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Cas City Forum Hall & CAS-L  |  Special Interests - Groups & Societies  |  Cosie's Corner & Feed Bag  |  The Pantry (Moderator: Delmonico)  |  Topic: Thesis on Sourdough 0 Members and 1 Guest are viewing this topic. « previous next »
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Author Topic: Thesis on Sourdough  (Read 2413 times)
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« on: January 28, 2013, 07:55:40 pm »

Part of my book draft.  I tried to post it in a facebook group and it was too large, I've been going to post it here anyway when I had time.


One item that comes up a lot when you discuss the foods of this time period is sour dough bread; it is almost a symbol of the cattle drives and the miners in the American West. There were other methods of making bread used, but many think of this type first. Although how this works to raise bread was not understood before Louis Pasteur and his research on microbes, the knowledge we now have lets us understand how sour dough works.

Now this information may not be needed to produce good sourdough bread, few who bake with sourdough understand it, but it can help understand what is going wrong when dealing with sourdough and it either blows up all over the kitchen or ends up smelling like a dead animal. Neither of these results is desirable but do happen now and then.

To put it in scientific terms a sour dough starter is a symbiotic relationship of Lactobacillus culture and a Saccharomyces culture living in a medium which contains carbohydrates and sugars that they feed on. This can either be wet dough or more of a liquid mix like a batter. A symbiotic relationship is when two different organisms are living close and long term together.

So depending on how much micro-biology you know, that may be very informative or mean nothing, so I will explain it better. Lactobacillus is a genus (type) of anaerobic bacteria (can live with no oxygen) that converts sugars and carbohydrates into lactic acid. These are of the same types that convert milk to yogurt and cream to sour cream as well as converts cabbage to sauerkraut. The lactic acid is what makes sour dough sour tasting. Saccharomyces is a type of yeast converts the sugars and carbohydrates into alcohol, producing carbon dioxide in the process. These are the types of yeast commonly used to make bread, wine and beer.

With the knowledge we have on leavening from the parts on yeast bread and quick bread you will notice we have either a yeast culture for yeast bread or an acid to mix with an alkaline substance like baking soda for a chemical leavening. Sourdough can be used to make yeast type bread or a quick bread or can be used in combination of both.

A lot of modern sourdough bread recipes for yeast breads use added yeast. This will make the bread quicker than using just sourdough most times, but this was not the old way. If your starter is a good active one then it will raise the bread fine on its own, although it will take more time. This is the reason sourdough existed, to provide the yeast to make bread rise. This method dates back hundreds of years, the lactic acid formed by the Lactobacillus was considered an impurity that could not be helped and was not always desirable. The Lactobacillus most often entered the starter though the flour or through the air. With the advent of pearl ash in the 1740's and baking soda in the 1840's, the acid became a desirable item because now one could use either and the lactic acid in the starter to make quick breads which did not take to hours to rise, like a yeast type.

Sometimes with a sourdough starter the hard part is to get a good viable started going. The yeast part of the culture seems to be the problem, the bacteria part doesn't seem to ever be a problem. I've seen several ideas for the medium to start and keep it in, some are potato water and flour, milk and flour or just flour and water or many such combinations. They all will work, what one will want to do though is to consider your water source, if it has a lot of chemicals in it to keep microbes from living in it, then another source of water for a sourdough starter would be a good idea.

Besides a medium to grow out yeast/bacteria culture in, we will also need to have a container to grow it in. This has to be made out of something that will not be affected by the acid in our starter so a metal container is out and plastics are suspect. The chuck wagon cooks on the trail often used a small wooden cask called a firkin to hold their starter in these were about 9 gallons. For the modern sourdough cook who is not going to travel hundreds of miles in a wagon a different type of container will work fine.

Unless one is going to do a lot of baking a container of glass, ceramic or earthenware with a capacity of about a ˝ gallon will be desirable. If using earthenware or ceramic for a container, make sure it is lead free. This means anything that has not been made and bought in recent years is suspect. A lot of this is safe for normal eating use, but to put an acid substance in it long term can leach out lead. To be safe it is best to use a glass container that is not lead crystal. I simply use ˝ gallon canning jars. If more than a half gallon is desired a gallon glass pickle jar would be good. With my canning jars I use a piece of muslin cloth over the top and tighten a lid ring over that. The metal in the lid does not ever touch the sourdough and the cloth allows excess CO2 to escape, but keeps most of the normal atmosphere out.

If I need more than a half gallon of starter for home baking in the near future I just add a second jar and add half of the starter to it and then fill both back up with flour and water and both will be ready to use in a day or so. If I am planning on traveling with sourdough I put most of the starter in the second jar and feed the first jar back up to normal level. I then take the first jar with me so I have a higher percent of the culture for camp cooking, plus the one at home should not need re-feeding for several days.

Traveling with sourdough can be interesting; I replace the muslin with a canning jar lid with a small hole poked in it for a vent. These are coated and will resist the acid for quite a while. We want the pressure to be able to vent to prevent disaster on the trip. If the trip is long and the weather is warm it is a good idea to put the jar secure in an ice chest to keep it cool and relative inactive till we reach our destination. The starter depending on the temperature in the ice chest and the length it's in there, may need to warm back up to be active again. This is still better than a sourdough accident.

There are several was to get a starter going, one can use natural yeast in the air or we can find someone with a good starter and buy, borrow or steal some of it from then, not much will bee needed to start one at home. Also we can use commercial yeast and add it to our medium and control the type of yeast in it, all have advantages and disadvantages.

The first, catching natural yeasts from the air is the most historical way, this of course assumes the natural yeasts in the air are there. This is very simple, you simply build your medium, leave it open and exposed to the atmosphere for a few hours and then close it and hope for the best. Some say to use rye flour at first since it ferments easier. With most modern homes and the filtering of the air, you may not have much luck. Outdoors will give better results in most cases, when doing this you want to protect the medium from extra items that are not needed such as plant seeds bird droppings and such things.

With the medium exposed and covered one needs then to only wait a few days and see what happens. Watch for bubbling and a sour but not rancid smell. If both happen then in a few days the starter will be ready to start using. If not, try again or try another method. I have never had any luck with this, but I have not talked to anyone else that has either. Most likely my part of the world does not have suitable wild yeast in the air.

Another is to get some of an already established starter and build one out of it with the culture in it. This can be an easy way to do it and if the starter obtained then we should have a good starter right? Well yes and no on this one. If the starter you borrow from is a local one and grows well, then it should be no problem. If one is getting some starter sent in from somewhere else there may be problems. This is most often dried and sent, that is not where the problem lies but instead, the wild yeasts from different areas can vary slightly genetically because they have adapted over the years to the local environment. The strain may or may not do well where you live, one can only try. But if you think that Rancid Ralph's Famous Yukon Sourdough Starter that was started in 1901 and is being pedaled by his great, great nephew is the answer to all your problems, it could be and it might just not be.

One method some use to get a starter going is to use the yeast from wild grapes, the whitish coating on these grapes contains wild yeast, and this yeast would be adapted for the local environment. Just pick some wild grapes in the fall and add some of the skins to the starter, then see what happens. I've talked to some, who swear by it, but grapes are limited to fall, but it would be worth trying sometime if I knew where there were some wild grapes, I haven't found any for years around my hunting grounds.

I have found a sure way to get a good starter going, I simply buy commercial yeast and use this to start it. Many make starters with simple bread yeast, I have been less than impressed with these, they make a good bacteria culture that forms the lactic acid, but the yeast culture is not real good, it seems to start out doing good but gets very slow after a short time. I make my sourdough yeast breads with just the starter; I do not add any yeast. If you are planning on adding yeast to your bread then these starters will do fine,.

Trying to make a good starter frustrated me, so I decided I needed more help from somebody with good knowledge about yeast. I called one of the yeast companies and told the person who answered the phone what I was looking for, I was then connected to a micro-biologist who was very helpful.

As I suspected the problem lay with the yeast I was using. Through the years our common bakers has been developed to be the best product they can make for the task at hand. The yeasts sold to make bread is a strain of Saccharomyces cerevisiae, this yeast is used for some brewing and also some wine making, but the strains developed by the yeast companies are best suited for the task, that why these companies sell many different types and strains of this yeast to brew beer, to make wine and to raise bread.

What this micro-biologist did recommend was a type of yeast called Saccharomyces bayanus, specificity a strain of it that is sold as French Champagne yeast. It has a very good alcohol tolerance in fact it will tolerate ethanol alcohol up to 17%. I now know my bread yeast starters will kill themselves off in the alcohol that they were producing in the starter. Also it will work at a lower temperature (Down to 59F, a big help in cooler weather at historical events.) This yeast can be bought at any place that sells wine and beer making supplies and a package costs little more than a package of bread yeast.

I started using this yeast to make my sourdough starters and I do not have any problem making my sourdough bread rise on its own. I have found that once the starter starts to get about a year old it starts to get weak like the bread yeast. I simply dump it out, sterilize the jar and start over with a fresh pack of yeast.

With the basics behind us, we can now get down to building our starter, as I mentioned the medium used will vary between the bakers; the thing to remember is they all will work fine. I simply use flour and water for mine, but do start with rye flour since in ferments easier, one of the reasons it is often used to make whiskey.

I fill my sterilized jar about 1/4rd full of water and stir in enough rye flour to make a thin batter. I dissolve my yeast in another cup of warm water and then add it to the jar and stir it in. I then put on my cover and place it in a warm dark area, in my case a bottom cupboard. I check it in a few hours, the yeast should be starting to work and there should be some good bubbling going on, this indicates that the yeast is working. The next day I add enough warm water and white flour to fill the jar to about one inch from the neck, still keeping it as a thin batter, then put it back to work. In a couple of days it should have a beery smell as well as a sour smell, the beer smell is the yeast working, the sour is the lactic bacteria working. When it is about a week old it is ready to start to use, but will be better after another week or so. You will need to remove about half of the starter from the jar anyway and feed it with the flour/water mix, this can be used for baking, to start another starter or it can simply be disposed of.

The using and feeding of the starter is important, even if it is not used for baking, about half the starter needs to be removed and the starter fed every few days, a week is about as long as you want to let it go. It can go a bit longer if it is kept in the refrigerator, but if kept cool it will take longer to build back up. It also can be put in the freezer and frozen to make it go dormant. It may take a couple days to thaw and get active again though so plan ahead.

One wants to remember with sourdough you can make any yeast bread recipe into a sour dough recipe by simply using the starter instead of the added yeast.

Start the night before, for half the liquid called for use your sourdough starter.  (If the liquid called for is milk, use canned milk in its place.) 

Pour your starter in a non-metallic bowl and add the rest of the liquid and any sugar.  Cover over night and let get very active.

(If the recipe call for salt and you want to use it, don't add it till much later, salt slows down the action of the yeast in the sourdough.)

One just proceeds in the morning as if it were a regular recipe.  I never hurry sourdough, I add the lard and part of the flour when I get up in the morning and make a sponge and let it work.  Around noon I finish adding everything and let it rise till double.  I then form into loaves and let rise till double again before baking.   Sometimes if it's working slow because it's cool in the house I don't bake it till I come home from work in the evening or if it's really cool I let it rise all night and bake it on the second morning. 

The nice thing about sourdough is that it works slower most of the time than store bought yeast, so you can just punch it down and leave it for several hours with out it trying to take over the kitchen.  Or at least this is true below 80-85 degrees, in warmer weather it can get interesting.

One note:  A good starter will raise the bread with out adding yeast.  If it doesn’t just start a new one, the old one isn’t worth the trouble.

Quick Breads:

Take your recipe and use sourdough for about half the liquid, add canned milk if milk is required and use 1/4 teaspoon of baking soda for every teaspoon of baking powder.  A little less flour might be needed, but this will get any quick bread such as corn bread, biscuits, coffee cakes and such converted to sourdough.

Mongrel Historian

Always get the water for the coffee upstream from the herd.

Ab Ovo Usque ad Mala

The time has passed so quick, the years all run together now.
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Cas City Forum Hall & CAS-L  |  Special Interests - Groups & Societies  |  Cosie's Corner & Feed Bag  |  The Pantry (Moderator: Delmonico)  |  Topic: Thesis on Sourdough « previous next »
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