Kneady Sourdough, understanding starter

Sourdough, the fermentation of grain, is a process humans have enjoyed for thousands of years if not debatably longer (we have found stone age drawings depicting the fermentation of an ancient wheat).  In every culture, we find this particular type of food preparation including  lore that has grown around the process.  Somewhere in Northern America, specifically the US, the legends got lost and replaced by the convenience and ease of commercial yeast and wheat.  As this wonder bread took over the market convincing us we could abandon our daily bread process, our digestion and health towards grain plummeted.

Now there is a revival towards the souring of grains due to research linking gut health and even gluten tolerance to the ancient process.  However, this has also created a lot of confusion and fear as humans get sticky with their dough again.

Can I remind you people living in caves and in fields made well risen glorious loaves- you can too!

In our European ancestry this was called the gift of God because it was flour, water and a miracle (now science has identified that miraculous catalyst as wild bacteria and yeast). The miracle not only made a fluffy boule but the legend of abundance because from pinching the dough you could “start” more loaves.  And so can you.  Our obsession with the complications of sourdough hopefully will ease after this post.

Sourdough is a push pull of flour, water, and living microbes as encouraged or discouraged by TIME, TEMPERATURE, and ACIDITY.

Not many professional wild yeast bakers I know coddle their starters– fretting about feeding times and what to do if they go on vacation– I mean what if their starter DIES?  Keep in mind archaeologists uncovered a bubbling urn of sourdough to the god of beer in an Egyptian tomb laid buried since 4500BC! In other words, it’s pretty hard “to kill” starter, but you can do a good job making it acidic and therefore raising the yeast content resulting in very sour, and insanely dense loaves.

Sourdough is both yeast and bacteria.  In consumer’s terms the yeast makes it sour and the bacteria makes it fluffy.  And if you have too much yeast ACIDITY rises, like any good vinegar, putting bacteria to sleep.

So what encourages yeast? Oxygen to start.  So if your small amount of starter is in a huge jar with lots of oxygen, expect it to get hoochy.  Hydration ratio.  If your starter is more water than flour, yeast will form faster.  You see a many blogs talk about % or grams, again please remember humans did this prior to kitchen scales.  So how do you know without scientific tools of measurement? Consistency! If your starter is thin like yogurt or milk it will be acidic quick.

So here is the clincher if you START your bread making with acidic STARTER, your dough will be off balance and too acidic.  Because your dough is NOTHING more than less hydrated starter.  Yep starter and dough are the SAME thing simply differing in hydration and fermentation length.  If you ever fear you forgot to save starter, pinch off some dough and put in a jar, next day add a little water – bam, starter!

When you make bread you are both feeding and growing your starter.  The care of your starter is making bread.

So if I dump all of my starter in a bowl and it smells acidic, or darker in color,  or has a lot of liquid, then I am starting with acidic STARTER.  I have to tame it if I want to have fluffy bread.  How do you tame acidity when my only ingredients are flour and water? Dilute, dilute, dilute!

For ever tablespoon of acidic STARTER you need 3 tablespoons of water, and as you can guess to fix the hydration -6 to 8 tablespoons of flour.  That one tablespoon of acidic starter just grew quick!  Exactly why keeping more than a cup of starter if you don’t bulk or frequently bake will make for a lot of excess starter you need to toss.

My typical process? Evaluate my starter- good to go, use 1 cup to start dough and pinch of a 1/2c dough and return to jar.  Not good to go- it’s acidic!!!? Put two tablespoons in a bowl, add 1/2c water, 1.5 cups flour, let sit for 20-30 minutes, use that as my active starter in the recipe remembering to pinch off some dough and put back in jar.

Next post: timing and your thicker starter aka your dough

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