|Fresh baked sourdough bread.|
A Little BackgroundBefore the advent of cultivated yeasts like active dry yeast, cooks had to "capture" their own yeast through a sourdough starter. It's been said that sourdough bread has been made and eaten since the time of the Egyptians, 6000 years ago. There is belief that the first sourdough starter came to the US in the hold of Columbus' ship. By the 19th century, pioneers and miners were carrying a sourdough starter with them in their travels, allowing them to more easily make bread without stopping to find and purchase yeast. Sourdough gained in popularity during the California Gold Rush and it was during this time that the famous San Francisco sourdough was started.
"'Sourdough' even became the nickname for the California Klondike miners at the turn of the century. So important was their leavener that during the harsh winter prospectors slept with their starters to keep them from freezing. The son of an Alaskan 'sourdough' wrote that every miner's cabin featured, hanging over its red-hot stove, a 'tin full of fermented dough, used in place of yeast in making bread, biscuits and flapjacks'. A bubbling jar or aromatic starter was also the secret weapon of many pioneer wives and bachelors in the 19th century. The jar held the key to delicious breads and biscuits when milk was as scarce as yeast. The 'sponge', as it was called, was carried carefully in covered wagons and fed faithfully to keep it alive."
Sourdough is a mixture of water and flour left to ferment. The perfect environment is then created for microscopic organisms (or a lactobacillus culture) and wild yeasts to grow.
"A sourdough culture is a mixture of wild yeast and lactobacillus bacteria living in a mixture of flour and water. Over time, the culture will tend to become a mixture of one of three wild yeast strains, and one of five different lactobacillus strains. The two form a symbiosis that is interesting, and makes the culture quite stable. A German researcher has sourdough cultures that have not changed in over 50 years of use. In the classic San Francisco sourdough, the yeast doesn't eat maltose, one of the starches in flour. However, the lactobacillus bacteria do. In all sourdough cultures, the lactobacillus makes the culture quite acidic, and that acidity acts as an antibiotic, keeping stray bacteria and yeast out. Few yeast strains can survive in a sourdough culture. Yeast that can survive the acidity produced by the lactobacillus will thrive in the culture. Also, the lactobacillus eat the dead yeast cells, which helps keep the culture from getting nasty."
There are natural yeast in our environment and in the flour we use and depending on where you make your sourdough you will get a different flavor and different strains of yeast. San Francisco has some of the best sourdough bread, so people purchase starter from bakeries there. The only problem is once the sourdough is in your home and out of it's original environment and you start feeding it, the original yeasts and cultures from the San Francisco area slowly disappear and are replaced by the yeasts and cultures in your environment and in your flour, ultimately lending a different flavor and characteristics to your bread. In the article "Against the Grain", Katherine Czapp writes,
"Michael Gaenzle, a cereal microbiologist now at the University of Alberta, Canada, has suggested that sourdough cultures are in fact so intimately connected with the people who use them that they form a mutually supportive and sustaining relationship. That is, the microorganisms are part of you (and come from you) and so the bread you ferment with them is tailor-made to nourish and support especially you. You bolster your own health by eating bread cultured with your domestic friendly 'beasties.'"
Why Sourdough?During the making of sourdough starter and bread, the anti-nutrients are neutralized as the grains soak for many hours and even days. This is one reason why it can be beneficial to find sourdough recipes that incorporate long rise and rest times, as long as your starter can handle the process. Phytic acid is one of those anti-nutrients and is found in whole-wheat flour. During the soaking and fermenting process in making sourdough bread, the phytic acid is broken down by as much as 62%. (Note: 62% was the most consistent percentage I saw in my research, however with longer fermentation times, some people claimed that phytic acid was completely removed from the sourdough bread.) This allows your body to more easily absorb the minerals that exist in whole grains. Sourdough bread also has a lower glycemic index, meaning that sourdough bread raises your sugar level more slowly than regular bread.
"[T]he glycaemic index of sourdough bread is 68 compared to 100 for non-sourdough bread. This means that sourdough will help you hold your blood glucose in check, according to research at Lund University in Sweden. The lacto-fermentation process actually uses carbohydrates in the food, converts it to lactic acid, and lowers the carbohydrate content. Dr. Andrew Weil in Eating Well for Optimum Health, points out that in cultures in which the traditional diet is still eaten and in which many of civilization's most common diseases are practically non-existent, most of the staple foods are low glycaemic index carbohydrates.
There may also be a cancer deterrent quality to sourdough, according to research by Liljeberg, Lonner & Bjorck (Journal of Nutrition,1995). Lignans, found in rye, are a type of botanical oestrogen, which are converted into biologically active substances that counter the growth of hormone-dependent tumours. In particular, lignans are known to protect against breast, prostate and colon cancer. They also help to prevent heart and blood vessel diseases."
~Wild Yeast Bakery website
There has even been evidence that people who suffer from celiacs disease are able to eat sourdough bread when it's made a certain way. The long soaking and fermenting process breaks down the gluten in wheat. Actually, I read that if the grain is fermented long enough all of the gluten can be removed from the grain, however at that point you have nothing to help your bread rise. If you are someone who suffers from celiacs disease this is a topic I'd recommend looking into. Not all sourdough bread is the same and commercial sourdough would likely be out of question, but I've read in quite a few places where people are able to enjoy certain types of sourdough without any ill effect. I think I could spend years just looking into this topic alone. On celiac.com, Scott Adams shares research information on celiac patients given a specific type of sourdough:
"Researchers in Europe conducted a novel study which utilized a highly specialized sourdough lactobacilli containing peptidases that have the ability to hydrolyze Pro-rich peptides, including the 33-mer peptide, which is the main culprit in the immune response associated with celiac disease. The sourdough bread in the study was made from a dough mixture that contained 30% wheat flour and other nontoxic flours including oat, millet, and buckwheat, which was then started with the specialized lactobacilli. After 24 hours of fermentation all 33-mer peptides and low-molecular-mass, alcohol-soluble polypeptides were almost totally hydrolyzed.
For the next step in the study the researchers extracted proteins from the sourdough and used them to produce a 'peptic-tryptic digest' for in-vitro agglutination tests on human K 562 subclone cell. The agglutinating activity of the sourdough proteins was found to be 250 times higher that that of normal bakers-yeast or lactobacilli started breads.
A double blind test was then conducted in which 17 celiac disease patients were given 2 grams of gluten-containing bread started with bakers yeast or lactobacilli. Thirteen of them showed distinct, negative changes in their intestinal permeability after eating the bread, and 4 of them did not show any negative effects. The specially prepared sourdough bread was then given to all 17 patients and none of them had intestinal permeability reactions that differed from their normal baseline values.
The researchers conclude: 'These results showed that a bread biotechnology that uses selected lactobacilli, nontoxic flours, and a long fermentation time is a novel tool for decreasing the level of gluten intolerance in humans.'"
Katherine Czapp and her husband Garrick Ginzburg-Voskov share a sourdough recipe in their article "Our Daily Bread" that has been successfully eaten by those with celiacs disease. Katherine Czapp has done quite of bit of fascinating research on celiacs disease, as well as, looking into how our grains are grown today and traditional methods of preparing our food so they are more easily digested. Check out her articles on westonaprice.org (two of my favorites are "Going with the Grain", "Against the Grain")
These hints come from my research and from my personal trial and error in making my own starter. The first sourdough starter I made was a very, very soupy mixture (and yes I was following a recipe) that would begin to get little bubbles in it. While this starter did make sourdough bread it was extremely dense. I knew there must be a better way to make a starter than what I was doing, so off I started on my long trail of research.
- Flour to use. I've had the best results with my starter when using whole wheat or rye flour, the fresher the better. I did a side-by-side test of making a starter from white flour, wheat flour and rye. The rye starter fermented the quickest and in very little time there were plenty of bubbles. The wheat was the second best. I had very little success with the white flour or at least it took longer to ferment than I gave it. While I did get some bubbles, it never doubled in volume the way the wheat and rye would. I know that you can have successful starters from white flour, however why bother? Wheat and rye flours are both much healthier for you
- Water issues. If you are having problems with your starter it might have to do with your water. We have an awesome water filtration system in our home, however as it filters out all the "bad stuff" it also removes most of the minerals. This ended up being a bit of a problem for my starter, so I began adding a couple drops of liquid minerals (I like ConcenTrace Trace Mineral Drops) to my water before mixing it with my starter. It made a difference and my starter began doubling in volume. Your starter needs the minerals to stay healthy and active, kind of like us! :-) Over-chlorinated or fluorinated water can also cause issues. If you think your water might be an issue, try purchasing some natural spring water and see how your starter does on that.
- Feeding methods. There are many starter recipes out there that say you only have to feed your starter once a day. I'd argue otherwise. Instead you should feed your starter a min. of two times a day and preferably 3 times daily. If you are at home where you can experiment with feeding 3 times a day, try it out and see how happy your starter is. What I noticed when I do a twice-a-day feeding schedule is my starter will begin loosing about a quarter to half of it's volume by the time it gets to the second feeding. This mean the starter is starting to starve and it needs more flour and water to feed on. With three feedings, it stays bubbly and keeps it's volume. With a one time a day feeding my starter wasn't doubling itself nor did my bread rise as well.
|Sourdough blueberry muffin.|
- Discarding part of your starter. You must discard half of your starter each time you feed it. Well you don't have to, but if you don't you are going to need A LOT of flour and a huge storage container. Think about it like this, if you start with 100 grams of starter at the first feeding you need to feed it an equal amount of flour and water. So, you'll feed your starter 50 grams of water and 50 grams of flour. Now you have 200 grams in your container, but don't forget that 200 grams needs to double in volume. You're thinking, no big deal, but wait. Now it's time for our second feeding. We have 200 grams of starter, so I need to feed it 100 grams of flour and 100 grams of water. Now your starter is 400 grams. If you do a 3 time day feeding, by the end of the day your starter will have grown from 100 grams to 800 grams. Wow! Now if you know you are going to be doing a ton of sourdough baking this isn't such a big deal because you're using it up so fast, but for the rest of us this would be far too much starter to keep on hand and this is just after the first day. By the end of day two you would have 6,400 grams of starter!
- What to do with discarded starter. Now don't get alarmed by the idea of being wasteful because you are discarding starter. This is where being armed with an arsenal of sourdough recipes comes in handy. Each time you discard half your starter, put it into a container in the fridge. Keep adding the discarded starter to the same jar. In a couple of days you'll have plenty of starter to make sourdough cake, pancakes, English muffins, donuts and so forth. Before you know it, all of your baked goods will be sourdough ones, which is awesome because of all of the great nutritional benefits, as well as the fact that sourdough foods are much easier for our body to digest. Check out this link (click HERE) about how to revive a starter that has been stored in the refrigerator.
- Sharing your starter. Another fun idea you can do with your extra starter is pass it on to friends and family. This is actually excellent for the upcoming holidays. It's always easier to start with a healthy starter and continue feeding it than it is to start your starter yourself. Take a clean half pint or pint mason jar, fill it with 100 grams or about a half cup of fresh starter. Wrap it up and put a hand-made card on the outside. In your card include how to feed a starter and also give a little background to your starter, like where it came from. Then if the person you give your starter to wants to pass their extra starter to someone they can include your starter's background info and their background info. Before you know it the starter has a beautiful history all written out. How cool is that! Some of the top bakeries in the world have been using the same "mother" starter for over 250 years! Can you imagine all of the history that goes along with those starters and how strong they must be to have stood the test of time?
- Fermenting time. Give your starter time to ferment and gain some vitality before using it. You can typically try and use it after about a week of feedings, however I think the starter gets drastically better after about 2 weeks.
- Weight versus volume. If you are able to, weigh out your ingredients instead of measure them out by volume for much greater accuracy. This will give you the most consistent starter. My starter is always 100 grams, so I feed it 50 grams of flour and 50 grams of water. If you have to use volume measurements then work in a ratio of 3 parts flour to 2 parts water or use 3/8 cup flour to 1/4 cup water. The starter consistency is something similar to a very, very thick pancake batter.
- Liquid and mold on starter. If a dark liquid appears on the top of your starter, simply stir it back into the starter and continue feeding it. (Per Bob's Red Mill website) I actually haven't had this happen with my latest batch of starter. It's pretty thick and even in the fridge it still bubbles slightly and the water doesn't separate out. If you get mold on your starter, don't stir it in, instead skim it off and make sure to always use a clean jar or container each time you feed your starter. Typically mold happens in the beginning stages of making a starter. Once your starter is strong and active the starter can take care of itself and mold will will have a difficult time growing on it. If you continue to have issues with your starter, you may have to pitch it and start over.
|Sourdough English muffins.|
- Storage containers. Store your starter in a non-porous material like glass or ceramic. Sourdough starter is very acidic and it can slowly eat away at the surface of plastic and metals, even stainless steel. Using a stainless steel spoon to stir your mixture is fine, although any other type of metal is not recommended.
- Covering your starter. I have tried not covering my starter at all and covering it with a towel, plastic wrap and a lid. The greatest problem with not covering your starter at all is that the top can start to dry out. If you are stirring your starter really well, to help incorporate air into it, when you feed it, there is no reason you need to leave it uncovered. There are thoughts that you are trying to "capture" the yeast in the air, but through my research, some of the top sourdough makers I found said this isn't actually the case, at least not enough to merit actually leaving the starter uncovered. My starter stays happy and healthy whether I cover it or not. Ultimately it's your choice.
- Temperature. Starter is happiest between the 70° - 80°. If it get much cooler than that, it will slow down its activity. Something to keep in mind in cold climates. If your starter stays on the cooler side, you will likely not need to feed it as often. While if it's in a warmer climate it's exactly the opposite, with feedings needing to happen more often. Basically think about bread when it rises. The warmer the temp. the quicker it rises. If you kitchen temperature averages above 90°, you may want to look into ways to help keep your starter a little cooler or you risk killing it. For colder climates, consider keeping your starter in the oven with a towel around it and the oven light on.
- Understanding your starter. Get to know your starter and forget about the standard rising times used in making regular bread made with active dry yeast. Everyone's starter is going to be different and it will rise differently as well. Some starters may require overnight to double your dough in size, while others only a couple of hours. This simply takes practice and familiarizing yourself with your starter. Sourdough starter requires you to be a bit more adventurous when baking. There aren't always cut and dry recipes and instructions for using it, especially because the hydration level varies from starter to starter. The recipe I share below is for a starter with 100% hydration. While there are plenty of recipes out there, don't get discouraged if they don't turn out the way you hoped on the first try. Instead, have fun and keep trying knew ways of using your starter. Your kitchen will become your own science lab and if you have kids, be sure to get them involved as well. Before long you'll become more comfortable with your starter and will have gained a great understanding in how it works.
- Long term storage. I mentioned above that you can store your discarded starter in the fridge for later use. You can do the same with your "mother" batch as well. This is helpful if you know you are going to have a period of time where you can't feed your starter regularly. Some people always store their starter in the fridge once it is healthy and active, however I've read that over time this can actually deteriorate the starter and that's not something you would particularly want to do once you've put all the time and effort into getting it started. So far I haven't put my "mother" starter in the fridge, so I can't say whether or not it would be something I would do. If you do decided to refrigerate your starter, it's still important to feed it. It gets a little fuzzy here. I've seen recommendations to feed it from once a week to once every couple of months. For the most part, the sourdough experts seem to say that feeding your starter in the fridge once every 1-2 weeks is best.
Sourdough Home - http://www.sourdoughhome.com/index.html
Sourdough QA - http://www.nyx.net/~dgreenw/sourdoughqa.html
The Fresh Loaf - http://www.thefreshloaf.com/
The Starter Recipe
What You'll Need: 100% hydration starter
- Whole wheat or rye flour - the freshest flour you can get or preferably freshly ground at home
- Fresh water
- Ceramic or glass container (a wide mouth mason jar works well) with a lid or something comparable
- Wooden or stainless steel spoon
- Scale - optional, but makes making a starter much easier
Day 1In a clean container mix together 50g of flour and 50g of water (or 1/4 cup water and 3/8 cups flour). Scrape or wipe down inside of container to keep sides clean, this will help prevent possible mold forming. Lightly cover container with a lid, towel or plastic wrap.
Day 2 or 12-24 hours laterCheck to see if you see any bubbles in your starter*. If there is, it's time to "feed" the starter. Add to your container another 50g of flour and 50g of water (or 1/4 cup water and 3/8 cups flour). Stir well and cover again.
*This is where a glass jar comes in handy, because you often can see a bubble or two through the sides of the jar. If you can't see any bubbles, try stirring your starter and see if there are any bubbles or if the starter seems lighter in consistency. If nothing has seemed to happened yet, wait another 12. If at the end of 48 hour your starter is still doing nothing, discard it and try again.
|Feeding 100g of starter with 50g of flour and 50g of water.|
Day 2, 2nd feeding or 12 hours laterDiscard half of your starter so that it is once again 100g (if using volume measurement, simply discard half before feeding it).* Add 50g of flour and 50g of water (or 1/4 cup water and 3/8 cups flour). Stir well and cover again.
*Typically the 2nd feeding happens around 12 hours later, however if your starter isn't showing any signs of life yet, wait for bubbles to start to show and then feed it. This may take another 12-24 hours. If you feed your starter too soon you can actually end up diluting it too much and ultimately it won't have enough organism to survive.
|Starter has just been "fed". I mark a line on the jar with a dry erase marker so I can clearly see if starter has doubled.|
Day 3Hopefully at this point you are starting to see some real activity with your starter. Continue discarding half and feeding your starter every 12 hours for at least a week before trying to use it. Your starter is ready to be used for baking when it can easily double itself between feedings. After the first two weeks, I switch to a 3 times a day feeding schedule if I know I'm going to be using it often. My starter is always much happier on this schedule, but it will stay alive even if I only feed it twice a day.
|A happy starter easily doubling in size between feedings.|
I hope this post gives you a desire to start your own sourdough starter!