Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Intimate Look at Giving Up Commercial Yeast

Right now, there are two doughs fermenting in my house, one in the fridge and the other in the unheated basement, still very cool with early spring temperatures. Being away all day at work, I feel almost like I did with my children when I returned to full-time office work. Am I abandoning them? Will they thrive if my hours at home are limited?

The emotional connection to a dough or a starter is reminiscent, though not exactly like, the connection to a child or a pet. (Cheaper than a child as no after-school activities or college tuition payments are required.) But for one who has never kept a starter, with the relative ease of commercial jars and packets of yeast, the question really is ...

Why give up reliability and simplicity?
Nothing easier than using commercial yeast. So why stop? Multiple answers: Health, confidence and the sheer miracle of growing one's own yeast source. I still open the oven curious to see the amazing sight of oven spring, a raised bread, all due to the naturally-occurring bacteria in my home. This is not from factory yeast; this is bread made the way our great-great-great grandmothers made it, all the back to the ancient peoples we (well, a good many of us) descend from. 

I admit that I am extremely skeptical of blanket health claims, period, including those made in favor of sourdough-levained breads. Many of the claims I first read were declared without any discussion of the science behind them. Plus, as I am far from being a scientific expert myself, any detailed explanations would have to be taken somewhat on faith. I have not set up a laboratory in the basement to conduct my own independent study.

On the other hand, I am even more skeptical of the fast and convenience food industry, the idea of fortified foods, and the rampant use of antibiotics and other substances employed in food manufacturing (that's my word). 

So, I rely on my instincts, Michael Pollan and other writers, albeit with my own preference for natural and ancient methods. Here are some sources that explain the health benefits of using a culture, particularly one that takes eight or more hours to raise a dough. 

Sourdough Bread and Health - article on Daniel Reid's website
The rise and rise of sourdough bread - 2014 article in The Guardian by Barbara Griggs
Top 10 reasons to eat sourdough bread - post on Cookus Interruptus
And, of course, Michael Pollan, himself. I liked The Omnivore's Dilemma and Cooked, among others. 

Basically, the bacteria and what they accomplish in eight hours or more results in healthy bread (think of artisnal cheeses) instead of unhealthy commercially-produced bread, with all manner of diseases and maladies laid at its door. Of course, in my mind, the same people eating sourdough bread are likely eating a more healthy diet than people eating Wonder Bread, McDonald's and a smorgasbord of processed foods, so this is a difficult issue to entirely divorce from other food-health chicken-and-egg questions.

Simplicity - without babysitting
Sourdough does not equal complex. It can be very easy. And this bread can be made slowly, over a day, three days or more. It can be made - again, easily - by someone who works full time. Refrigeration is your friend. Not at all expensive, either. Without any fancy gadgetry or special equipment, indeed with just flour and water, to make the starter, then some more, plus salt, for a dough, delicious breads await.

You can maneuver, not control, the taste - generally, the longer the rise, the more mature, the more sour, as in you can taste the complexity on the tongue. I know it sounds pretentious, but it's true. I'm not sure one would consider this an acquired taste because I liked it from the start. Think of it as craft brewing for bread. (Indeed, historians agree that leavening was "discovered" in Ancient Egypt, when particles from brewing made their way to the dough sitting right there.)

Confidence - leaving the safety and security of powdered yeast
When I moved beyond my bread machine, I had barely heard of growing one's own starter. My neighbor had brought some over years before and I threw it out within a few days. I had not an inkling about how to use it and I no clue that any maintenance was required. I then read 52 Loaves, which discusses sourdough starters, and even gives a recipe. The book is a journey of bread making, though one that encompasses only white flour. But like someone watching the ocean, its strong waves coming in, I wanted only to dip a toe in. I started with commercial yeast, but I quickly decreased the amounts and increased the time for a first rise - or fermentation. 

Pretty soon after, I tried making a starter and I have never looked back - except with my challahs, which I continue to make with a bread machine and commercial yeast. I might need a 108 quest just for challah, but that's for a different post.

No lack of information
I have a sourdough starter page that addresses beginning and maintaining a starter, including how to get away for vacations. But there are thousands of resources on this little universe of a topic. Again, not difficult, and not really time consuming. For more than you need, consult the freshloaf forum on starters and the sourdough companion.

Never use a lackluster starter
This should be obvious, but ... a starter without mojo is not going to do the best job. For some reason, my white flour starter is perpetually happy, but when I go elsewhere I do not have the same consistently wonderful results. So the rye starter, which I wanted to finish before Passover, was not as puffy as it should have been. I put it in anyway. So there I was with bread #38, an all-white recipe, but I threw in the rye starter anyway, or less than the recipe called for as I did not have enough. It did okay, but the proof, as is said, is in the pudding, or, in this case, the bread. And maybe it wasn't the starter, perhaps it was underproofing, but near the bottom of the bread was a dense, gooey line. 

The bread was beautiful and I did my best attempt ever at a design on top, a nice square, and the taste was fantastic, but there it was, the dense, wettish line. Oh well. Whether the bread is perfect or not, as long as it tastes good, it gets eaten. Though with bread #38, which always comes out absolutely perfect, I was a bit surprised. Perhaps I was complacent and off my game.

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