Isolation is a fickle mistress. No commutes, flexible hours, work from home, zoom meetings; there appears to be time a plenty for us to pursue activities outside of our habitual programs. The reality is that Netflix binges, social media browsing and trying to source face masks quickly eats into this time. Iso-trends are popping up everywhere. At home workout facebook groups. Strava virtual running/cycling competitions. Home schooling help through periodic story telling (check out these offerings from JK Rowling and Taika Waititi). And baking bread. When the initial isolation threatened here (Melbourne, Victoria), I jumped on the bandwagon with no hesitation.
Saturdays were spent scouring kitchen supply stores for bench knives, bannetons, dutch ovens and high protein flour. Stock was low, nearly nonexistent. Online stores had delivery times greater than a month and even that was no sure thing given the uncertainty of goods coming out of China. This may have been too much for some people. The bread baking trend had exploded beyond a sustainable growth rate and barriers to entry were beginning to mount. Supermarkets had strict limits on non-perishables and dry goods in an effort to curtail the other pandemic of toilet paper hoarding induced violence. Being on trend and getting my bake on was proving to be a battle of logistics and ability to source supplies. To maintain the rage, I turned to alternative equipment and vigorously patrolled Instagram for continued inspiration (more on this another time). Hardware stores yielded plaster scrapers for bench knives, local markets housed previously unknown wholesale stashes of commercial quantity flours, existing Pyrex bowls and tea towels got put to good use.
Finally, I was ready to begin, to join the trend. Water, flour, salt, and time is required to make sourdough bread. ‘What about yeast?’ I hear you all cry who at some stage in your life have most likely dabbled with bread maker appliances or can remember back to home economics class where bread required yeast. It would come in small foil packages, often had to be kept in the fridge and high school science class told you is actually a living organism. This yeast is adequate; it’s the fermentation mechanism used in beers, wines and any bread other than sourdough. Sourdough is the slow food of the bread world. Its artisanal, bougie and god damn fucking delicious. It’s so hipster that it doesn’t need any of that ready-made yeast. Oh no, it can local source its own yeast thank you very much. To get its fermentation underway a sourdough utilizes a starter.
Let's get into starters. Remember when we talked about yeast and how regular old bread (don’t get me wrong, it's still delicious) needs some of this to ferment and create that life fluffy goodness? What the food science gurus didn’t let on is that yeast is everywhere. Take a deep breathe outside. Yeast. Wipe down your bench. Yeast. Draught coming in through the window. Yeast. It's everywhere. There’s just not very much of it. A starter (sometimes also called a ‘mother’) takes advantage of all this wild yeast and captures it for us to then use to ferment some dough. An easy way to get some starter and get into baking bread is to find someone that is in the bread baking game already and take advantage of their generosity. They will be more than happy to gift you some sourdough starter to begin your own fantastic yeast colony at home (what they won’t tell you is that in keeping your starter feed — yes you feed it — and flourishing you will find yourself forever googling ‘1001 ways to use leftover starter…). If you don’t have any bread baking friends that are willing to share some starter, you have two options: check out the listings on the local Facebook marketplace, Craig’s List, Gumtree, community noticeboards or even local sourdough baker on Instagram and cough up a few shekels to obtain some from these willing sellers, or you can go back to first principles and start your own.
Aside from being very ‘core’, starting your own starter is easy. Too easy. And this will be the undoing of any potential starter. Four things: flour, water, time, and love. That’s all a starter needs. The last two items, though they are unsubstantive, are the real kickers. Yes, not all flour is equal, and yes you can use the purest glacial run off at the perfect temperature as the base. But this will amount to sweet fuck all if the time isn’t invested and the love provided. The living, breathing yeast needs a bit of TLC. Don’t let it get too hot or too cold. Don’t leave it unattended for too long. Don’t feed it after midnight. Nope, that’s Gremlins. Feeding your starter is a good thing, and something that you end up doing a lot. Time equals patience. A juvenile starter is going to take a while to develop. In fact, for the first few days, it's going to be pretty useless (seems to be a common trait in many juvenile beings). It's going to take at least a week and during the first few days, it's going to feel like nothing is actually happening at all. Your patience is going to be tested every feed.
Feeding a starter, outside of using it to build a levain (the beginning of creating your dough), is the method used in creating a starter and then maintaining it. Your yeast that is floating around in that gooey soup has very basic needs. FOOD. FOOD. FOOD. The appetites of these microorganisms are really basic too: sugar. The flour has sugars within in it and the yeast in the starter goes to town on it. As it gorges itself on these sugars it then farts. Kinda gross but these farts are responsible for some pretty great byproducts, alcohol and carbon dioxide. The alcohol we want in the production of booze, but in bread making, the carbon dioxide is the objective. This feeding makes the yeast happy and then they reproduce, and the process continues. Feeding the starter is simple. Take some of the existing starter, add equal parts flour and water (I do this ratio to retain hydration levels at 100%, easy for doing calculations when measuring your bread dough ingredients), mix well and then leave in a nice warm spot. Repeat every 12–24 hours. If you are building a starter from scratch, it's going to take a few days of going through this process before you begin to see any action. You gotta hang tough and trust the process. Then, sometime during day 3, 4 or 5, some of that fermentation action will appear as small bubbly goodness forming. Once you’ve suppressed the schoolgirl giggles and high-fived yourself a few times (perfectly acceptable, you have just brought life into the world… sort of), feed your starter again. And then keep on feeding.
Your fussy little yeast colony will need your attention most days otherwise it can die. If you’re baking bread everyday, then keeping your starter spritely and thriving is easy as you’ll be needing that active bubbly goodness to build a levain for your bread dough. In our house we bake bread once or twice a week and so constant feeding would be a very onerous task, even though i am quite attached to my pot of goodness. So, in the down days when baking isn’t happening, its simple enough to pop the starter in the fridge. The little fermentation producing organisms will go to sleep in the cool temperatures and will live on to fight the good fight another day. All that's then required to get them back into fighting shape is to bring it out of the fridge and up to room temperature, give it a feed to get it active and it’ll be ready to go. Sometimes it’ll be a bit sluggish, maybe give it a couple of feeding cycles to get it roaring to go.
Starters will mature and take on flavours of their own over time as they take on the wild yeast in their environment. The sour flavours and profile will also develop depending on how much mature starter is used as the base for feeding. More mature base will develop a strong sour profile. So, play around with your starter and work with it to give your bread its own unique taste.
Next stop on the bread journey will be the to address the waste of the starter feeding process. Flatbreads, pancakes, waffles, and tasty treats await.