Breaking Bread: Joe Sourdough, pt. 1
(Making any resolutions to save money in 2014? Try making your own bread. We’re recycling more, starting with this story.)
It’s a special thing, this particular bacteria, and don’t you let anyone tell you differently. Without those little bugs we call yeast, not only would your bread be flat and hard, your beer would be watery and impotent, your wine merely grape juice, and your cheese and yogurt only old milk, not to mention that kimchi and saurkraut would simply be soggy seasoned cabbage. Sure, there are some bad bacteria out there, but we want to talk about the good guys, the ones that work for us to make our food better – and in no better instance can that example be made than with sourdough bread. We talked with pastry chef and Le Cordon Bleu baking instructor Joe Baker about sourdough bread, how it works, and how we can get the yeasts that naturally occur in the environment around us to not only turn our dough from hard tack to bread, but to give it a flavor far beyond what the store-bought stuff can provide.
Thanks for taking the time to talk with us, Joe. I suppose it would be best to start with an explanation of exactly what a sourdough bread is.
Sourdough, traditionally and classically, is supposed to use natural yeast. So, take a white dough you buy at the store, that is what we call a lean dough – it’s a quick dough. We can make it in a day – a series of hours. With sourdough, though, we take out some of the flour and we ferment a certain percentage of it. And it’s usually a majority. That fermentation gives us flavor; it gives us the sour notes and that’s how we get sourdough.
How does the basic process work?
Basically, we try to cultivate wild yeast, so we start with flour and water and we let it just sit there. And obviously the more natural the flour – like if it hasn’t been refined or processed too much – the more active cultures it will have all over it, and those will attract yeast from the environment. That yeast will grow and feed and die and respawn and grow and feed in a constant process; that is the fermentation. So we’ll end up with on day one with something like pancake batter. Then, after a series of days, we’ll end up with something more acidic; it starts changing color, starts getting incredibly tannic and acidic and will get this really, really dark color. It turns into what is technically called a barm – it’s very liquid, almost straight liquid instead of pancake batter. From there, we start breaking that down into how offensive – strong – we want the fermentation to become.
So if this process is the same everywhere, why do some places like San Francisco have ‘better’ sourdough than others?
San Francisco just has a unique yeast in that region, just like we have special yeast in this region. It’s all wild. And you can cheat the system if you want – which is an approach you’ll find in most magazines – by adding yeast, which will start the fermentation process. But true sourdough cultivates from nature itself.
And cultivating it from nature will give you that stronger flavor?
It will give you stronger flavor in a longer period of time. But it does take a long time to develop that flavor, because the wild yeast is weaker than the yeast you can hold in your hands and put into something. But when it does develop it will be stronger, more stable and easier to use; it’s really a living thing that we feed in the beginning every day, sometimes twice a day. And then as it matures we can space out its feeding. Then, once we have a fully mature sourdough, you can actually freeze it and then thaw it and start all over again and it’s still okay. And if we use commercial yeast, we can get there, but it’s never quite as charismatic of a flavor profile.
So when you say it takes a longer period of time, how long are we talking?
Well, at a week we start getting just the bare minimum, the, ‘Oh, this isn’t white bread anymore, this is now sourdough,’ flavor, but it’s still not as good as it could be. I’d still say that for a full-on, undeniable sourdough flavor you need a month to dedicate to a natural starter.
So the yeasts feed on just the flour and water?
That’s the most basic – that’s the one anyone can start with and it should work. There are other ones, though; we can use yogurt, fruits, for example. You’ll see people use grapes or sometimes they’ll get vegetables like potatoes. Stuff that, especially if it’s not overly processed, still has cultures on it. We can throw that in there, and we’ll let that go for a week or so, until it stabilizes to a point, but then we have to start feeding it normal food again, which is the water and the flour.
Basically, when we give it fruits and vegetables, it’s like superfood for it. And if it’s constantly fed on superfood, at some point it’s going to crash. So we have to take it up to a certain point and then we have to stabilize its diet with water and flour again. My personal favorite is one part pineapple juice with one part rye flour. Pineapple juice is amazing because it has just enough sugar to feed everything and enough hydration properties to keep it all moist. And then that rye has that extra quality that, when you taste it, you’re not going say, ‘Oh, this is rye’, but you’ll notice there’s something … there’s an undefinable quality. So that’s my personal favorite starter from day one. One part rye flour to one part pineapple juice.
Are there any major limitations to using sourdough?
Limitations? Not really. I mean, we can we can take sourdough and we can laminate it and turn it into croissants, we can take sourdough and fry it – we can make sourdoughnuts, we can make sourdough pretzels. Really, once you understand bread and all it can do, sourdough is just a bread, so we can keep going from there.
The really difficult thing, and the thing most people I think try to do, is they try to make particular sourdoughs. Like they want to say this is a potato sourdough, not a potato bread. They want that potato flavor but it doesn’t work that way. What you get is a sour flavor but you won’t ever be able to pinpoint, ‘This is potato’. Because by the time it is fermented and we use it, it is beyond the point of tasting like a potato. I think that’s really the only limitation that we have with it.
Okay, then. We’re going to get this starter rolling, and then come back when it’s ready so you can tell us where to go from there.
by Rich Vana