Baking Bread

Guest post from Tom today - all about his recent adventures with sourdough! Enjoy!

I've been making bread off and on for a few years. There are a variety of things I enjoy about bread-making. Yes, it's a long process, but it's not like making risotto where you've got to stand at the stove for a long time. With bread, you work for 15 minutes, then you wait two hours, then you work for another 15 minutes, then another wait... it's a cooking project that fits in well to doing other things around the house (for example, chicken coop construction).

I'd decided recently to get a little more methodical about bread-making -- making a couple of loaves a week seems to work well for our family bread needs, and it's a good weekend project for me. Making bread weekly also meant that it would be plausible to try my hand at sourdough. All of the fuss of making and tending a starter makes no sense when you're making bread once every few months, but if you're going to once a week, that's a different story.

To get a starter going, I turned to this article from The Kitchn. It's a pretty straightforward process -- equal parts of flour and water, mixed together, and let set in a warm spot. It's really probably the wrong time of year to get starter going. The article calls for a 70-75ºF place, and our house isn't getting much about 65ºF. For that reason, it took a few more days for things to start bubbling. I'd tried setting it on top of the refrigerator (the heat from the coils making it warmer), and setting it in the oven with the light on, then I finally resorted to putting the starter on a heating pad set on low with a dishtowel separating it. Per the directions, I added equal amounts of flour and water daily, and eventually I got some good yeast action going.
Let me take a quick side trip to let you know one thing I found in my research about sourdough. You'll read a lot about how this starter process is all about "capturing wild yeasts from the air", which all sounds very exotic and fraught with danger. As it turns out, it's not actually how this works. The microbes involved are actually present on the flour that you get from the store in quantities far greater than what's in the air. What makes sourdough sour is the presence of both yeast and lactobacillus cultures -- those same handy lactic-acid-making bacteria used in making cheese, sauerkraut, and pickles. Sure, there's probably a few local beasties in there, but it's not like I had to air out the house to make sure I had enough wild yeasts to get started.
Armed with some starter, I made the companion basic bread from the Kitchn, and it turned out pretty good. It doesn't rely solely on the starter for leavening -- there's some commercial yeast as well -- and it makes a nice loaf that's just slightly sour:

As I mentioned, I'm in the habit of making bread weekly, so refreshing the starter daily doesn't really make a lot of sense. For now, I've gotten into the habit of pulling out some starter to make the week's bread, refreshing the starter with some flour and water, putting the starter in the fridge for the week, then pulling it out the night before I bake and refreshing it again.

Here's what it the starter looked like this morning after an overnight refreshment and standing out on the counter:

So many bubbles!

Here's this week's bread dough after its first rise:

And here's the final product this week. I tried using half whole wheat flour and half bread flour, and it turned out pretty good. Elizabeth said it's her favorite so far.

I'll be anxious to see how this goes once the weather starts warming up. It'd be nice to get a little more sour in the sourdough, and I'm not quite getting the volume of the second rise (in the loaf pan) that I'd like -- our loaves are a little squat.

Finally, Elizabeth has made a number of book recommendations. If you're geeky like me, you'll dig Ratio. The premise of the book is that you can start with some basic ingredients, and by varying the ratios of those ingredients, you get different results. Mix flour to water in a 5:3 ratio -- you get bread. Mix flour, milk, egg, and butter in a 4:4:2:1 ratio, you get pancakes. (Well, for bread you'll want yeast, and for pancakes some sugar and baking soda, and for both, some salt, but you get the picture).

One of the things that Ratio did for me (besides arming me with an infinitely-flexible homemade pancake recipe) is convince me in the use of a digital kitchen scale for baking. It's so much more precise than measuring by volume, and it's helped me tremendously in getting consistent results. One of the ratios is pie crust (3:2:1 flour:fat:liquid), and I'm no longer fiddling around with ice water and adding it a tablespoon at a time and still getting pie crust that doesn't roll out well. Using a scale, I just mix it all up and it's perfect every time.