Saturday, January 10, 2009

Sourdough and yay 2009!

I celebrated this new year by baking bread, a whole lot of it. Last year for new years, one of my goals was to learn to bake bread, specifically sourdough. Toward that end, I began researching sourdough on January 1st, 2008 and mixed up my first sourdough starter on January 4th, 2008. It took a couple of weeks for it to get going and do its yeasty thing, but by mid January I was baking my first loaves of sourdough bread. A year of mostly frequent (but often infrequent) regular feedings later, along with the help of roommates while I was away in June, my sourdough is still alive and kicking and one year old!

I have mostly fed my sourdough with AP flour, usually King Arthur, because that's what I have on hand. I occasionally fed it with whole wheat flour, particularly when I wanted to give it a boost before baking or if I wanted to incorporate some whole wheat into a bread that didn't call for it in the recipe. I have also used rye flour recently, but more on that later.

I usually keep one jar or container of starter in the fridge as a reserve, that consists of just flour and water (and natural yeast of course). In addition, I'll often have another container of starter in the kitchen at room temperature that I'm building up for whatever kind of bread I'm next making. I'll also have separate containers for any other kind of stuff that I might want to add to the starter beyond just flour and water.

On the non-wheat front, I've added a few other things to the starter at various points to see how they would alter the resulting loaves. I have added potatoes (sliced thin) and potato water, I have added whey (leftover from making cheese), milk, sugar (never in a starter that I've kept), malted barley, and I think I'm going to try adding beer to one this week.

I sometimes try to let the water I use to feed the starter sit out so that the chlorine can evaporate and it can come to room temperature etc, but mostly I just use lukewarm tap water from the kitchen faucet. I know that there are sourdough purists out there who use only filtered spring water and stone ground organic wheat to feed their starters, but I don't really have the time, energy or money for that and my starter doesn't seem to be any worse for the wear because of it.

I also don't really regulate the water to flour proportions I use when feeding my starter. Many of the "authoritative" websites and books I've read obsessively monitor the different water to flour ratios they use to feed their starters and any effects each has on the bread. I honestly don't often measure when feeding my starter. There, I said it. I usually shoot for roughly equal parts flour and water (for a 100% hydrated starter), but that varies give or take a quarter cup in either direction.

The new reformed 2009 joe however, is trying to be much more scientific (read: anal) about his sourdough starter. I have been keeping track of the performance of my starter (how much it rises in a given time and at what temperature etc) as well as its hydration level. I started to do this for two reasons, the first being that the past year has had a great deal of ups and downs as far as my sourdough breads have been concerned and now that I've had my fun getting to know sourdough and playing with different things, I'd like to move toward establishing more control and regularity, so that I can consistently turn out good loaves of bread. The second reason is that I decided to celebrate the new year by attacking a set of recipes that specify certain hydration levels for starters as well as particular methods for activating and building up one's starter prior to actually using it in the recipe. They were all sourdough rye recipes, but I'm going to use a separate post to talk about those.

All in all, 2008 was a great year in which I baked dozens and dozens of loaves of bread, many of which were sourdough, a few of which turned out really well, and several of which were complete disasters. I was thinking of declaring 2009 the year in which I tackled some other baked good, both scones and muffins were in the running, but I haven't decided yet. For now, January has been a month of pushing my bread skills to the next level and actually taking the time to research and plan before baking and then learn something from the results of each loaf I make, as opposed to my the hell with it I never really measure baking is just for fun approach in 2008. So far, so good!

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