Foment in the ferments…

...(or I’m not very good at following rules)

I try not to eat too many carbs – as in not too much bread, rice, pasta, spuds etc and I very rarely eat sweet stuff. Spuds and pasta were never my favourites, so I can take those or leave them (much to my husband’s chagrin) but I love bread and so the one loaf I bake each week has become truly precious. And it has to be sourdough.

I’ve always loved sourdough bread. As a young’un I used to buy a small hard brick of rye sourdough from the Health Food shop when all my friends were in Woolies buying the pick’n’mix. When I got it home I’d cut thin slices and eat it with butter – pure bliss. Everyone thought I was bonkers then (and truth be told probably still do now).

I’ve changed a little since then, OK quite a lot, but my love of sourdough bread has never diminished. And the sourdough you can buy has come a long way in the intervening years too. Instead of the small hard bricks of rye you can now buy lovely pillowy loaves of any size, shade or grain you could imagine. And I’ve even managed to convince my family that it tastes better than pappy white sliced. Not that it took much convincing really as they agree that it’s the food of the gods. So when we moved to the wilds, with no proper bakery (then) within many tens of miles, I needed to make my own.

My first several attempts at making a starter ended in tears. I slavishly followed the instructions to weigh out equal amounts of flour and water, mix and put in a jar, double the amount the next day and the next…..until I ended up throwing fairly large quantities of well, mouldy old dough (yes I hear the music too) in the bin. On the one occasion I managed to get a bubbly starter it gave up the ghost after a few weeks of use and believe me, in those days it got used and fed regularly – I was so excited at having a working starter I was baking damn near every day.

I still don’t know why my starters didn’t work. Maybe it was the flour, maybe it was too warm/cold in my kitchen, maybe the environment in general is wrong – we’re half a mile from the sea and probably only a couple of hundred metres above sea level, or maybe I was too scared to love it, talk to it and nurture it. Your guess is as good as mine. Whatever the reason it didn’t work and I gave up.

As I said at the beginning I don’t eat many carbs (usually just once a day) and rice is another dish that I try to make a real meal out of when we have it about once a week. The way I prepare my, always brown Basmati, rice is to put equal amounts of rice and water with a sloosh of lemon juice or vinegar in a bowl, cover it with a tea towel and leave it to soak for 7-8 hours. Then at dinner time I drain it, add double the original quantity of water, season it, chuck in a knob of butter (or coconut oil) and the seeds from 2-3 cardamom pods. Bring to the boil, cover, lower heat to minimum setting and leave for about half an hour. Perfect fluffy rice, every time, with no digestive issues – too much information?

Well, sometimes things go awry and one day the bowl of soaking rice got left for 2 days (or maybe 3). You read all sorts of scare stories about rice so I was about to throw it away when I caught a whiff of it – it smelled yeasty just like sourdough. My husband and I discussed this amazing development and decided to go for it. So I drained the rice but saved the water and added it to an equal quantity, by weight, of flour. Within 24 hours I had makings of the best bubbly starter I’d ever seen and it’s still going strong now, somewhere approaching 4 years later. (Oh, and we ate the rice, just in case you’re wondering – it was delicious as usual).

When I helped my daughter set up her bakery my starter went there and is used in her sourdoughs. I’ve split off portions and converted them, to rye, white (at the time I preferred organic wholemeal wheat flour) and my new favourite spelt, all with similar success. It occurred to me, more recently, that those who follow a gluten-free diet, through necessity or fashion, would be able to sample the delights of sourdough bread making a starter using the rice water method and their gluten-free flour of choice.

As I mentioned before I now only bake once a week (or we get it from our daughter if she’s baked the sourdough on the day we want it). So my starter sits in the fridge, sometimes for several weeks, and it has never failed to revive. I do try to remember to feed it at least once a week but time flies doesn’t it.

Sourdough bread takes very little time but a bit of forward planning. When I want to use my starter I pour off any liquor that’s collected on the top (my gal has made some splendid cider with it, but that’s for another time) and feed it with equal quantities, by weight, of water and flour. In baker’s terminology that’s a 100% hydration starter. I’ve read about reducing the water content to around 30% – that’s roughly a third of the weight of water to flour – or even less until the starter is a solid lump, for long term storage, but I’ve never tried that. But I digress. The starter is now sitting on the worktop – 1 part starter, 1 part flour and 1 part water (by weight). It’s warming up a little and starting to feed on the flour. It generally takes 3 feeds to get it back to its glorious bubbling self, ready to be converted into bread or other goodies.

Custom and practice would have you doubling each feed (by weight – if you haven’t sussed it by now bakers do everything by weight, not volume) and then discarding half. Not in this house! I honestly cannot believe that any good baker ever threw away perfectly good starter, apart from anything else good quality flour is not cheap – how do you make money throwing perfectly good stuff away? Can you imagine the pioneers travelling across America, discarding little piles of sourdough starter on their way? So what to do – especially if you’re controlling carbs and can’t bear to throw away huge quantities of starter?! Feed it less.

I keep my sourdough in a 500ml honey jar, in the fridge. It’s about half full (I’ve had accidents where full jars have blown and poured over – it’s not nice cleaning it out of all the little nooks in the fridge door it gets stuck in). There’s roughly 200g of starter in it. By the time I’ve discarded the liquor (which changes the % of course, but don’t worry about that) I’ve usually got about 150g. To this I add 150g water and 100g flour – see that 50g water that was lost has been replaced (400g total weight). About 8-12 hours later I feed it 100g of water and flour (600g total) and then again in another 8-12 hours or so. It does vary if it’s very warm or cold but basically morning and evening works for me). So now I have 800g of bubbly starter. I use about 300g to make my loaf, 200g goes back in the clean jar, into the fridge and I’ve got about 300g left over to play with. And I’ll tell you what I do with that another time……

Green Aura

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3 Comments on Foment in the ferments…

  1. You can’t do that to us! Leaving us high and dry when you have just excited us all beyond possibilities with that glorious sourdough starter and all of it’s possibilities! Please PLEASE give us that post about what to do with it now. We will forever be your humble servants 😉

  2. In the beginning the yeast in the starter is very weak and easily overrun by, pretty much, anything. Most usually, a mold. So, the jar should be sterilised, the water – boiled and cooled and the starter attempt kept away from anything yeasty, moldy, sugary or salty. Also, it needs air. After a few years of use the starter is much stronger (lifting bread in under a day in favourable weather of about +25C ) and more resilient.

    We made ours out of *sifted* (to air it) rye flour and water in a wide bowl, covered with (not-very-self-sufficient) piece of plastic wrap with a large hole in it and a paper tissue covering the hole. The starter keeps in a honey jar in the fridge, needs to be fed (usually done at use-n-bake time) once a month at least (we know that because we had to resuscitate it recently – probably the lack of air and flour for over a month or two was what nearly did it in).

    As a backup, we have air-dried a few pieces of the stuff and left that in the fridge, too. The restoration procedure of putting the dry starter in with water and flour works reasonably well even after a year or two 😀

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