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Sourdough Starter fermenting
Photo by Ruby Jung. All rights reserved

Sourdough - Manna from Heaven

I love sourdough bread.

I love it so much in fact that I objected not at all when my wife bought a sourdough bread cookbook (I think she has too many cookbooks) World Sourdoughs from Antiquity by Ed Wood. And so great was my passion for sourdough that I read the entire book before she did.

This book, or Mr. Wood's more recent work Classic Sourdoughs (both of which every sourdough enthusiast should own) chronicles the history of bread baking from Fourth Dynasty Egypt to the present day and, in addition to excellent and unsurpassed recipes and practical baking advice, includes a lot of hard to find (and extremely useful and interesting) information on flours and wheat types.

What is Sourdough?

Sourdough bread, for those uninitiated into its mysteries, is made using wild yeasts and lactic-acid producing bacteria – lactobacilli – and not the commercial yeast of commerce which is used almost exclusively for baking in this country. Anywhere from two to four separate species of yeast and up to six separate strains of lactobacilli can be present in any particular culture. It's this combination of yeasts and bacteria which give sourdough bread its unique and remarkable flavor.

Mr. Wood, in addition to being an author and microbiologist, also collects sourdough cultures from around the world and sells them to interested individuals (check out his website, Sourdoughs International ). Since each area has its own unique species of wild yeasts and lactobacilli each individual regional sourdough culture produces bread with a different flavor.

An Adventurous Method

After thoroughly reading his section on capturing wild cultures I decided to try my hand at it using a method of my own devising. So just before a rainstorm I set out bowls to collect rainwater. The heavens parted, the bowls filled up and in a very short time I was filtering the rainwater I'd collected through a spare coffee filter (to remove leaves, twigs and debris) into a jar.

The next day my long-suffering and patient wife – mostly to humor me I think since she was openly skeptical of my method – mixed up the standard cup of water (that I had collected) to 1 cup of flour that Wood recommends. Within 24 hours the culture came to life and an absolutely delicious aroma issued from the jar of bubbling starter. Visibly surprised (but delighted) my wife fed the culture more flour and water and the next day we baked our first loaf of genuine Southern Illinois Sourdough Bread.

It was delicious and like no other sourdough I've ever tasted – which is hardly surprising since no other area has quite the same mix of wild yeasts and bacteria as this one. So now I'm hooked and we're beginning an active program of yeast exploration and capture. We intend to try capturing wild sourdough cultures every month of the year to see if there is an optimal time for collection and to determine if any other flavors result as yeast and bacteria populations fluctuate seasonally.

For those with an adventurous nature concerning food and an interest in developing and maintaining regional cuisines this is a method of capturing your own area's unique flavor (no pun intended) in bread. The technique is so ridiculously easy everyone with even a nominal interest should give it a try.

Coexisting with Sourdough

by Ruby Jung

If you followed Jim's instructions above for capturing a wild sourdough yeast and (wonder of wonders!) you suddenly find yourself the proud owner of a bubbling, frothing sourdough culture – then what next?

Here's what we do:

Making Sourdough Bread

If you want to use your new culture immediately – I know Jim did! – to see what you've captured and how it tastes as bread, transfer your new culture to a larger jar and add another cup of flour and cups of water. Stir it in well and let it sit until lots of frothy bubbles appear throughout the mixture (this will take at least twelve hours at comfortable room temperature). In cool weather, I keep mine in the oven with the light on for warmth and the door shut over a wooden spoon for ventilation and to remind me not to preheat the oven! At the end of twelve hours your starter should be showing bubbles again. Add another cup of flour, another cups of water and wait until this mixture is actively bubbling. This should give you about three cups of active starter. When it's ready follow the recipe below:

Measure out one cup of starter and place in a clean jar and cover with plastic wrap. Set this jar aside while you make your bread dough.

Put the remainder of your sourdough starter in a large bowl. Add 1 Tablespoon sugar, maple syrup, or whatever you like to sweeten the bread and give the yeast a boost. Add 2 cups of flour and knead the resulting mass into dough. Once all the flour is worked in knead your dough for at least an additional ten minutes until the dough is nice and smooth and no longer sticky (you might need to add more flour to get rid of any stickiness). Knead it longer if possible for a smoother texture (it's almost impossible to over-knead sourdough by hand). Oil a cookie sheet, sprinkle it with cornmeal and place your loaf on the tray. I put my rising loaf in the oven and turn on the light with the door shut to keep the loaf warm. Let it rise until it doubles in size. Once the loaf has fully risen set your oven for 400 and bake until done. It's done when the loaf is nice and brown and makes a hollow sound when thumped with your finger.

This is a heavy, primitive bread. A little research will turn up more appealing breads, from "French bread" to Pita.

The Care and Feeding of Sourdough

While your bread is rising take the cup of starter you placed in the jar and put it in the refrigerator. Refrigerated it will keep for a long time with no further attention from you. Dark alcohol (The technical term is "hooch") will rise to the top; just stir it back the next time you use it.

Try to use it at least once a month, because if kept longer you may find yourself playing host to a colony of mold as well, and have to "sweeten the pot." Dr. Wood calls it "washing" and gives full instructions for saving a contaminated culture.

To reactivate it just remove it from the fridge, add another cup of flour and cups of warm water and let it come to room temperature. It should reactivate completely in 48 - 72 hours. After it reactivates (when bubbles are found throughout the culture) add another cup of flour and cups of water to make enough starter for another loaf. Once this batch is bubbling away follow the recipe above and make another loaf.

And always remember to save a cup of starter for next time. If you have extra starter give some to a friend. That way if you lose your starter for some reason you'll have a backup supply somewhere else. If you lose both cultures, well the next batch of starter is only as far away as the next rain.

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Copyright © 2004 Jim Jung