At one time, a few years ago, I was a fairly active bread baker. But for a variety of reasons I had more or less stopped baking bread. Over the years I had accumulated several books in an attempt to revitalize my interest in baking. There was also a brief fling with sourdough starter. But the results were lacking, the starter never started, and the sous chef was underwhelmed with the product.
On a recent hiking trip, I was talking to another participant and the conversation turned to bread baking. She recommended a source for dried sourdough starter and suggested a book that she had found useful. When the starter and book arrived for my birthday I decided to accept the challenge to develop a sourdough starter and see if I could rekindle my interest in bread baking.
Before the advent of dried yeast, the yeast used to raise bread was in a liquid form and referred to as the starter. These starters were made by exposing flour and water to the local environment. The resulting cultures were maintained for many years and the composition of microorganisms certainly varied and affected the quality of the final product. The dried starter I used was provided by Breadtopia. Basically, you add the dried starter to flour and water and hope that it starts to ferment. After a couple of days, my culture started to bubble as expected. But the culture did not progress to doubling in size every few hours. I waited a few more days but no progress. In the time-honored tradition, I ordered more starter for one last try only to discover a couple of days after placing the order that the original culture was starting to grow with some rapidity.
My first loaf using the sourdough starter was only OK–rather heavy and quite sour. Both conditions were probably related to the exceptionally long time for the dough to rise–about 24 hours. The vigor of the starter improved after a few days of loving care. The second loaf was excellent, exceeding expectations. I was using the recipe on Bredtopia.
The book, Tartine Bread, advocated making your own starter using a combination of white and whole wheat flour. Even though I had been unsuccessful in prior attempts I decided to try again. After a couple of weeks without success, I stopped feeding the potential starter. Being truly lazy (part of aging) I left the jar sitting in the kitchen. The starter was looking rather inedible. But then I noticed some activity at the top. I took some of this material and added flour and water and, to my surprise, the starter became active. Using the recipe for the ‘Basic Country Bread’ in Tartine produced an excellent bread.
The loaf based on Breadtopia had wheat flour, the taste somewhat sour and drier. The Tartine loaf was moister and mild in taste.
Two different starters, two loaves of bread. Not a result I would have expected a few weeks ago. Is it worth the effort? Depends. Do you save money? No. Do you like the challenge of working with an unpredictable biological system? Yes.
What good is making great bread if nobody gets to eat it but you? The answer comes easy once you bake your first loaf.