Saturday, February 28, 2009

Adventures in Sourdough

A few weeks ago I decided to try and revive my sourdough starter that had been sitting, sadly neglected, in the back of my refrigerator. The sides of the glass dish were moldy, so I threw most of it out, but saved a couple spoonfuls of the contents, which still smelled good. After feeding it and setting it out at room temperature for awhile to make sure it was still alive and forming bubbles, I made pizza crust with it. This is a loaf I baked today, using the famous no knead method published last year in the New York Times and Mother Earth News. It was delicious. Home grown sourdough from a true starter, unlike the vinegar soured impostors you buy at the grocery store, is only slightly sour, and sweet, like mild cheese. The sourness is caused by lactobacilli, the same type of bacteria that is used to make yogurt and cheese, and, incidentally, must be present in our digestive tracts in order to process the food we eat. But that's not all. The beneficial work of these bacteria in the bread dough also help to predigest some of the more indigestable elements of whole grain. For example, their acidic environment breaks down the nutrient binding chemical, phytic acid, thus increasing the bioavailabilty of iron and other nutrients. Of course, this beneficial activity ends once the bread has been baked, but the good work has already been done. Here is more about how it works.

My adventures with sourdough began sometime last spring, I think. I found this site to be the best instructions for starting a starter. The author warned that if you had no experience with sourdough, it was best not to begin with making your own, but to order a culture from a commercial source. Ha, that was all the encouragement I needed! I used organic rye and wheat berries, which I ground in my grain mill, and fresh tap water from our well. I think that is why I had so much success. The wild yeasts that cause the dough to rise reside on pesticide free grains. And the antibiotic property of chlorine in city tap water systems can pose a possible problem if you're trying to grow a good culture, though this will evaporate if you let it sit long enough in a wide enough container.

So here is my recipe:
3 cups whole grain flour (at least half wheat)
3 tsp. wheat gluten
About 3/4 cup sourdough starter
1 1/4 tsp. sea salt
1 1/4 cups warm water

Mix all ingredients and let rise in a draft free place at least 8 hours. Be sure to also feed your starter. To shape loaf, sprinkle a generous amount of flour and oats, if you like, onto a clean cloth. Place dough on top and sprinkle on more flour. Fold the dough onto itself a couple times, sprinkling more flour as needed. Cover with a second cloth and let rise in a warm place at least 1 hour. I like to warm a pizza stone slightly in the oven, not to hot to touch, and let the loaf rise on this inside the oven. When it is almost time to bake, take it out of the oven and place your covered baking dish of choice inside (this can be a cloche, lidded dutch oven, stone baking dish, or large pyrex dish). Preheat at 500 degrees. When the oven is hot, quickly remove the lid, dump the dough inside by placing hand under the bottom cloth and inverting, replace lid and bake 30 min. at 475 degrees. After this time, remove the lid and allow to brown for another 5-10 min. if desired. This method of baking produces a lovely, artisan crust and soft, sponge-like interior.

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