Thursday, February 24, 2011

How to Catch Wild Sourdough

You'll probably note that both Dude1 and I are big sourdough fans. In fact, I went to the trouble of carrying a sample of my wild-caught sourdough starter to him all the way from Missouri (TSA: "What's that?" Me: "Just my sourdough" TSA: "...") so he could give it a shot. I think he's caught his own since then, but we are both hooked.

Sourdough cultures are actually a mix of at least two (and more likely a large number) of microorganisms. At a very minimum, you will catch a yeast and a bacterium. The yeast is typically attached to the flour when you buy it, so that part is easy. The bacterium will be a species of lactobacillus (the lactic acid bacteria responsible for the tang of other fermented foods, like yogurt). The yeast is responsible for the leavening action of the starter, and the bacterium gives it the sour flavor. Fortunately for us, both of these organisms are so ubiquitous in our world that we would be hard pressed not to catch them under the conditions of our little operation.

The process of leavening and texturing dough is a fascinating and deep topic, and we'll explore it here in later posts. For now, let's get to the real business at hand -- catching sourdough:

Basic Sponge:

  1. 1 C. organic whole wheat flour
  2. 1 C. non-chlorinated (or chloraminated or fluoridated) water
Mix the ingredients together in a suitably sized bowl, and set it on the counter. Whenever you walk past it or think of it, give it a little stir to try to incorporate extra air into the mix (our little friends are airborne, I believe).
The consistency at this point is like batter
After a couple days of this, you should start seeing some bubbles and evidence of activity (see picture at the top). It will start smelling sour, but it shouldn't reek -- if it's really rank and doesn't look like it's starting to bubble, scrap that batch and try it again. If it's just sitting there and not changing much, give it more time. If it's looking good, add more flour and water (1 C. or so) in equal volumes to give the beasties some fresh food, and continue the occasional stirring for another day or so.

At this point, you should have some pretty good foaminess developing. Now what we're going to do is divide the culture in half, use half of it in one of our sourdough recipes (just to see how it works), and feed the other half some more water and flour.

After you have done the above steps, you have a full-fledged wild-caught whole wheat sourdough starter! There's nothing else to it except to remember to reserve some back each time you make bread, otherwise you will have to catch it again.

Maintaining Your Starter:

There are many approaches to the maintenance of a sourdough starter, so I'll just give you some basic principles and then talk about my process (if you could call it that, it only has one step).

The basic principles to remember are as follows:
  • The colder it gets, the less they eat
  • If it freezes, they will probably die
  • Feed the culture only flour and water
  • If the culture exhausts its food or builds up too much waste (the acids and alcohols they produce during digestion) it can go bad or die. It therefore needs to be fed and freshened occasionally according to how fast the culture's metabolism is running (based on temperature).
I manage my sourdough operation by making use of the refrigerator and a glass jar with a plastic lid. Each time I make sourdough bread, I first make a sponge (soupy mix of flour and water) to expand the culture. Before I add any other ingredients, I scoop about a cup of the sponge back out and put it in my jar (which I wash between batches). The jar goes in the fridge, where it usually waits for about a week, but has survived without difficulty for as long as 6 weeks. That's the whole process.

Originally, I did things a little differently because I am very absentminded, and remembering to scoop out the starter for next time was apparently too much to handle. If you are like that, you can also make a new batch of starter at the same time you make the bread. Just use about 3/4 of the current starter in the bread, and make a smaller batch of the same sponge in a separate bowl for the next starter. After it's had a night to grow, put it in your jar and right in the fridge and you're good to go.

If you do mess up and kill your starter (everybody does), just catch a new one! It's no big deal, as you've already discovered.

Sourdough Personalities:

You'll probably notice that the flavor of your starter changes over time, and depending on the weather, temperature, your preparation methods, and other mysterious factors that don't seem like they'd matter. I've noticed this with mine, and my theory is that the changing conditions give slight advantages or disadvantages to the various microbes that make up my starter. Each one has slightly different dietary and associated properties, which changes the flavor and behavior of the starter. The changes are subtle, so it's not like your bread is going to be a loose cannon whenever you make it. They are there though, and this frustrates some people. I personally like the little bit of personality it introduces to the product. Some batches are extra sour, others are very mild, but they are always delicious. If you need absolute consistency, you might want to look into a pure culture, such as those available from various places online. I've never tried one of these, but many people use them and like them. Maintaining a pure culture is more involved than the process I use, and I'm simply not motivated enough by the alleged benefits to try it. I'd love to hear about others who do it though.

Good luck with your own sourdough adventure, and let us know how it treats you!

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