Sunday, March 25, 2012

The start of my sourdough journey.. the quest for real bread

When did I first hear about sourdough and baking with natural leaven? I remember hearing John Downes talking enthusiastically to Sheila Dillon on the Food Programme about natural yeast, or maybe it was the Italian baker on another programme talking about a starter that has been kept going for years, reverently wrapped in a special cloth like a baby, fed at regular intervals. I remember seeing a programme on TV where a couple ditched in their day jobs to start a small brewery and cafe in the country, using traditional production practices - the yeast and ale from the brewing going into making the bread. It sounded so... right.

An interest in 'real food' has been building somewhere in the back of my mind for a while. Simple, good food made with familiar ingredients, wholesome - not 'health foods' but good for you, in balance.

(Indulge me for a second in a little rant about "passion" I get a little irked by all these TV foodie personalities and 'real food evangelists' talking about how they are "passionate" about this or that. Passion is surely in the doing, not the spiel. If they have to tell me they are passionate, it makes me doubt that they are. I'm left with the impression they just want to be thought of as being passionate. A wonderful real food enthusiast whose passion is conveyed in his actions, his knowledge and evident love of real cheese was Major Patrick Rance. Go on, have a listen to this radio programme and tell me you're not moved. Rant over!)

The more I read about sourdough, the more I wanted to have a go. It's seductive, forums such as the Fresh Loaf are full of enthusiasts furiously debating the science, the benefits, the struggles and triumphs. There is the real bread campaign in the UK, with resources to educate and support the interested novice, and lists of small businesses and community supported bakery groups all in love with real bread.

I'll end up having to re-write this next bit as I learn more, but my current understanding is that most commercially available bread (80% in the UK) is made with instant yeast and various additives which make it cost and time effective, but not that good for you and actually not that great tasting.
By contrast, the most basic kind of sourdough bread requires just flour, water, salt and the natural yeast and bacteria that thrive in the flour and water mixture, and has people raving about the taste. I've also read various articles extolling sourdough's health benefits from the slow fermentation process pre-digesting much of the gluten, and sourdough bread leading to lower blood sugar spikes in diabetics than regular bread, but though I'd like it to be true, I'm not sure how much of it is hyperbole and pseudo-science.. For now I'm sticking to Ed Wood's philosophy "the enjoyment of baking is reward enough!" I can't wait to bake and get good at making my own wholesome, awesome tasting bread. Everything crossed, wish me luck!

So here we go, this is how my sourdough journey begins (that's a thing, by the way - oh-oh I might turn into one of those people ;) ). My initial research showed me I could capture wild yeast from the air and in the flour I use (edit: I've since learned that it's more about the yeast already in the flour rather than airborne yeast having much to do with it. Thanks Andrew Whitely!), or begin with a dormant mail-order starter. I wanted to have a go at authentic San Francisco sourdough bread, and I wanted an authoritative guiding hand and so turned to Ed Wood of Sourdoughs International, a respected author, scientist and artisanal baker. Having ordered the dried culture (the yeast and bacteria, mixed with flour) and a copy of his book, Classic Sourdoughs I eagerly awaited my package in the mail, sent out from their currently snowstorm beset mountain in Idaho.

Learning from the book that I needed to control the temperature carefully in the activation phase, and also in later proofing stages to vary the leavening/sourness properties of the dough, off I trekked to Tokyu Hands again to get myself the equipment to build a proofing box. A polystyrene cooler box is suggested in the book, but I thought a big tupperware box (and Tokyu Hands do biggies) would let me see the thermometer more easily. Here's the set up:
Giant tupperware, 25w bulb,  dimmer switch (2,800 yen, Tokyu Hands).
Inside: 1-litre glass jar (100 yen shop), thermometer. We're in business!

Despite talk of ozone treatment and activated charcoal in this somewhat confusing article, Tokyo tap water still smells chlorinated, and I didn't want to take the risk of mixing my newly arrived microorganisms with water with stuff in it designed to kill microorganisms.. so I got some bottled water, some regular flour and got mixing. Here's the jar about an hour after mixing:
A little separation, or is that acid from the bacteria?

Here's the jar the next morning after a night at an elevated (32 degrees) in the proofing tub:
Amount of liquid floating on top has increased

And here we are Sunday evening, just before the first feeding time. It's already bigger!
My, my, haven't you grown?

Now I feed, divide into 2 jars (one for backup), and continue the process for another 2-4 days.
Fresh bread next weekend? Eeek!

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