Wanna Start Somethin’?

Bread P0rnI recently obtained some of Carl Griffith’s starter and started learning to make bread.  It actually turns out to be pretty easy, fun and quite tasty (though this starter really doesn’t taste like “San Francisco Sourdough™”, mostly it just tastes like damn good bread with a bit of a nutty-pretzel-y twist).  It is also really easy to start, store, share and re-start; here’s how I’ve started and maintained it.

Starting from either the dried powder or small amount of (well broken-up) dough works about the same way, I basically followed these instructions, though I like to use a teacup for the small container and do a second small feeding around 8 – 12 hours in regardless of whether there is any apparent activity, then wait another 12 hours or so before moving it to a larger container and upping the volume.  Once you’ve increased it to a cup or more, it’s active and ready to start using.  (One thing to note: once this starter gets good and active, it smells rather like glue; dunno if it’s really producing toluene or just smells like it, but don’t worry, mine smells like that too and the bread comes out great.) There are at least as many suggestions for feeding, storage, frequency of use, quantity, etc as there are bakers; I’ve only been at this a few weeks, but here’s what I’ve been doing.

I like to keep about two cups active at a time in a wide mouth quart canning jar; I kinked the edges of the lid disc to keep it from sealing.  If there is more than two cups right after feeding, it will escape from a four cup jar; whatever you use to store it, never fill it more than half way. So far two cups is proving to be a pretty good quantity: it doesn’t take up much fridge space, and it means I can use fairly large amounts of starter which brings with it more flavor and tanginess.  I keep it about the consistency of thickish pancake batter, which keeps it easy to stir and pour.  

I’m not very particular about the precision with which I feed it: when it gets down to a cup or so, I add more water, stir it vigorously with a sturdy plastic chopstick, and start adding flour a little at a time until it’s back to the right consistency.  If it’s going back into the fridge, I give it an hour or so to get a little active and bubbly first.  I keep it in the fridge during the week, and sometime around friday night I take it out and stir it up so it will be good and active to do something with on saturday.  When it separates, I just stir the liquid back in; this should make it more sour, so you could discard the liquid and add a bit of water if you want.  I generally keep it out all weekend and cook with it as much as possible, and then put it back in the fridge sunday night.  The most important thing is don’t worry too much about it: keep some backup starter frozen and scratch your head at anyone who says sourdough is difficult.  It’s not, it really is very easy, so relax, have fun, experiment.  So what have I been experimenting with?  

Bread, of course, especially dinner rolls, which I’ve been baking in a cast-iron skillet over indirect heat in my Weber grill.  My latest creation is fresh basil and olive oil bread (shown above).

Pizzas: similar to bread, but you want to minimize the rise in the end (I’m a NYC-thin-crust pizza snob); I’ve been baking these in my Weber, too, and they’re a lot of fun.

Biscuits: there are a couple styles of sourdough biscuits I’ve tried.  My first attempt at using baking soda and the acidity of the starter was edible, but I need to work with the recipe quite a bit; my yeast-leavened ones (like rolls, but without kneeding) were tasty, but the crust was too hard (not sure why).  Both are sound ideas, just need the right recipe (suggestions welcome).

Pancakes: these, too, use the acidity of the starter to leaven with baking soda; I’ve found that adding a bit of baking powder for some double-action insurance is a good idea, and the batter needs a fair amount of sugar or they come out really cardboard-y

Wrapping up with the recipe for that basil bread (yes, I make bread by weight; in baker’s percentages, this bread is roughly 50% water (plus the starter), 7% olive oil, 2% salt [Update:] Next time, I’ll probably use a little less olive oil and salt):

The Sponge:

  • 500g flour
  • 500g water
  • a generous 1/2 C starter
  • at least 1/2 C chiffonade basil (a lot, the leaves of several healthy stalks)

Allow the sponge to ferment for at least five hours at room temperature

The Dough

  • another 500g flour (or perhaps a little less), added incrementally
  • 70g olive oil
  • 20g salt

Mix the dough in a stand mixer with the dough hook, adding flour until the dough is smooth, elastic and only a little tacky.  Kneed a bit by hand, if only to enjoy just how satiny-smooth the dough is.  Form into a ball, coat lightly with olive oil and let rise in a warm place for 1-2 hours.  Fold, form into loaves and proof (final rise) for 1-2 hours (yeah, I let it go a little long).  Bake at 400°F-500°F until the internal temperature of the loaves reaches 190°F or more.  Slice, take some pretty pictures and enjoy!

Ok, really wrapping up: if anyone wants some starter, especially if you’re in the bay area, contact me through this site.

3 Responses to “Wanna Start Somethin’?”

  1. Jeanie says:

    I made some rye bread last night. It didn’t seem to be rising to I left it overnight and baked it this morning–Man is it sour! I’ll have to see how Dennis likes it! Maybe PB&J will be pretty good on it.

    I really want to do biscuits and pancakes so let me know when you get a recipe you like. I’ll let you know if I find any that seem to work well.

    Thanks for the scoop (and the dough!)

  2. brain says:

    I made a grilled cheese sandwich with some of my basil & olive oil bread, it was *AMAZING*; super-sour would likely work well for grilled cheese too…

  3. Too good dude! I liked it!!

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