds were pleased with this moist and flavorful experience, my teeth were surprised at how much the bread bounced back upon first munch. It wasn’t tough by any measure, but it was quite chewy. After a few more munches, I became accustomed to the flavor/texture combo, and quite enjoyed it.

I do think, however, that the chewiness of the dough was due to the prolonged fermentation period of my levain. Instead of the recommended 8-10 hours at room temperature, my levain spent about 15 hours in the fridge. I think my little yeasty friends used up too much of their umph by the time I mixed my final dough. Since the yeast in the levain is the only leavening agent in a sourdough bread, it is important that it is not taking a nap by the time you are ready to put it to work. This probably accounts for my slightly flat torpedo, as well as the more dense, chewy texture. The beautiful thing about having my own sourdough starter now is that I can try again in two days!

Thank you to Daniel and Judith for debunking the sourdough mystery with such clarity!