Friday, April 27, 2012

Sourdough Starter

Despite previous reluctance to home made breads in this household, I'm convinced that we could easily do away with store bought breads, and probably all be healthier for it!  Tuesday I decided to start making a sourdough starter, in the hopes that they'll be receptive to that. Sourdough bread is incredibly good for people in our society where diabetes is so rampant because unlike white AND (surprisingly) whole wheat breads, it doesn't spike your sugar levels. In studies, switching the breakfast bread to sourdough caused lower, more even blood sugar levels, and even helped to prevent a spike from lunch later on. Dad teeters on the edge of diabetes, and I'm carrying around a little more weight than I'm comfortable with at the moment, so managing blood sugar naturally sounds pretty good to me.

This is what the starter looks like today, after just having stirred it down and fed it. You'll notice that near the center of the bowl there are bubbles already. This is a good sign!

Sourdough is the art of capturing and cultivating wild wheat yeasts and using them to rise your bread, instead of store bought baker's yeast granules. I started this starter with whole wheat flour, because it's subjected to less processing than all purpose flour and is more likely to have residual micro-organisms, including yeast, in it.

On the first day, I mixed 1/2 cup of flour with 1/4 cup of water. If that gives you a really floury, dry ball of dough, add another tablespoon or two of water until it's just a bit too sticky to be nice to work with. Leave it alone for the next 12 hours or so. If you've got some little microbes on your wheat, you should see signs of life by now. This includes change in volume, change in smell, and bubbles. Don't be surprised if you only see one of those signs, or if there's only a couple bubbles. If there are no signs of life at all, give the dough a vigorous stir and wait another 12 hrs. If it's still dead, it's dead. Try buying fresh flour, especially the kind from the health food store, or even wheat berries and grinding a flour yourself in a coffee grinder.  If you're getting a few happy little bubbles, or a smell (even a bad smell is fine for now, it'll sort itself out later), it's time to feed your starter.

For the first feeding, stir in 1/2 cup of flour, and 1/4 cup of water, so you're doubling your batch. Leave it for 12 hours again. When you look at the starter, it should be obviously bubbly, or increased in size. If it's not, leave it another couple hours, and check it again. You have some active yeast in the bowl, and feeding it again too soon might dilute them or wash them out. Give it time to take. After the first feeding, signs of life should be pretty evident by the time you're ready for the next feeding 12 hrs later.

 Each feeding should double your starter. It's kind of like feeding a puppy. A half cup of kibble might be enough for a brand new puppy, but by the time it's grown to a 100 lb dog, you better be giving it more than half a cup at a time. The yeasts are hungry and will require more food as your starter grows. However, if we double the feeding for our starter every 12 hrs, we'll have a batch of sourdough that would fill an average swimming pool within 10 days. To keep it manageable, after the first feeding I discard half of the dough before feeding it fresh flour and water, so that I only ever have to add 1/2 cup of flour, and 1/4 cup of water. I keep shrinking my puppy. It seems like a waste, but in the beginning it's not stable enough to eat. Yeast isn't the only thing growing in your baby starter, and some of the other micro organisms might make you sick. Eventually, the vigorous yeast should kill off everything else in the dough.

Once it's reliably bubbly and happy at every feeding (usually around the 3rd or 4th feeding) It's time to switch to white flour, even if you plan to bake whole wheat loaves with it. Your yeast colony is flourishing, so we don't need more to come from the flour each time, and with the white flour you'll be introducing less other nasties that could turn your starter "off" or make it taste or smell bad. The first feeding of white flour might slow your starter down a little. Just like with the very first feeding, don't feed it again until it's nice and bubbly, even if it takes more than 12 hours.

After about a week of feedings every 12 hours, the contents of your starter should be stabilized, safe to eat, and ready to go to work rising your bread. The starter should double in size between feedings like rising dough. If your starter looks small after 12 hours, but there are streaks down the side of the bowl, it probably peaked earlier on and is now shrinking again. If the yeast isn't strong enough to double the starter, it's not strong enough to make your bread rise. Once it's reliable and stable, you can put it into the fridge right after a feeding if you don't plan to make bread right away. In the fridge, your starter can survive up to a month between feedings.

When you plan to use your starter to make bread, often the lump you would normally throw out will be enough, and the starter left in the bowl gets fed as usual to make the next loaves from. If you need more starter for your recipe, don't discard any, feed it a full cup of flour, and a half cup of water, and twelve hours later use what you need and discard any extras so your starter is back down to it's usual size.

Tomorrow morning will be my first feeding with white flour. My starter gets nice and puffy and bubbly, and I think it's ready to make the switch.

After just 4 hours, look at how much the starter has risen, and how bubbly, practically frothy it's become! Definitely ready to switch to white flour tomorrow.

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