· Meet Sam, the Sourdough Man

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The genesis of naturally leavened bread, which harnesses the rising power of wild yeast, lies in what is commonly called a sourdough starter. In fact, it turns out that wild yeast and bacteria are already in the flour – no need to add anything except water to get them going. The characteristics of a starter, and the levain (French for leaven) that is generated from it, have much to do with the flavor of the loaf. The good news is that this process can be just as fun and rewarding as pulling loaf from the oven.

While I was living in Minnesota this past winter, I learned a bit about the tales of Paul Bunyan. Not surprisingly, many of the stories involve food, for these men needed hearty meals to keep them going through harsh winters. One group of cooks was known as the Baking Powder Bums. Sourdough Sam, who was in the other camp, was known for making just about everything out of sourdough, although he paid a hefty price when his sourdough barrel exploded!

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One day, Paul and his men made the mistake of gathering all of their logs into a lake that did not have an outlet, rendering them useless since they could not be transported. Paul asked Sam to make enough sourdough to fill a water tank and then pour it into the lake. When Sam poured it in, the water level rose up enough to send the logs over the bank and into a river. Sam’s sourdough saved the day! There is a lake in northern Minnesota called Sourdough Lake to this day. I bet Big Ole blew the dinner horn extra loud that evening.

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It wouldn’t surprise me if Sourdough Sam kept his starter under his pillow every night, never going anywhere without it. Folklore aside, my question is this: what type of flour he use? He might have used 100% rye, maybe 100% wheat, or perhaps a combination of both…

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If Sourdough Sam can make enough of the stuff to flood a lake it can’t be that hard, right? And no, you don’t need a water tank, but if you’re feeling inspired, feel free to take it to the next level.

To begin, you will need the following:

  • Kitchen scale – preferably digital (Oxo makes good, inexpensive ones)
  • Container for the starter (a 12-quart Cambro works great)
  • Digital probe thermometer

The flour: In general, whole grain flours have more yeast than refined flours (i.e. all-purpose), and they are also more rich in nutrients. Here is some background on the chemistry going on in that sticky mass. Wheat berries contain an important enzyme, a complex molecule that catalyzes a reaction with another molecule, called amylase. Amylase breaks down starch into complex sugars, including maltose. Yeast has the ability to break down maltose with maltase, which produces glucose, a simple sugar. Yeast and bacteria then feed on the glucose, producing carbon dioxide, ethanol, and other alcohols. It is these alcohols provide complex flavors in the loaf.

There are pages and pages of blog posts and forums of people discussing what flour(s) to use and the hydration level (ratio of the water:flour by weight). These are the two options that I come across most frequently:

100% rye: Whole rye flour contains relatively high amounts of amylase, has higher yeast and bacteria populations, and greater mineral content compared to wheat flours. These starters are often considered easier to get going and more forgiving when feeding times are missed. I have yet to start one myself.

50% all-purpose/50% whole wheat: What you’ll find in Ken Forkish’s Flour Water Salt Yeast, Chad Roberton’s Tartine Bread, and other books. This mixture can be a bit harder to get going, but I’ve successfully started two starters this way.

So, in the spirit of Sourdough Sam’s passion for making starter for just about any purpose you could imagine, including hydrologic engineering, thought I’d experiment with a hybrid: 50% all-purpose, 30% whole wheat, 20% rye. Why this combination? Well, one day I decided to incorporate rye flour into my already mature 100% wheat starter. It has been very reliable and I love the aroma. Here is my 3-month old mature starter after I scooped some out for levain.

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The water: When I began my first starter, I stuck to Ken Forkish’s 80% hydration (i.e. 80g water, 100g flour), but then I switched over to 100% hydration. In general, a higher hydration starter allows amylase to move about more freely, resulting in a more active starter. I chose to go with 100% hydration for this experiment.

Before you begin, it’s a good idea to know the approximate temperature of the location where you’ll be storing the starter. Interestingly, cooler temperatures promote acetic acid production, while warmer temperatures promote lactic acid production. Ken recommends that the starter be stored around 75F or more to avoid it becoming too acetic. I keep mine in the room with the hot water heater (about 70F) because that’s the warmest part of the house in the winter.

Ken Forkish’s method in Flour Water Salt Yeast has worked for me every time, so I chose to go by those instructions. Whether or not this method is the best choice for a 100% hydration starter with this blend of flours, I have no idea. We shall see…

Day 1

Sometime between 7-9 AM: Weigh the empty container (write this down somewhere and commit it to memory). Weigh 100g all-purpose flour, 60g whole wheat four, and 40g whole rye flour in a separate container. Weigh out 200g water, 90-95F (use filtered or bottled if your water has a lot of chlorine in it). Add the flour to the water and mix just until incorporated. Cover most of the opening of the container with a lid, drape a towel over over it, and store.

*Note: you can use more or less flour and water as desired as long as you keep the 1:1 ratio ratio. 

The mixture will look like a whitish grey slurry:

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Days 2 & 3

Sometime between 7-9 AM: Scoop out approximately 3/4 of the starter and throw it away. It is not necessary to be exact here. Add 200g water (90-95F) and dissolve the remaining starter. Add 200g flour using the same 50/30/20 ratio. Cover and store.

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On Day 3, the starter should have doubled in volume. Notice the difference:

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Day 4

Sometime between 7-9 AM: The starter will likely have a fruity aroma at this point. Scoop out enough starter so that the total weight equals 80g plus the weight of the empty container. For me, that would be 500g (80g+ 420g). Add 200g water (90-95F), dissolve the remaining starter, and then add 200g flour. Cover and store.

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Day 5

It should now be fermenting away, gassy, and smell a bit sour and of alcohol. Don’t worry if the culture seems a bit sluggish at this point – the populations of yeast and bacteria are still adapting to more the acidic environment.

Sometime between 7-9 AM: Scoop out enough starter so that the total weight equals 40g plus the weight of the empty container. For me, that would be 440g (40g+ 420g). Add 200g water (90-95F), dissolve the remaining starter, and then add 200g flour. Cover and store.

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Day 6

Sometime between 7-9 AM: Scoop out enough starter so that the total weight equals 40 g plus the weight of the empty container. Add 200g water (90-95F), dissolve the remaining starter, and then add 200g flour. Cover and store.

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Day 7

After taking a whiff and feeling the texture of the starter, you will probably find that it is both moderately sour and well aerated with gas. Remove all but 40g of the starter and add the 200g water (90-95F) and 200g flour as you did the day before. Cover and let rest for 9-10 hours.

Now it’s time to put it to the test. Ken’s recipe for the Country Blonde, a pure levain bread, will serve as the test. I will be using the “basic bread method” described in his book.


The Dough Flow
  • 838g all-purpose flour
  • 12g whole wheat flour
  • 25g whole rye flour
  • 655g water, 90-95F (32-35C)
  • 22g fine sea salt
  • 250g levain (Note: I used 250g instead of 216g because it is wintertime)

*Yield: 2 loaves. **Total flour: 1000g, total water: 780g (78%)

Ken recommends a 12-quart polycarbonate Cambro (with a lid) to serve as the mixing container. It is transparent, has a wide opening, and is easy to clean.

If you weigh out the water first it will cool down, so I weigh the flour first.

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It’s a good idea to weigh the water in a separate container – it’s hard to remove once added.

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Dissolve the levain in the water. Add the flour, and mix until incorporated and there is no dry flour left.

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Cover and rest for 1 hour to autolyse.

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The autolyse period is critical for proper gluten development when kneading is removed from the process. Autolyse is French for “autolysis,” which literally means “self-digestion.” Two very important things started happening during this hour, 1) amylase started breaking down the starches, part of the process that produces sugars for the yeast, and 2) the flour had time to hydrate, allowing the two proteins gliadin and glutenin, to start unraveling and link together to form chains – gluten. In addition, another enzyme, protease, started to soften the gluten, making the dough more extensible.

Most bakers agree that 20 minutes is the minimum amount of time that the dough should autolyse. I usually autolyse for an hour. Due to the fact that the dough temperature will drop if kept out in a cool kitchen, you need to keep it warm during this time. I put the dough and a pan of very warm water in my oven (turned off), creating a proofing box. I keep a digital thermometer in the oven to see how warm it gets – ideally keeping it around 80-85F.

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The dough after the autolyse:

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Next, add the salt and mix the dough using the “pincer” method – cutting the dough with your thumb and index finger, gently folding it over itself. Repeat five or six times.

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Let the dough rest for 5 minutes and fold for 30 seconds. Bulk fermentation is now under way.

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Now check the dough temperature. If it’s below 78F, Ken’s recommendation for a final mix temperature, put it back in the oven with the pan of water for another hour or two, taking it out to do the folds – the next step.

After 10 minutes, pick up the edge of the dough with your finger tips and fold it over itself. Repeat this three more times, rotating the container a quarter turn each time. Do this two more times within the first hour, then one more set 30 minutes later. This folding action develops the gluten by creating longer gluten chains, which is gives the dough the ability to retain it’s gases.

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Wondering when we are going to knead it? Kneading negatively impacts the flavor of the bread because it oxidizes the alcohols that give it flavor. With time, patience, and a few folds, we can eliminate kneading altogether.

Let the dough continue to ferment for a total of 12-15 hours or until it has nearly tripled in size. Since the temperature of my kitchen is about 63F in wintertime, I kept the dough in the oven for the first two hours, then down to the warm spot where hot water heater lives. If your room is cool it will likely need a couple more hours.

The dough should be bubbly and gassy.

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At this point it is ready to be divided. Flour your work surface and remove the dough from the container. Dust the top of the dough with flour and use a dough knife to cut it in to two equal-size pieces.

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To shape the dough into loaves, grab about a quarter of one side of the dough, gently stretch it and fold it over the middle. Repeat with the other three sides.

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Flip the dough over and place it on a part of the work surface that is has a bit less flour. Pull it a couple of inches towards you, give it a quarter-turn, and repeat. This action gives the dough some tension, which will help keep the gases from escaping when baked.

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Line two baskets with clean towels. Dust the towels with flour and place each round seam-side down in the basket. Put each basket inside a grocery bag, tying off the opening. Let the dough sit out to proof for approximately 4 hours. When you press your finger into the dough and it barely springs back, you know it has fully proofed.

An hour before you think the dough will be sufficiently proofed, place your dutch oven in the oven with the lid on, along with an oven thermometer. Set the oven to 500F and let preheat for a full hour. The hotter the dutch oven, the better.

Once preheated, very, very carefully, take the dutch oven out of the oven. Remove the lid and place one dough round inside. Score the loaf by cutting it with a razor or with scissors about half an inch deep. Put the lid back on and put in the oven for 20 minutes. After 15 minutes, reduce the heat to 450F. Five minutes later, take the lid off and continue baking for 25-30 more minutes, until dark brown. (Note: Ken has you bake the loaves at 475F for the entire duration of the bake, but I prefer this temperature regime).

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Steaming the loaf with the lid on essentially steams the dough, giving it a good ‘oven spring,’ and prevents the crust from forming too quickly. After the loaf has risen nicely, the lid is removed, allowing a nice crust to form.

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Well, the starter experiment worked! Was this the best loaf I’ve ever baked? No, but the flavor was pretty good and it wasn’t a brick. Nevertheless, I am happy with it given that the starter was only a week old. Some say you should wait three weeks before using the starter. After having baked with my well-matured 50/30/20 starter for a couple of months, I agree with this advice.

Now that you have your starter, the possibilities are endless… and Sourdough Sam knows this better than anyone! Ya know what your starter is also really good for? Pizza. Baking Powder Bums definitely don’t have this much fun.

Images of Sourdough Sam and Big Ole courtesy of www.books-about-california.com

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3 thoughts on “· Meet Sam, the Sourdough Man

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