I've been doing this thing where I try to bake more often, and I'm finding that I enjoy breadmaking almost above baking of any kind. Bread baking is like a science experiment, and each time I make bread I understand the nuances of it more and more, tweaking things to get the perfect loaf. Bread baking often comes down to just knowing something about the dough that you can't measure -- you just have to figure out, through trial and error, things like exactly how warm the water for the yeast should be, or when the yeast has reacted to the water. You just figure it out as you go, and once you figure it out, it's like riding a bike -- you don't forget. The first time I had a loaf measurably rise, I pretty much threw myself a ticker-tape parade (I had many flat, unsatisfying loaves of bread prior to this). For me there's almost nothing more satisfying than lifting the dishcloth off of a bowl full of rising bread and taking in that yeasty, doughy smell and see how large the loaf has swelled.
I'm a huge fan of my own bread, as I am sure you know, but I really want to branch out and try new types of bread. I've recently subscribed to this blog called Wild Yeast about all yeast-related baking. It's opened me up to a whole new world of breads and other baked goods. I routinely drool over the recipes they scout out.
One of my favorite breads has always been sourdough, and it's perfect for the season. Maybe not for today -- it's a balmy ninety degrees here in Chicago -- but I've always loved my sourdough with a steaming bowl of soup, and fall is definitely soup weather...when it's actually feeling like fall out. You know, the swirling leaves, the chilly nights, the grey skies...yadda yadda yadda, fall, soup. So, I decided last night to take on sourdough as my next baking project.
In my head I'm thinking, okay, sourdough...love it, have no idea how to make it. Thank god I live in the age of google, where explicit and detailed instructions are a few keystrokes away.
"No problem," I say, searching 'Sourdough bread', "Here's a how-to, a cache of sourdough recipes, and the wikipedia entry as the top results. Let's read up on that shit and get a-crackin'."
Well, let's just say you're lucky I love you so much, because seriously, go up there and read the first three sentences of the wikipedia entry. If that doesn't lull you into a deep, deep slumber, I don't know what will.
Basically, sourdough is a little more complicated and interesting than you'd think. Sourdough, and other forms of rye bread, start with fermenting flour and water for days and days. This is called your 'starter', and people have been doing this shit dating back to caveman days, so clearly it must be a good idea. The how-to web site says to refer to the starter as your 'pet', which is a cup of water and a cup of flour mixed in a jar or container and set in a room-temperature type place. You feed your 'pet' every day by dumping half the starter and replacing it with a new half-cup of flour and water. With this process, the water metabolizes enzymes that feed the yeast, which in turn feeds the bacteria, and so the mixture reaches a symbiotic state. In three to seven days the 'pet' should be bubbly and smell like yeasty goodness. Once it's reached that point, cover the container and feed it every week or so. (One gross-sounding result of putting your 'pet' in the fridge is an alcohol-like liquid that separates called 'hooch'. The directions say to stir hooch back in or pour it off the top of your flour-water mix. Either way: ew.)
And that's all BEFORE you even start the dough itself.
SO. I trekked to Whole Foods today and bought a bag of bread flour. I've decided to attempt this sourdough and document my results. I will be starting the starter tonight and post the progress of my pet up here.
Much more to come.