When things turn sour in the dough department
July 4, 2011
Twenty years ago I was in full flight making sourdough bread. The World Wide Web had yet to burst on the scene. It was in the days of Usenet, a collection of online newsgroups where like-minded people could post on many topics within a series of hierarchies.
I was a regular contributor to rec.food.cooking. One day I strayed into the rec.food.sourdough area, thus beginning a long association with bread baking. Through the sourdough group I learned about starters – in particular the Goldrush, the Alaskan, the Russian. Most of the participants lived in the United States and one of them offered to send me samples of each.
He spread small spoonfuls of his starters thinly onto waxed paper and let it dry then sent me small packets of the powdery residue in an envelope. Obviously border security was less aggressive then. Imagine sending white powder in the mail today.
I mixed the samples with flour and water and soon I had three healthy starters bubbling away.
Each had its own characteristics. The Russian was good for making breads containing rye flour, the Alaskan was easy to work with. Then a US friend brought over the San Francisco starter when she visited.
I shared my starters with other Wellington locals. I remember swapping some for a crayfish - one of my better trades. The new owner really dived into sourdough production. He’d mix up a loaf and give it an initial knead then pop it in a backpack and cycle a few kilometres to work. The dough would sit in his warm workplace until he cycled home. By then it was oven-ready.
I used to store my starters in the refrigerator, pulling them out as needed. Sometimes they would lurk behind the butter compartment for weeks at a time. But they always sprung back in action when brought into the warm and fed again. They were eventually abandoned when we moved to Australia six years ago.
Here I got my own starter going using “rewena” which is the traditional starter used in New Zealand for making Maori bread, rewena paraoa, since early European times. (Rewena is Maori for “leaven” and paraoa is how Maori pronounced flour.)
Which brings me round to my local market. A new business opened there recently – Breads Etcetera – and I tried one of their sourdough loaves. I went back for more. The shop was shut.
The mystery was solved when a sign popped up on the roller door a couple of weeks ago. There’d been a catastrophe in the starter department.
“Extraordinary and unforeseeable circumstances have resulted in the total loss and destruction of the Breads Etcetera biga, the core building block of sourdough bread.”
As they explained: “The biga is the signature for the bread. It is what makes all sourdoughs different, giving it its particular taste profile and structure.”
They apparently attempted to run with a different biga – the San Francisco sourdough starter – “but it produced a very heavy hard crusted sour that was not suitable for release.”
The last starter was six months old. “The new one will take a month to develop.” They are planning on re-opening in mid July.
When I think about my starters lurking in the back of my fridge for several years, always happy to spring back to life with a little careful first aid, being biga-less must be a bitter blow for a business relying on a starter for their product. I am surprised they didn’t have a back-up.
July 8: The good news is they're up and baking again and I've bought
In case you’re interested in getting your own sourdough starter going, here’s the recipe I used. It was only a couple of days before the Melbourne yeasts started bubbling.
2 cups flour
Boil potato slices in 1 cup of water to mashing consistency. Cool. When lukewarm mix all ingredients together to a fairly firm texture. Add more water if required. Cover and leave in a warm place.
The idea is to leave the starter somewhere, exposed to the air, so it can pick up ambient yeasts and lactobacilli and so start the fermentation process. I made mine in a glass bowl and covered it loosely with blue kitchen cloth to keep out any insects. You can use muslin if you prefer.
After about two or three days, bubbles should begin to appear on the surface. You can add a little more flour each day for a few days to maintain the consistency. An active starter will have about 4cm of activity on top.
Once you’ve reached this stage, take some of your original starter and put it in a jar (I prefer plastic jars with plastic lids) and “feed” it regularly with fresh flour and water. Use this to leaven your bread. The amount used will depend on the recipe you use. Keep some of the new dough back and keep feeding it regularly and use it as the starter for your next batch.
Here’s the Maori bread recipe. This isn’t strictly the long developing sourdough. The baking soda neutralises some or all of the acid in the starter, generating carbon dioxide to provide lift to the dough or batter.
2 1/2 cups flour
Put the flour and salt in a bowl, Make a well in the centre. Put rewena in and sprinkle over the baking soda. Add warm water if the mixture is too firm. Mix and knead lightly for about 10 minutes. Tip into a well greased Dutch oven or greased deep round cake tin. Bake at 230C for 40 minutes. Tip out onto baking tray and cook for a further five minutes until the crust is crisp.
Here are two sourdough books I have in my own collection. The first is a newly revised edition of sourdough guru Ed Wood’s book Classic Sourdoughs which is coming out in early July (my copy is an earlier edition). Alaska Sourdough is by Ruth Altman (1905-1989). It was first published in 1976, is hand-written and full of facts and information as well as some interesting recipes.