Tuesday, February 5, 2013

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Process

So you may be asking yourself, "Why did she give her sourdough starter a name?" Basically, I think about my sourdough culture like a pet. It's definitely alive!! It's not insistent about being fed, like a cat, but messier than fish. When I keep it in the fridge, it hibernates, and I only have to feed it once a week or so. But if I keep it out where it's warm and active, I have to feed it all the time. The more I feed it, the more it grows. If I allow it to, it will multiply. Most of all, it gets into everything. 

Sourdough is really pretty simple. The "sponge" or starter is just a mix of flour and water, with a whole bunch of yeast and bacteria living in it. Only not gross like what lives in a kitchen sponge. As long as you put some water in there for them to move around in, and keep them fed with flour, the bacteria and yeast will live, and they will help you make delicious, healthy food. 

If you experiment with it for a while, you'll find a combination of hydration level, temperature, and feeding frequency that will give you the flavor and rising qualities that you prefer. That's like training your pet. :)

Here's an article which discusses the effects of manipulating the hydration and timing of sourdough:

Reading that article was the turning point from worrying to playing. I realized all that flour and water was just a medium for my yeast and bacteria to grow. Maybe I'm a little too casual about it now, but the more fun I have, the better the results I get. I've only been doing this for a month, but I've learned SO MUCH!! I read a lot, and I've been baking up a storm. Hence, the name of my blog.

It helps that my job is doing customer service for cultured products: sourdough, kombucha, kefir, yogurt, cheese, soy products.... It's actually my job to help people figure out how to, among other things, work with sourdough. There is a lot of confusion about care and feeding of starters, and what to do with them.

If you have a kitchen scale, you can more accurately assess the hydration level of your starter. 100% hydration refers to starter that's fed with equal parts by weight of starter, water, and flour. You can only approximate that when you use measuring cups. The ratio by volume is 1 part starter, 1 part water, and a scant 2 parts flour.  It can be difficult to judge how compact your flour and starter are, though. Depending on how bubbly and sticky your starter is, how compacted your flour is, and how full your measuring cups are, that ratio will give a result closer or further away from 100% hydration. 

At 100% hydration, the starter begins to pull away from the sides of what you're mixing it in. I'd say it's on the dough side of batter. If I was planning on making muffins with it, I might add more liquid to my recipe. If I wanted to make biscuits, I'd add more flour.

Personally, I find it easier to work with a more hydrated starter. It's a little more like thick batter than dough. It's easier to handle, not quite as sticky, easier to pour out of a jar. I can add a little less liquid or more flour than the recipe calls for to compensate. Some recipes, like this awesome recipe for sourdough tortillas, actually call for your starter to be at a higher hydration level. Fresh sourdough tortillas are awesome, by the way!

Also, lower gluten flours work best with a starter that's kept over 100% hydration. Here's more about that:

Last night was supposed to be pizza night. I found this recipe for sourdough pizza crust. Pizza night was a bust, but the crust parbaked nicely. Like crackers, it's a good idea to poke your crust all over with a fork before you bake it, or else you'll get big bubbles in your crust, where all the cheese will slide off. 

Note to self, if you want to take pictures of something for your blog, don't stick your finger through the middle of it. And clean your stove.

Next post: Bread is hard. Let's go chopping!

Sunday, February 3, 2013

Feed Me, Seymour!

Whee! My first blog carnival! Fight Back Friday from Food Renegade: http://www.foodrenegade.com/about/fight-back-fridays/

Unfortunately I forgot to post it on Friday. Uhm. Hey, at least I got it out there.

Today, I will introduce Seymour. Seymour is my sourdough starter. I don't think the plant from Little Shop of Horrors had a name, but this thing is a monster! I knew I was in trouble the morning I was giving someone a hard time about moving the ring off the half gallon jar my starter was in. I said, "What, you expect me to believe the starter moved it? Oh my gosh, IT DID!!!" The starter had gotten really active, and nearly tripled in size overnight in a warm room, overflowing the jar it was in.

Luckily, I've learned how to handle him, and Seymour feeds me too.

Every time you feed a sourdough starter, it roughly triples in size. If you're not refrigerating it, you'll feed every 12-24 hours; 6-8 when you're feeding a starter with brown rice flour. AND, when it bubbles up, it doubles in size again. Maybe more.

Let's say you have just 4oz of starter. You feed it 4oz of water and 4oz of flour. Now you have about 1.5 cups of starter, which will bubble up to around 3 cups. It might still be safe to leave overnight in a quart jar. Maybe. Although I've taken to putting my jar in a bowl so there's less mess on the counter if the starter gets really active. Next time you feed it, you'll be up to 3 cups of starter, so you have to leave room for it to expand to 6 or more cups. It can get out of hand quickly. To get your sourdough active enough for bread, you have to feed your starter at least 3 times. So I've learned some delicious things to do with all that sourdough starter.

Seymour has taught me some pretty cool things about grains and flour and fermentation and life. In later blog posts I'll introduce Iris, my kombucha mama, but I have to start with my newest baby.

I'm a sourdough newbie. Seymour was born on the 1st or 2nd of January. I'm a little fuzzy about the exact dates. 2013 really came in with a bang!! So anyway, Seymour is now a month old. Before that, I'd never had any success at all with sourdough.

Right after I started my awesome new job with Cultures for Health, I read Wild Fermentation. I decided to play around with making a wild-ish sourdough starter. I didn't want to rely solely on the wild yeast in the air, so I "boosted" it. I threw in the yeast from a bottle of mead we opened on New Years Eve. I also threw in some old, presumably inactive bread yeast. I don't know for sure which kinds of yeast would "take," so I just experimented. I think I've since read that beer yeast is the wrong kind, but there's almost certainly a lot of beer and champagne yeast floating around my kitchen, so that's what would have ended up in my wild starter anyway, I guess. Eventually Seymour will overtake them all.

Seriously, if you're culturing more than one type of food, or baking with commercial baking yeast, you have to keep several feet between your cultures. If you don't, eventually cross-contamination will weaken them.

There are many ways you can handle a sourdough starter, depending on what you want to do with it. The standard formula is to use equal parts by weight of starter, water, and flour. But different flours need different hydration levels, and you can also control the sourness of your bread by the hydration level of your starter.

The Wild Fermentation method is to just throw in whatever flour or grain you have around. Leftover oatmeal, whatever. I didn't plan this out too thoroughly, and the oatmeal had bugs, so in Seymour's first week he got what I had on hand: a combination of white, whole wheat, and rye flour. After that, I split out a starter that's rye fed, and kept Seymour mostly on an unbleached white flour diet, with a little bit of rye or whole wheat to keep it interesting. I've never been a fan of white flour, until I saw the lovely velvet smoothness of a sourdough starter fed on unbleached white flour. I also took out a tiny bit and started maintaining a starter on brown rice flour. It will never be really gluten free, but it's good enough for my own use. Since I started playing with Seymour I've been eating WAY too much wheat.

Next post: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Process.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

The Sour Storm

I'm a culture killer. Sourdough starter, yogurt starter, kombucha SCOBYs, kefir grains, I've killed them all. 

Then I went to work for a company called Cultures for Health. I am atoning for my murderous ways by teaching people how to keep their cultures alive, and learning an incredible amount in the process.

I read a lot, everything I can get my hands on. I got a book called Wild Fermentation, by Sandor Ellix Katz. And I finally understood how easy this stuff can be. 

It takes some time to cut up vegetables and stuff. But once you're used to it, you'll find you save time, gas, and money. You can simplify your life and be healthier, without giving up the things you love. You have to plan ahead a bit in terms of your ingredients, but you can change it up on the fly and make it fun, too.

My skin has cleared up, and my digestion is better. However, sourdough is a monster, and if you feed it it will grow, Little Shop of Horrors style. I've been eating way too much wheat, and I'm gaining weight, which is NOT OK. I love to eat, and I'm not a fanatic about any particular diet, but I know a few things about how my body seems to work best. I'm learning more all the time, and the more I learn, the more I want to learn and experiment.

It seems like everyone I know has some weird dietary issue or another. So... Welcome to my adventures in "cultured cooking" with alternative flours, grains, and beans. In the posts to come, I'm going to talk about where I am today, where I've been, and you know, all that stuff. There will be recipes, and pictures, and I will go into ridiculous detail about what I'm doing. I'm a gardener, so there will be much fresh produce to ferment. I'll talk about that too.

But now I am being dragged away to cook. You're gonna love this. Homemade beef soup with homemade sourdough rye noodles, and homemade sauerkraut.

Stay tuned for my thyroid safe root and radish kimchi.