Sunday, June 22, 2008

Sourdough Starter Trials

I recently learned the trade of bread making using sourdough starter, also known as le levain (in French), poolish, starter, or even the mother.
It is a method that does not use powdered or cake yest. Instead one breeds their own yeast via fermentation.
To start the process place raisins and water in an airtight jar. The amount of time it requires to begin the fermentation process really depends on the temperature of the environment of the jar. I believe it generally takes 2-5 days. I suggest that the jar is shaken and the cap unscrewed and then retightened every day. One can tell when it is ready by the smell and the appearance of the raisins. The raisins should appear slightly degraded and the jar should give of a sweet fermented odor.
Once the raisins are ready, they and their juice are combined with flour and water. This is the starter. There exist many methods for caring for a starter and right now I follow one of the easier methods, the way I learned in France. I simply feed the starter every or every other day depending on the fermentation action. The starter is fed by simply adding more flour and water. After a few days, it should be well established and be ready to use.
To make the bread, I use about half the starter and combine it with flour water and salt. This is the basic recipe that I made while I was in France. I have, however, become slightly more adventurous and attempted a cinnamon raisin loaf by also adding cinnamon, raisins and maple syrup.
I intend to branch even more as my starter adventures progress and would like to also experiment with different starter methods. (There are some that use fruit juices and some that have very distinct directions each day i.e. the amount of each ingredient added, when to refrigerate the starter and when to through part of it out.)
In the future I'll try to make a tutorial as my descriptions lack detail and measurements. This is because the method I learned in France had little detail as well and all measurements were approximate.
Le Levain:
Trial One:
(I forgot to add salt so the bread tasted like cardboard. I also split the dough between two pans so the loaves lacked height even though they did rise to about twice their size)

Trial Two: Cinnamon Raisin
I was pleasantly surprised by how well this loaf turned out. I was a little worried because I'm still getting used to feeding the starter on a daily basis. Not halving the loaf made a big difference regarding the success of the loaf as did remembering to add salt, in addition to the other ingredients that generally make up a cinnamon raisin loaf.
The flavor was quite lovely with a sweetness that was right on target. I used soymilk instead of water for this loaf to add a little richness.
Some families and bakeries keep the same starter for decades, confident that they've perfected the yeast strain and caring for the starter daily as if it were a pet or small child.
I was recently reading the packaging bag for a loaf of La Brea Bakery Bread. They state that their sour cultures, which are vital in many of their recipes contain flour, water and organic grapes.
If you're interested in bread baking or just want to improve your skills, I highly recommend checking out the following resources:
Site: The Fresh Loaf "A community for amateur artisan bakers and bread enthusiasts. [The] site contains featured recipes, lessons, book reviews, a community forum and recipe exchange, and baker blogs.

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