Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Sourdough: Biology in the Kitchen

This year for Christmas, my grandma gave me some sourdough starter that she got in Alaska when she was up there on her cruise.  She didn't wrap it and put it under the tree and instead handed it to me as an afterthought after we opened all our gifts on Christmas morning because she didn't know if I would want it.  Are you kidding me?!  Naturally, I was very excited.

Before I go into what I did, let me talk about sourdough bread.  First of all, it's delicious.  Especially when toasted and smothered in butter and jam.  Having said that, the process of sourdough baking can be a little gross.  It isn't something that you can't just whip up on an afternoon like a regular loaf of bread.  You have to start with a starter.

Starters are usually small batches of old dough from past sourdough recipes that are saved.  Sometimes they're called "seed sour" or "mother dough."  They contain a live culture called Lactobacillus, which lives in a symbiotic relationship with yeast.  Starters are usually best when they are saved from a tried and true sourdough recipe that has been alive (literally) for years.  As the starter is used, more flour and water is added to the starter to let sour again to maintain the live cultures.

Starters can also be created by allowing flour and water to naturally sour.  (Meaning mix them together and leave it on the counter for a while.)  The needed cultures and yeasts are available in the air all the time, but the key is to catch the right bacteria and not the wrong ones.  Starting a culture can be a pain because it is likely that in the beginning there will be an imbalance in good bacteria vs. unwanted bacteria, but eventually it will even out with the good stuff replacing the bad.  Every 12 hours to a day, new flour and water is added to the starter.  A lot of starter is often thrown out as it is replaced by new flour and water, otherwise by the end of it, you could have gallons of starter.  But once a starter is created it can last forever with proper maintenance.  This is a really complicated process that I have not described well enough to do it justice, so I recommend more Googling to get more deets.  Wikipedia helps too.

Back to my starter gift.  I looked at the ingredients and noticed there are a lot more ingredients than are needed.  Hmmm...  I did some research and found out that this isn't "true" starter and more just a tourist trap kind of gift.  Bummer.  Oh well, we'll still give it a shot.

What it looks like after 48 hours.
Inside were instructions on how to start the starter.  It said to add the packet of stuff to a 2 cups of flour and 2 cups of warm water.  After mixed, it needed to sit in an 85 degree location for 24 hours, with periodic mixing.  Once it sat in the 'fridge for 24 hours after that, the starter would be ready.  I was excited.  The starter smelled slightly sour so I had some hope.  I made the bread recipe that the starter packet came with.

How did it taste?  Not sour at all.  Bummer.  But the bread was really delicious.  I made some orange rolls a few days later, which were also super delicious, but also not at all sour.

After new flour/water added.
So now the rest of the starter is sitting in a jar on my counter.  I'm adding some flour and water periodically and am hoping that it can start a real natural souring process.  I've been nursing it for 3 days now and it looks ok, no mold or anything.  It also tastes slightly sour, but not enough to make a good bread.  I'm still going to bake some bread tonight with it and see how it tastes.  I may have to start over with fresh flour and water because I don't know if the extra additives that the starter came with will disrupt that natural process.

So it sucks that the starter wasn't legit.  But if anything, now I'm determined to do it right.  By the end of this, I will have a good starter, I will make sourdough bread, I will smother it in butter and jam, and it will be delicious.  Just you watch.

Sourdough, this isn't over.  You will be mine.

P.S.  Just in case you didn't get enough cuteness the first time, here is another chance.

Blurriness will not get in the way of cuteness.

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