Thursday, January 9, 2014

Make Your Own Sourdough Starter!

Meet my new pet, The Kneady Bastard. He's a typical man, just needs to be fed and have a warm spot to be stinky in.

I was talking to a fellow book lover the other day about Anthony Bourdain's lauded Kitchen Confidential and how I always break into a fit of giggles over the bread scene. Evidently, at one point, Bourdain has a bread savant working for him. However, this gentleman was also a drug addict and low-level criminal who would frequently call into work. Bourdain reports this employee calling the restaurant in hysterics about his enormous starter, shrieking into the phone, "FEED THE BITCH! FEED HER OR SHE'LL DIE!" I really wanted a starter pretty much so I could make similar phone calls to my husband. However, in the interest of both feminism and not plagiarizing, I couldn't go with anything with b@#$% in the title. Hence, The Kneady Bastard was born.
Last week, I picked up a copy of Mother Earth News because of the fabulous sourdough spread on the cover and the promised sourdough miracles lurking therein. However, I discovered that, like most recipes for sourdough bread, the authors want you use your existing sourdough starter or to order one online, reconstitute it, and then proceed. As an instant gratification girl, I found this to be total crap. What if I want to, well, start a starter? I scoured several good cookbooks on my shelf, particularly the DIY kitchen books. No luck. No starter recipes? Is this a conspiracy? Finally, I found one in an old edition of Bread Machine Magic. And guess what? It's not hard. So why do so many recipes leave it out and direct you to BUYING a starter?

That's some silliness, in my opinion. Out of curiosity, I looked into what purchasing a starter entails. They range from $9-$50 and come with all sorts of unnecessary equipment. To get started, all you need is a cup of warm skim milk (90-100 degrees), three tablespoons of plain, active yogurt, a cup of bread flour, and a glass jar. A starter is just a liquid-ish piece of dough that is well into the fermentation process and adds the sour flavor and extra air bubbles to the bread.
Warm the milk (if you don't have a thermometer to measure the temp with, it took about a 45 seconds in my microwave). Stir in the yogurt. Don't seal the jar (you want the gases to be able to escape), and put it in a warm place for 24 hours until it thickens a bit and you can see some small curd when you slosh it around.
Notice I took the orange sealing ring out of the lid so the jar wouldn't be air tight.
Then stir in your cup of bread flour and return the jar to a warm spot. Stir it once a day until it has air bubbles and smells like sourdough.
It will produce some clear or light yellow liquid on the top; don't worry, just stir it back in. The author of my bread machine book does advise you to discard your starter right away if it gets fuzzy, black, green, orange, or pink. Good call. A starter is good because you can do a whole lot of things with it from muffins to pancakes to many forms of bread. I decided to go with a no-knead recipe that was in the Mother Earth News. I combined the suggested 3 1/2 cups flour, 1/4 t. active dry yeast, and salt. Then I added in 2/3 cup of Kneady Bastard and 1 1/2 cups of water. Combine well, cover, and let it sit for 12-18 hours. Then, plop it out on a flour-sprinkled, wooden cutting board, cover with a clean tea towel, and let it sit for another hour or two. All this letting it sit is taking the place of kneading in this recipe.
Dough in the pot (Dutch Oven, sort of. My enameled Dutch Oven is giant--to big for a bread loaf). 
Thirty minutes before the last rise is complete, put a Dutch oven into the oven and preheat it to 450 degrees. When your pot is quite hot (the recipe advises using an oval-shaped Dutch oven, but I don't have one. Round worked just fine), sprinkle the bottom with some corn meal. Using two spatulas, fold your dough ball in half a few times to combine it one last time and get it into a ball. Dump it in the hot pot, sprinkle with corn meal, put the lid on it, and bake for 35 minutes. When 35 minutes has elapsed, remove the lid and return to oven until the crust is browned, about ten minutes.
This turned out quite well! From starting the starter to produced loaf of bread took about five days. However, once your starter is going, it only takes a day to produce a loaf with the rise times. When you remove part of the starter, you have to feed it to replenish. I took 2/3 of a cup from The Kneady Bastard, so I had to feed him 2/3 cup of milk and 2/3 cup of flour. I used bread flour and skim milk. He's a happy, stinky man.

Simplified recipes to follow:

Sourdough Bread Starter (courtesy of Bread Machine Magic)
  • 1 cup skim milk, heated to 90-100 degrees
  • 3 T. active, plain yogurt (I used Fage)
  • 1 cup bread flour
  • 1 non-airtight container, like a jar with cheesecloth and a rubberband, or a jar like mine with the rubber ring removed
Combine milk and yogurt in a glass container (metal and plastic won't work!). Place in a warm spot for 24 hours or so. The mix should have thickened a bit and leave tiny curds on the jar walls when sloshed. At that point, add in your bread flour slowly, mixing well. Return to the warm spot and stir once a day. When it thickens, has air bubbles, and smells like sourdough, it's ready to use (3-5 days). Try to use it at this point. Starters need to be used. If you use it, replace the amount you used with flour and milk and keep it warm for a day. After that, you can keep it in the fridge until you need to use and feed it again. 

No Knead Sourdough Bread (Courtesy of Mother Earth News)
  • 3 1/2 cups flour
  • 1/4 t. dry active yeast
  • 1 1/2 t. salt
  • 2/3 cup starter
  • 1 1/2 cup water
  • cornmeal, for dusting
Combine the flour, active dry yeast, and salt. Then add in the starter and water. Combine well, cover, and let it sit for 12-18 hours. Then, plop it out on a flour-sprinkled, wooden cutting board, cover with a clean tea towel, and let it sit for another hour or two.

Thirty minutes before the last rise is complete, put a Dutch oven into the oven and preheat it to 450 degrees. When your pot is quite hot, sprinkle the bottom with some corn meal. Using two spatulas, fold your dough ball in half a few times to combine it one last time and get it into a ball. Dump it in the hot pot, sprinkle with corn meal, put the lid on it, and bake for 35 minutes. When 35 minutes has elapsed, remove the lid and return to oven until the crust is browned, about ten minutes.