I wasn’t going to get into the whole Sourdough movement that has been going on during this self-isolation/quarantine phase. But, I am nothing if not an internet cliche and after weeks of failing to procure yeast, I thought I should, at least, look into the idea.
A couple of weeks ago I read an article in Slate about the current yeast shortage. The yeast expert in the article recommended growing your own yeast as an experiment if you need yeast and can’t find it. We make pizza every Friday from scratch and I usually try to bake all of our loaf bread. Finding yeast has been a priority since February and I was willing to try out anything to make it so that I can continue our traditions.
The resulting product won’t act as predictably and consistently as what you’d buy in a store, but it may imbue your baked goods with a certain distinctive character. “It’s the difference between asking the drama kids to do something versus asking the honor students,” Agarwala told me. “With the drama kids it’ll be a month late, but creative and interesting and beautiful. If you want something done immediately and make sure it gets done, you ask the honor students.”(need I say I was an honor student, not a drama student?)
Knowing that it was possible to grow your own yeast is really what set me on this path. And then, the internet almost threw me right off of it. Sourdough is confusing. People use really specific and bizarre terms. And, even for someone like me, who makes bread a lot, it was so confusing and overwhelming that I almost threw up my hands.
Fortunately, I have been following (since I copied her Riddari pattern variation on Ravelry several years ago) HelloYarn who makes beautiful yarn, but more relevant to the topic at hand, especially beautiful bread. And just when quarantine started and people were beginning to make sourdough bread she posted a super helpful page of information for all of us who are stuck in the trenches with no idea of what to do.
She led me to FoodBod Sourdough which is a super helpful website for people, like me, who have no idea what to do and how to begin. It is also great for people like me who think discard sounds crazy. Especially right now! Elaine has teaches you had to make and keep a starter with a minimal amount of discard and flour.
Amazingly, to me, I’ve made a few loaves from my sourdough starter (that I made from flour, water, and the air in my kitchen). I’ve also managed to keep it alive for 3 weeks or so, which trust me, is an achievement.
This past weekend the bread I made was a flat and unhappy experience, but I think that as it gets warm in Virginia (it was 90 degrees a couple of days ago), I’m going to have to learn how to work with the dough and the temperature to help my loaves form properly. But, I would like to say, even with unhappy results, the kids fought over the slices and there wasn’t a bit leftover.
In the beginning I followed Mark Bittman’s sourdough recipe from How To Bake Everything. It’s an ok recipe, but it starts with using yeast and you use yeast in the final bread. It also makes a lot of starter and there is a lot of discard if you are going to keep going with it. The bread we made (photo above from 4/30) was good, but I wasn’t all that happy with the process. I did keep what was left of the starter, just in case, in the fridge and began the process of Elaine’s sourdough starter.
Although I usually make all of my bread at least 50% whole wheat I followed Elaine’s advice and made a “strong” white flour starter. (Strong refers to bread flour. The only kind I’ve been able to find recently has been Pillsbury, so that’s what I used)
When I made my first bread I did not follow Elaine’s recipe, but HelloYarn’s recipe, because she told me how to incorporate whole wheat and I did not want to make a big loaf of pure white bread flour.
I think I’ve made at least 4 loaves of sourdough using the homemade starter. It took over a week to get the starter going, so it was a long process to get to the first loaf. But, since then it is pretty easy to make bread from the starter that has been resting in the fridge.
Besides bread we have made sourdough pretzels (in his HTBE he has a variation for sourdough), sourdough (overnight) waffles, and last week I tried sourdough pizza crust. (We normally make 3 pizzas and the two made with sourdough were everyone’s favorite) I’m still trying to figure out recipes that don’t require extra yeast, although they are hard to come by.
One of the lessons that I am trying to learn during this experience is that experimentation and, more to the point, failure is ok. It’s pretty hard to fail so hard at baking bread that no one will eat it. Although, I’m sure it could happen.
I need to embrace the possibility of failure and still go forth. (Maybe there’s a life lesson in there?)