Hacking wild Sourdough
July 3, 2004 5:27 PM   Subscribe

Due to temporary budget shortfalls, I find myself spending my Saturdays elbow deep in breadmaking. Sourdough bread is perhaps one of the most primal forms of bread relying an an artificial ecosystem of hundreds of different bacteria and yeasts to digest grain flours and produce gas. The souring of the dough has complex effects on the flavor of the resulting bread and is necessary for low-protein flours such as rye. Free starter cultures can be obtained from the friends of Carl who continue his tradition of mailing his culture to anyone who sent a self-addressed stamped envelope. You can buy cultures from around the world, but if you want to live dangerously, you can cultivate your own by just using a mixture of flour and water relying on microbial flora growing on the flour. Sourdough in some ways puts the art of hacking back into breadmaking because it requires a deeper understanding of what is going on beyond just throwing a set of dry and wet ingredients into a bread machine.

Which could explain why I'm still lucky to get something other than a brick. But like beermaking, the DIY satisfaction makes up for many flaws in the final product. (And on final edit, I can't get away with making this post without the obligatory link to the sourdough faqs.
posted by KirkJobSluder (32 comments total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Real men use tapioca flour...
posted by i_cola at 5:40 PM on July 3, 2004

Stop it!! I just started the Atkins diet!!
posted by Postroad at 5:54 PM on July 3, 2004

I worked as a bakers helper in the worlds weirdest supermarket. Every morning at the end of my 2-10am shift we'd hand roll a huge batch of Sourdough bread. The smell would linger on me all day like a cloud. If I never see another batch of starter until the day I die, it will be too soon.

I still like it when it's made by someone else though. Just had to excorcise that ghost you summoned, KirkJobSluder.
posted by jonmc at 6:13 PM on July 3, 2004

posted by cookie-k at 6:16 PM on July 3, 2004

These guys teach the fine art of sourdough baking, although they're more oriented towards professional education for bakers.
posted by majick at 6:22 PM on July 3, 2004

am I the only one who hates sourdough? they serve it everywhere, and I seem to be the only one not eating it.
posted by evening at 6:58 PM on July 3, 2004

I live in SF and I'm really freakin' sick of sourdough. Make me a decent bread with a good crumb, strong crust, and a nice soft white bread flavour. Screw the sour.

KirkJobSluder, good on ya for making your own bread, but does it really save signficant amounts of money over buying bread at the store?
posted by Nelson at 7:22 PM on July 3, 2004

Nelson, I bake my own bread too. I don't think it saves any money but locally all I can get is Wonderbread or Wonderbread disguised as fresh bread. I grew up in an area with real bakeries of various ethnic flavours. I know that there are ingredient differences and when I see white bread, italian, whatever with the same recipe (plus a fistful of other grains for a rye or whatever) I call it wonderbread.
posted by substrate at 7:38 PM on July 3, 2004

I find breadmaking does save money compared to buying premium loaves (from your local specialty baker, such as Grand Central here in Seattle). Plus, you get the bonus of that

I worded as a baker on two different occasions - once making regular bread, and once as a bagel baker. I occasionally daydream about going back to that nocturnal life, because I really, really enjoyed baking bread.
posted by mwhybark at 7:48 PM on July 3, 2004

er, worked, of course.
posted by mwhybark at 7:49 PM on July 3, 2004

It's apt that you make the connection to beermaking, as similar things are going on -- yeasts, sugar, fermentation, etc. I try to give pieces of my starter to as many people as possible in case I somehow kill the one I use. As far as making bricks, well, I think around the tenth loaf of sourdough I ever made was the first that was edible, and I still can't get it as light as I do straight yeast breads. It is very interesting when you get used to the cycles of feeding the starter needs. They're like pets, my little microbes.
posted by transient at 8:14 PM on July 3, 2004

A good fresh 20oz whole grain loaf runs about $4.00, about the same amount of money as 5lb bag of whole wheat flour which will stretch to quite a few half-pound loaves. I probably could skimp to get cheap bread but for a varitey of reasons, I like having a bit more control over ingredients.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 8:34 PM on July 3, 2004

I love sourdough bread, but I've never had the chutzpah to try baking it myself-- thanks for the links.
posted by gwint at 8:37 PM on July 3, 2004

Boy, at first glance I thought that last link read "sourdough fags", and I was slightly disappointed when I clicked it. I've got to get my mind out of the gutter.
posted by Daddio at 8:42 PM on July 3, 2004

a) If you are that concerned about money, perhaps "Premuim Bread" isn't the first line in your ledger that you need to look at.

b) Did you factor in your own labor into this equation? Kneading dough isn't the quickest nor most enjoyable way to spend one's time. Even at a concervative $10/hr. the price of making your own bread rises precipitously. Do yourself a favor: buy bread, make your own biodiesel.
posted by ChasFile at 9:03 PM on July 3, 2004

rusty over at k5 wrote an article on his sourdough exploits.
posted by borkencode at 9:22 PM on July 3, 2004

There's a good chapter in The Man Who Ate Everything about his attempts to make bread "the natural way".
posted by smackfu at 9:48 PM on July 3, 2004

...I thought that last link read "sourdough fags"...

Me too.

I love baking bread. I don't particularly have good luck with sourdoughs though. But I'm not really a huge sourdough fan...so I don't worry about it overly much.
posted by dejah420 at 9:56 PM on July 3, 2004

I doubt that I save any money from baking my own bread, but the satisfaction and sense of accomplishment I get, not to mention the stress I get to relieve by kneading and then punching the air out of the dough is totally worth the effort of making bread from scratch.
posted by gyc at 10:06 PM on July 3, 2004

I, too, was once a breadbaker for a co-op in Southern Illinois. That was over 9 years ago. I tried baking my own bread once since then and was not happy with it. Going from big batches to two loaves didn't work for me. I'll just go buy the premium stuff, since I am rolling in the dough in other ways. And I love sourdough.
posted by strangeleftydoublethink at 10:10 PM on July 3, 2004

Sourdough is kinda like microbrew beer, hopefully we will see small localized bakerys making it again. Before "bakers yeast" was invented in the 19th Century, the only way to make bread that rises was Sourdough. Bread is sourdough.

Sourdough is of course just simply fermentation. Just like milk goes sour when making sour cream or yoghurt. The fermentation process creates health benefits. Anyone who has a gluten allergy may find sourdough acceptable. Wheat allergies as well. Overall if your going to eat any white flour products at all, sourdough is the best one.

Congrats on your sourdough adventures which I had the time and energy to try it. If anyone knows a reliable and trustworthy source for traditional-made organic sourdough on the Internet place post. Most sourdough today is made with bakers yeast it is not actually sourdough. It may explain some peoples aversion to it they may have never had the real thing which is more labor intensive and unpredictable.
posted by stbalbach at 10:30 PM on July 3, 2004

Before "bakers yeast" was invented in the 19th Century, the only way to make bread that rises was Sourdough. Bread is sourdough.

Not so! Fromf McGee's "On Food and Cooking,"
By Alexandian times, around 300 BC, yeast making [from beer froth] was a specialized profession in Egypt.
[Sourness] in bread was long considered a serious defect, usually the result of poor yeast or letting the fermentation stage go on too long. In poorer areas of northern Europe, where rye bread was the rule, sourness was more acceptable.

Sourdough is good, but I like normal bread better. Sourdough pancakes on the other hand...mmm.
posted by TungstenChef at 5:06 AM on July 4, 2004

a) The other side of the coin is that too much cheap bread goes to waste in our household because it just does not taste good. In addition, due to recent medical concerns I've gotten into taking much more care about what I eat and how I eat it.

b) In regards to labor costs, I find an argument by Gene Logsdon (the argument its self is probably not on the web) in regards to homesteading pretty convincing. If some of the tasks involved in putting food on the table are something that you enjoy doing anyway, then putting an hourly labor cost on those tasks is misleading. Where I part company with Logsdon is that I've never quite gotten into the knack of enjoying gardening while I do enjoy cooking.

Baking is more of a recreation than work. As a result, I don't consider it useful to put a dollar value on it.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 6:11 AM on July 4, 2004

Nice post. Thanks.
posted by LowDog at 7:44 AM on July 4, 2004

My starter is named Harald, and has been with me since I created it out of the wild on January 1, 2000. He has helped me make many loaves of bread, pancakes, waffles, english muffins, and so forth. Before I bought my farm, his pancakes fueled my lawnmower. Making food this way is not for everyone, and I salute you for deciding to try. Long live your starter!
posted by ewagoner at 7:58 AM on July 4, 2004 [1 favorite]

Baking bread isn't really labor intensive. As long as you have some sort of Kitchen-Aid or other decent planetary mixer (like my 5 qt Hobart N-50, I do love it so), the kneading can be done by machine. The rest is mostly waiting and testing. Patience and diligence can't be overstated in bread baking (especially sourdough). Oh yeah, use really good flour if you can get it. Go to your favorite bakery and ask them if you can buy some of what they use, bonus points if you can get them to give you a cup of their starter.... And use a scale, not a scoop.

Sourdough starter is really pretty simple. It just takes cutting and feeding at the right times for a couple of weeks, not those 2 or 3 day recipes that use yeast in the starter. When I started my first culture. I used a glass jar that I had taped a piece of paper to, so I could mark the times and dates on so I would know when I had fed the "bitch". You are really looking for some nasty smelling shit here. As the starter gets broken down by the bacteria in the air, you get more and more local flavor to your culture. That's why San Francisco has such great sourdough bread. The bacteria and sea air do wonderful things for bread.

Here's some basic bread tips:

First off, try to go with as wet of a dough as you can manage. If the dough doesn't feel elastic enough, have that sheen and and make the "I'm ready" smell, keep kneading.

If the dough hasn't risen enough, even if it's sat for as long as the recipe says, let it go some more. You can try letting your bread rise in a camp cooler that you've put some heated water in (about 90 degrees F) and put something to raise the bowl so it's not sitting in the water. You can try cold ferments, which turn out great flavored breads. The sugars are processed by the yeast and bacteria more efficiently in the cold so you get more out of grocery store flour (or alot more out of good flour). Use cold water when you're hydrating the flour at the beginning. When you're done kneading, immediately put your dough in the fridge; at least overnight. Pull your dough out and let it warm up before punching it down or forming for your second rise. Rise at 86-90 F for the 2nd and 3rd rises if you're looking to bake by dinner time on the 2nd day.

If your bread is turning out without a good crust, line the inside of your oven with cheap tiles from a home improvement store, crank the oven to as high as it will go for an hour or so before you put the bread in, make a steam tray, and spray water in the oven every 30 seconds for the first few minutes of baking. Then, if you've got yourself a really large boule or are doing big loaves, turn your oven down to 350 or 400 for the rest of the time.

And finally, wait for the bread to cool before cutting into it, unless of course you're going to eat the entire loaf right then and there. The bread hasn't really finished cooking when you pull it out of the oven. It's still baking in the middle and expelling moisture and steam. If you cut into it while it's still hot and want to keep half for later, the half you keep will seem almost slimy and not quite right when you go to eat it the next day.

A good consumer book to check out is The Bread Baker's Apprentice by Peter Reinhart. He goes in depth to explain the science of what's happening inside that big ball of dough and it's a good introduction to the weight formula system.
posted by password at 8:25 AM on July 4, 2004 [1 favorite]

password: thanks for all of that.
I discovered a simpler, easier yeast bread recipe using cold fermentation and a food processor that make a very, very good loaf of bread in minutes.
The Best Bread Ever takes most of the mystery out of bread making; gives you steps to get a decent loaf on the first outing and skills to keep a fresh loaf of bread around the house all the time. Worth the investment. I think if you google around a bit you can find his recipe is as well, but I advise finding the book. He offers lots of science on cold fermentation and active yeast as well as many recipe variations.
posted by majikwah at 9:42 AM on July 4, 2004

password, won't opening the oven door to spray every 30 seconds reduce the heat? I get a good spring at about 475-500 for the first 10 minutes. I mist the top of the bread and toss ice in a heated tray on the bottom rack; this seems to keep it nice and wet in there for long enough.
posted by transient at 7:03 PM on July 4, 2004

I made sourdough and kept a journal on my website, you may get a kick out of it. There's even a Quicktime movie. As for the experience, it was a little exhausting (and a little smelly) but well worth it. Though I did have to throw out my starter; it was hard to maintain.
posted by adrober at 8:41 PM on July 4, 2004

transient, yes, opening the door will reduce the ammount of hot air in your oven, but if you've got the thing loaded with ceramic tiles and have preheated it for a good long time, the 5 seconds you have it open each 30 seconds won't really put a dent in the heat. You only do that for the first couple of minutes anyway. I would think that putting an ice tray in will pull the heat down in your oven more than opening it up for a few seconds, but if you've preheated the oven well enough, I doubt either method would do too much to cool the oven off. I actually boil water to put in my steam tray. I once made the mistake of accidentally spraying the oven light. Two days of lovingly waiting for my dough and it was all over in an instant when glass shattered everywhere. Hehe, I'll never do that again.

If you're getting good bread doing it your way than that's great. There's nothing better than pulling off the perfect batch of baguettes knowing that you used your own recipe and baking style. I didn't mean to say that mine was the only way. :)
posted by password at 8:59 AM on July 5, 2004

Don't get me wrong -- I like hearing about different methods to try out. How did you attach the tiles to your oven?

When you sprayed the light, did you say, Homer-style, "dough!"? I'm sorry about that; really, really sorry.
posted by transient at 9:40 AM on July 5, 2004

The tiles are just set in on the rack and the floor. I've got a bunch of 8" x 8" tiles that perfectly fit in my oven. Also, I lean 2 on each side for the wall & a few in the back so that I have as much even heat as I can get. My oven is gas fired, so the heat is generally more uneven than electric, but the tiles do the trick. I usually leave them in for most everything as well. If I decide that what I'm baking won't need as much direct heat from the tiles, I move them from the rack down onto the floor of the oven. When selecting your tiles, it's better to get something unglazed, but I opted for the cheaper route & spent $5 to line my entire oven with glazed tiles. I can only hope that they don't have lead in them, but I smoke and drink like a fish, so it probably doesn't matter for me.

When I can afford to buy my own place, I plan on building a brick oven in the kitchen. They're great for everything from pizza and bread to cookies and pies. If I can just figure out what I want for my fuel source...

I'm not sure if I yelled out "dough" or not. It was probably a little more like "I'm a f*cking idiot."
posted by password at 8:08 AM on July 6, 2004

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