I have always loved bread, but it has not always loved me. There is much truth to the “wheat belly” and “gluten intolerance” theories of today. But much of my love of bread is tied up in childhood memories — a kindergarten field trip to the Wonder Bread factory in Baltimore where we each received a miniature loaf of wonder bread; my father’s weekly bread baking in the last years before his death, using a recipe from the ‘Joy of Cooking’ cookbook with white flour, store-bought yeast, butter and milk.
But then came the beginning of “another way.” The sixties with its foray into healthier eating. The release of the ‘Tasahara Bread Book” with its emphasis on Zen and whole wheat was a frustration for many of us as it produced heavy loaves that were in a different class altogether from the bread we had grown up with. That was followed by the proliferation of in-store bakeries and bakery eateries which offered delicious, artisan loaves with crispy crusts and chewy insides that were impossible to replicate in your home oven. Then came the No-Knead Bread Method, which relies on a cast iron dutch oven to produce similar humidity levels as a bakery oven. But none of these methods, improvements though they were, got me to a place where I could feel confident in the health of what I was baking and eating.
That is, until the Modern Sourdough Revolution sprang to life, with its focus on the science of bread. And then began a new effort on my part to generate delicious and wholesome loaves with the same tangy flavor and beautiful artisan good looks that I associated with sourdough. I started by purchasing a sourdough starter from King Arthur and managed to keep it alive through 3 semi-good loaves. Then I attempted to make my own starter in my Zoriushi Bread Machine. This was a disaster.
But recently, I watched a Netflix documentary by Michael Pollan on cooking which gave me new insight and hope. One segment of the show focused on bread, and the ancient art of fermented sourdough. The key is the fermentation — which not only provides sourdough with its unique flavor, but also breaks down the wheat flour to make it more digestible and healthy. I was hooked.
The New York Times has given excellent coverage to sourdough and there are several different ways to start your own “wild” sourdough. I chose to try making it from golden raisins. It takes about a week to produce the raisin water needed to create the starter. My first batch didn’t work out. I put the crock on my seed starting heat mat thinking it would facilitate it. I grew something in there, but it wasn’t yeast. Started again, this time putting it near my grow light but not on the heat mat, and checking every day to give it some air and a stir. In a week I had wonderful smelling foamy raisin stew. I drained off the water and began my sourdough culture with it. Eureka! My wonderful sourdough was born!
Serious sourdough aficionados name their starters. I decided to name mine Audrey after “The Little Shop Of Horrors” creature who was constantly crying “Feed Me!” I thought it would help me remember that a good starter is always a work in progress. It must be attended to on a regular basis to keep it viable. Like many serious bakers, I decided to keep Audrey on the counter in a protected nook near the stove but away from ceiling fans and air conditioners. I use her every day or every other day. I check on her daily and if I am not pulling out a cup or so to bake with I will take some and put it in a jar for a neighbor and then feed her with fresh flour and water. I’ve long abandoned the strict ratios and go by smell and appearance when feeding her. I know what she looks and smells like when she is happy and she rewards my diligence with exquisite bread, pizza dough, biscuits and hopefully soon, bagels (my next project).
I strongly encourage you to try your hand at making a wild sourdough. It is an adventure. It is fun. It is delicious and very satisfying. In future posts I will supply recipes that I have tested and now use regularly with great success. Emphasis for me is always on easiest. I have discovered that there seem to be a LOT of sourdough recipes that are much more complicated then they need to be. Ancient bread makers, I think, did it by my method — look and smell. If it looks good and smells good — you’re gonna bake gooood!