Most people who bake bread will probably tell you, assuming that they include sourdough in their rotation of breadmaking, that there is something real and basic about making sourdough. It’s something more than water and salt and sugar and yeast and flour and a loaf of bread a couple of hours later.
No, sourdough is something that takes days and weeks to produce and the longer the better. At its most basic form, sourdough starter is nothing more than flour and water left to be fermented by wild yeasts. Imagine that, there are wild yeasts in the air that will ferment your bread instead of the store bought yeasts. Beermaking has something very similar and it generally defines the Belgian style of beers that seem to be all the rage these days. If you want the sour version of beer that compares to sourdough, try a Belgian Lambic.
There are bakeries in San Francisco, which is supposedly the home of sourdough, that make bread that has its origins in a sourdough starter that has existed for decades. For instance, Boudin Bakery claims its starter has been in existence since 1849. Here’s how that could be.
A sourdough starter is, again, flour and water. Sometimes there might be a little bit of yeast added to give it a kick start. Sometimes rye flour is used. There are a number of ways to start a sourdough starter, but again, at its most basic form, it is just water and flour mixed together and left to ferment. If it works, the starter than has to be fed regularly to keep it alive and active. Feeding is nothing more than regularly removing a cup of the starter and replacing it with a cup of water and a cup of flour. This is how those starters have been around since as far back as 1849. The bakers have continued to feed the starters, keeping them healthy and productive.
Maybe, you begin to see why sourdough can be viewed as something very basic and very real for a bread baker.
I’ve had different starters over the years. Some have died from neglect. If you don’t feed it for a long enough period, it can go bad. You don’t want to see, or smell, a sourdough starter gone bad. Whenever one has died on me, it hasn’t been too long before I’ve wanted another one, even if I only make sourdough a couple of times a year. One of the best breads I’ve ever made is a roasted garlic asiago cheese sourdough. It truly is the best bread there is and I want to make it every now and then, which is difficult if I don’t have a starter readily available.
The office is having its annual White Elephant, Holiday potluck extravaganza tomorrow. I decided it was time to check out my starter in the fridge and make some sourdough for the potluck. I’ve had this starter for several years now and it seems to have withstood my neglect. I generally only feed it when I’m going to use it, so the starter hangs out in a glass jar in my refrigerator for months on end, starving for attention.
Whenever I pull it out, it looks like this. Basically the starter has separated. There is a relatively solid base of about three inches and on top of that is an inch or so of the foulest smelling black water you can imagine. The longer it’s been, the more ammonia-like this stuff smells. But, it’s okay. I pour the liquid off and dump the solid stuff into a bowl and start the feeding process. I add a cup of water and a cup of flour, stir and cover. The next day, I remove a cup of the stuff, and then add a cup of water and a cup of flour. I do that every day until the day before baking. This time, I fed it daily for a week. By the time it got to Saturday, the strong ammonia smell was almost entirely gone and what it smelled like was … sourdough.
Last night I took two cups of the starter and added two cups of flour and two cups of water — forming what could be called a biga, poulash, or levain. I stirred and covered it for the night. In the morning it was nice and bubbly. I waited until just before we left for the Hanukah get-together with the in-laws and I turned the biga into dough. Adding some more water, flour, and kneading until it was just right. The thing about sourdough is that wild yeast produces a much slower rise than store bought yeast. Unlike when I make regular bread and the rise only takes 30-60 minutes, the rise for sourdough takes hours.
We were gone for four hours. When we got back, the dough had risen beautifully. On our way home, I decided I had made enough dough to make a couple of pizzas for dinner. So, when I got to work on the dough, I tore off enough to make three individual pizzas. I split the rest into two loaves. One is just basic sourdough. The other, I spread roasted garlic I had made in the morning down the middle and rolled it up into a long loaf. The loaves went in the oven and came out … well … you be the judge.
And the pizzas? Sorry, no pictures for those, I was too busy enjoying them. I have learned this year that the best pizza crust is one that takes time. Whether the dough is refrigerated for a couple of days or it is sourdough that has been fed for a week and has a four hour rise, it is sooooo much better than the quickly made stuff I usually make my pizza with. The crust was airy, light, crunchy, well toasted, and just what it needed to be.
As important as my rediscovery of the beauty of sourdough and having the opportunity to make an incredible pizza was something else that happened while I was making the pizza. It is moments like this when I do my best thinking.
My current boss will be “retiring” in a week. I was told a couple of weeks ago that I will be expected to say something about him at our annual White Elephant, Holiday Potluck extravaganza. The thought terrifies me. This is the kind of thing that I’m convinced I’m no good at. For days I have thought about it and couldn’t get past a throw-a-way line about his patience and grace. So, I’m making pizza. I’m in that place where everything else seems to slow down, to dissipate, the whirring in my head goes away just a bit, and it comes to me. The approach to this much feared event scheduled to take place tomorrow. As soon as I finished eating my pizza, I wrote my piece for tomorrow. I think I got it exactly right.
The discovery for me is that I have neglected these kinds of moments for far too long. Like when I went for a walk at the Cosumnes River Preserve a couple of weeks ago, and enjoying my breadmaking this weekend and the experiment of sourdough pizza tonight. These moments where I’m able to escape the multiple stresses and pressures, to clear my head, to focus on something I enjoy and through that enjoyment produce some clarity where it is needed.
I wrote almost two months ago about my desire to blog less, to social media less, and to find “it” again. Today was a small step toward that goal. All because of a little sourdough. I hope you had your own sourdough moment this weekend. If you didn’t, go out and find it this week.