Sourdough Starter is a Riddle Wrapped in an Enigma, Surrounded By Smelly Liquid and Maybe Bubbles?

15 Mar

I was sick a few weeks back. This allowed me to do two things. One, play video games for the first time in years. And boy are my thumbs tired! True story. Remember the Nintendo hand cramps you used to get as a kid? I had swollen thumb for a week! But I’ve found treasures, climbed chandeliers, and killed endless numbers of bad guys.  Sweeeet.  Any other slightly age inappropriate Seattle gamers out there, hit me up!  My mom will provide us with Capri Suns and fruit roll ups!

Two, being sick also allowed me ample time to begin and dutifully monitor my sourdough starter. As I mentioned, I’m blogging and challenging myself along with Grow It Cook It Can It and other bloggers, and the challenge this month is breadmaking.  Last month we made pasta, and I took it upon myself to make ramen.  Because I.m still a sucker for punishment, this time around I decided to try my hand at sourdough.  What was I thinking?

Sourdough starter recipes are like assholes, friends. Everyone’s got one. I did much research trying to come up with a starter recipe that seemed foolproof, as I had tried several times in the past to get a sourdough starter going. I usually stuck to really simple recipes. Flour and water and stir for a week or so. I never got the magic bubbles. So this time, I knew I needed to do something drastic and different, something to get that delicious sourdough taste.  So I researched.  And you know how that is in this age of the internet.  It’s hard to pick one recipe and stick with it for something like sourdough, when every blog promises great results complete with beautifully photographed pictures of fresh from the oven sourdough swaddled in vintage calico linens.  Oh, bloggers…

But I needed to make sourdough.  I have a soft spot for sourdough from way back. My dad and uncle were 80s midwestern foodies and my dad had a little crock of starter in the back of our fridge and baked sourdough loaves for years, in a bread machine. Do they still makes those? They seemed so magical to me back in the day. That’s where my love of this tangy bread originated.

Then, I remember when what I thought were real bagels came into my life as a child, at the St. Louis Bread Company. There was coffee, the fancy kind like cappuccinos! And bagels! And sourdough! And sandwiches with exotic things like sprouts and spicy mustard on them! It seemed so now. This was kinda awesome back in the early 90s in St. Louis. Their bagels were big fluffy things and I thought they were ah-mazing. Later, this St. Louis original became Panera Bread and now kids drink lattes in their carseats. But then, wow!

Sourdough! European and French breads! Ooh la la!

Friends…I finally made a successful starter! You don’t even understand how excited this made me! Ask Double S, who I kept demanding to come look at and/or smell the starter for weeks on end. Thanks Double S!

If you haven’t thought much about sourdough except that its flour and water, aww lawd you have a lot of catching up to do! Now there are schools of thought that advocate for adding grapes, raisin water, pineapple juice, or malt powder. For someone like me, this is rough ,as I usually like to read a lot of the ideas out there about how to make something and then combine what I find to be the best of them into a super recipe. But with sourdough you kinda just have to close your eyes and proceed with one recipe that feels right.

I decided to use the pineapple juice method. Why? Because it seemed the weirdest and most different than what I had tried in the past. Pineapple juice in bread? Whaaa? OK! I decided to go with it.

I found my technique several places, but first read about it on The Fresh Loaf, posted by the Sourdough Lady. What I liked about this recipe at first was a clear outlining of the pineapple juice method and the minimal amount of flour it used. I never liked all the flour you had to pour down the drain with regular starter recipes. Now I’ve changed my mind. You’ve gotta experiment to get this to work, millions spent on bread flour be damned! Also, I didn’t think about the fact that you have to have enough starter eventually to bake with. This starter didn’t work. But I think I know why! I didn’t have it in a warm enough place. I live in Seattle and it’s cold here, and Double S is Norwegian and Danish and they like their money in their wallets and their houses kept cold.  Believe you me.   I see that people recommended putting it in the oven with the light on. That didn’t work for me either. Maybe electric ovens don’t do this? Mine stayed cold even with the door closed and the light on.  I plodded on.

Next I put the starter in the basement on a seed starting heat mat and intermittently under grow lights for extra warmth. Still not good enough. Maybe because our basement is effing cold to begin with. It never rose. Your sourdough starter must rise and fall two times. If it doesn’t, consider it a failure.

I decided I needed a new mechanism to keep the starter warm.  In the past, if you’ve followed along, you’ve seen my attempts to hack coolers into fermentation vessels for things like kombucha.  Eureka!  It worked! I used an old cooler, a seed starting heat mat, and a kitchen towel to prop the lid from time to time.  And I got bubbles, yo!

Nah, not that Bubbles. Fermentation bubbles! Regardless, Bubs is the man!

I started over with a fresh starter batch.  I used organic no-sugar added pineapple juice and organic rye flour to start.

I upped the proportions from the recipe I previously used.  Here’s what I did.

Day One: 1/4 cup pineapple juice, 1/3 cup organic rye flour.

Mix the above two ingredients and put it in a vessel that you’ll feel comfortable dealing with for awhile.  Things can get up close and personal when you’re dealing with sourdough starters. You’ll laugh together, cry together, and so on.  I named mine Myrtle!  I’m like today’s hipster parents, with my purposefully retro name!

Stir well and cover with a towel or plastic wrap. I then put Myrtle in my souped up cooler to chill (heh) for 24 hours.

Note how I don’t have the jar sitting on top of the heating pad.  Direct heat would be too hot for it.  Just having the mild heating mat in there warms it up and the cooler keeps it warm.  Add a thermometer in there if need be, but it worked for me as is, in a house that’s typically 60-65 degrees in the winter.

Day two:1/4 cup bread flour, 2 Tsp pineapple juice

Add the above and do not discard any of your pre-existing starter yet.  The starter at this point won’t look much different than when you first stirred it.

Day two, before I made any additions.

After you add the day two additions, mark the side of the jar so you can see if the starter doubles in size by the next day.  Cover and put back in cooler.

Day three: 1/4 cup bread flour, 2 Tbsp water

When you open your starter on day three, if your environment is warm enough, you should see bubbles. I did!

Day three, before additions.

And as you can see from the marks on the jar, the starter just about doubled in size.  Yours should too.  This is a good sign!

More bubble porn...

View from above.

For your day three additions, stop using pineapple juice and switch to unchlorinated water. I was using bread flour as of day two, but you could use AP, wheat, or rye if you wish your starter to swing that way. First, stir the starter.  Your starter should also be starting to smell kinda sourdough-y at this point too.  Also a good sign!  Now, throw away half your starter.  Try not to cry.

Then add the above flour and water. Stir well and cover again.

Day four: 1/4 cup bread flour, 2 Tbsp unchlorinated water

Midway through my starter making process, I took Myrtle on a trip!  Double S and I were going over to Washington’s little Bavaria for some fun in the snow, but I certainly didn’t want to lose the progress I’d finally made on my starter.  Not a problem with my cooler hack!  I simply boiled some water, tossed it in an old school rubber hot water bottle, and used that to warm Myrtle during the two and half hour car ride.  Look at her go!

Then when we got there, I just switched back over to the seed heating mat.  No problemo!

On day four, your starter may have doubled.  If it hasn’t, it’s still ok as long as it doubles by day five.

Again, throw away half the starter, then add the flour and water listed above.  Stir, cover, and put back in your cooler.

Day five: 3/4 cup bread flour, 1/2 cup water.

On day five, your starter should have doubled, if it didn’t on day four. Mine doubled on day five!

Starter, day five. On day four I made the purple line. Success!

Celebrate good times, come on!

Now, discard all but 1/4 cup of the starter and add the above amounts of flour and water. Once your starter doubles again, you’re good to go!

You are now ready to bake with your starter.  For my inaugural batch, I followed the recipe for basic sourdough from The Breadmaker’s Apprentice by Peter Reinhart.  If you follow this recipe too, give yourself several days.  Yep, several days to make a loaf of a bread!  The dream of the 1890s is alive not just in Portland!

Reinhart calls first for making a barm, or a mother starter. I had never heard of the term barm, but it made me think of Nate’s famous “Narm!” from Six Feet Under.

(Spoiler alert!) RIP Nate!

The barm is the second step to making sourdough bread, according to Reinhart.  Once you make the barm, it’s good for breadmaking for three days.  But oooh boy, does this make a lot of barm.  So unless you are going to make like 8-10 loaves of bread over the course of three days, you may want to make only half of this amount of barm.

Barm, before it rose.

Barm, after it rose. People, this is a shit ton of barm.

After making the barm, the I followed the recipe for Reinhart’s basic sourdough bread.  Again, plan your day accordingly.  For two large loaves of bread, you only need 2/3 cup of barm.  You use the barm to make your final firm starter.   To do so, first, you simply mix the barm with bread flour and water, then let ferment for four hours.  After four hours, let it chill in the fridge overnight.  The next day, take it out of the fridge an hour before you plan to make the dough.  Then cut your final starter into 10 pieces.

Final starter, ready to FINALLY be made into dough.

Make your dough.

Then let the dough ferment AGAIN in large oiled bowl for about 3-4 hours.

Cauliflower? Braaaaaains? Nope, sourdough! Speaking of brains, can you believe Shane turned into a zombie on the Walking Dead? RIP you crazy bastard!

After the dough has doubled, gently divide into two large rounds.  Then, let the dough proof for about 2-3 hours on bread pans prepared with cornmeal.  Didn’t I tell you this was a lengthy process?  At this point, all you will want to do is go to the bakery and buy your bread and never bake or look like this again.

Flour pretty much coated our house for 3-4 weeks.

But don’t!  You’re almost done!

After 3-4 hours of proofing, you’re ready to bake.  Score your loaves.  I used a razor blade–recommended!  Preheat your over to 500°, transfer your loaves to baking stones or leave it on your prepared trays and slide them into the oven.  Then, quickly pour one cup of hot water into a pan or skillet that you have already placed in the oven and quickly close the oven door.  After 30 seconds, spray the oven walls with water in spray bottle.  Do this again two more times every thirty seconds.  After that third spray, reduce the oven heat to 450° and bake for ten minutes.  Then rotate the loaves 180° and bake for another 10-20 minutes.

The bread is ready when it is a nice golden dark brown on the outside, and more importantly when it reaches an internal temperature of 205°.  Seriously, using a thermometer for bread worked wonders.  I’ve always had loaves that looked dark but were doughy on the inside.  Not with a thermometer.  Use it!


Success I tells ya!

And with all of this, I finally baked a loaf of sourdough bread!  And it was good!  The crust could have been better, as you can see, but I blame the lack of spray bottle.  I couldn’t mist my loaves because I was without a kitchen spray bottle.  So I kinda just lamely splashed some water with my hands, which I don’t think was the intent of the recipe. But the inside looked good and it tasted delish!

And there you have it.  If I can do it, anyone can!  Next month, we make butter!


8 Responses to “Sourdough Starter is a Riddle Wrapped in an Enigma, Surrounded By Smelly Liquid and Maybe Bubbles?”

  1. grow and resist March 15, 2012 at 10:10 AM #

    I think this is my favorite post ever. Love the 1890 mention and that you took your starter on vacation. Not that I would expect less from you friend. =)

    • ohbriggsy March 15, 2012 at 4:29 PM #

      thanks friend! your favorite post, eh? i’m flattered! next week….a belated blogaversary!

  2. Kitchen Ninja March 19, 2012 at 7:16 AM #

    Pretty much fell over laughing when I saw the picture of Bubs — hilarious!


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