KQED Food Blog: Bay Area Bites: Sourdough Tutorial. Local Bloggers Share Recipes, Information & Toast. Part 2
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Monday, April 30, 2007
Sourdough Tutorial. Local Bloggers Share Recipes, Information & Toast. Part 2

Continued from Part One on Monday April 16.

In California we have more than our fair share of live yeast in the air. Catching it and turning it into "sourdough starter" or "natural starter" is pretty easy. All one needs to do is to feed one's starter with cold water and bread flour every week or so. The concept of the 100 years old starter, though, is negligible. But I'm not here to rain on your sourdough starter parade. Although I will mention that sourdough is just that. It was not, originally, a nice thing to say about one's bread. It meant bad. It meant that your bread had gone off.

Like trifle, sourdough was originally a mistake. Or an exaggeration of a mistake. I have heard more than one Master Bread Baker disparage sourdough bread.

Also, for the sake of clarity, sourdough bread and sourdough starter are not the same. It is possible to make bread from live yeast cultures, whether they are from wheat or grapes or some other source, and not have it "taste sour." Although the nomenclature is the same, there's an argument here for saying starter when one means just that, and sourdough starter when one means the starter to make sourdough bread.

Now, who's on first?

All this being said, I had quite a lot of fun and education whilst hanging out with the humble Dylan of Sourdough Monkey Wrangler. A student of the live yeast culture, this man has come far in his self-education of all things involving bread flour. And he's neat and clean to boot.

Is there someone in your community you want to learn from? Maybe pick up a new skill? What stops you from calling them? Do you feel like they need to be paid for their time? Do you have anything to barter?

In my profession we have open doors for barter. I can give my time to just about any chef in whose kitchen I want to learn. We call this a "trail" or a stagiere.

In March, Dylan came to one of my classes, and afterwards brought me some sourdough inspired gifts. Very lucky for me there was a generous bag of homemade English muffins. I could not have been happier!

I love English muffins.

Dylan's English muffin recipe is based on one he found at Nicole's Baking Bites. He adapts his to include favorite locally grown and milled whole wheat flour from Full Belly Farm, as well as milk instead of water.

Milk is a traditional addition to English muffins, as well as Crumpets, which are basically English muffins, but griddled on only one side. In bread, milk becomes a softener. It feeds the yeast an alternative, tastier sugar, and the butterfat relaxes the crumb for a more pliable mouth feel.

When one bakes bread, a baked good of few ingredients, one must really know what each ingredient does, can do and is doing. Yeast, obviously, helps things rise. But the more you use, the faster bread goes stale. (The same goes for baking powder.) Flour and water combine to bind bread. But inherent in most flours is gluten. Gluten is protein, in its simplest terms, and, once "activated," is the structure builder, the 2X4's of bread doughs. Without gluten, there is no barn to raise. This, as we well know in Northern California, does not mean bread cannot be made without gluten. Tall, light bread, though, cannot be made without gluten.

Sugar, even the sugar that exists in the starch of the flour, feeds the yeast. Yeast is an animal, albeit a small single-celled one. (Ask the vegans if yeast is an animal they won't eat, and you will get a myriad of answers.) It eats sugar and emits gas (carbon dioxide), creating the bubbles that will, hours later, become the holes, or the nooks & crannies, in your bread. When flour has enough protein in it, the bubbles will keep their shape as they encircle the gas.

In bread, everything after yeast, flour, and water is dessert. Fat, in any form, is a softener. I'm not talking Wonder Bread here; I'm talking a palatable mouth feel. Think matzoh compared to challah, or French bread compared to brioche. Most people would rather make bread pudding or French toast with brioche, rather than ciabatta.

Flavorings are just that.

When working with natural starters one can develop far more flavor in bread. This is a funny sentence if you've not made bread. The concept is that the longer it takes to "proof" bread, or make it rise, the better the overall end result will be. Yeast does not like to be rushed. In turn, if you give it all the atmospheric elements it loves: humidity, mild warmth, time, it gives you rewards tenfold.

Bread tastes best when all you taste is bread. It's why Tartine's bread has such a following, even though it has more restrictions than a reservation at The French Laundry.

I have never been the type of person to have and keep a natural starter around. Dylan has a worm farm in his kitchen for easy apartment composting. I guerilla compost. Dylan rides his bike, I drive. Dylan feeds his starters on a schedule, I water my plants to keep them looking pretty on my window ledge.

But in the past weeks I've done some natural starter experiments. The recipes he gave me are a 3-day process. Day one you feed the starter and keep it out on the counter. Use a larger bowl than you need and make sure it's not metal. Day two combine starter with milk and flours. Day three add rest of flour, baking soda, salt and sugar, proof and begin muffin production.

English muffin production looks like this:

Knead dough a bit. The longer you knead it, the more likely it will hold it's round shape later and rise evenly. Roll dough out, cut, lay on heavily floured (or cornmeal covered) sheet, proof in a warm-ish, moist place (Dylan puts a measuring cup of very hot water in the oven for a more controlled atmosphere), and griddle until done. "Fork" to open, toast and eat with the best butter you can get your hands on. Have you eaten Clover's new Organic butter line yet? It's the bomb. So to speak.

I wouldn't call this the simplest, most efficient way to get to English muffins, but I will say that all the steps are important and worth it in the end.

Dylan and I use King Arthur bread flour, the blue paper bag. King Arthur has been extremely helpful when it comes to answering my questions about the protein contents and wheat origins of their flours. (Northern wheat is considered "stronger" with higher protein than Southern grown wheat that is considered "softer," White Lily being the best example.) Giusto's is a local company, but I can't seem to get them on the phone to answer questions to save my life. If you long to buy flour in bulk, which is less expensive than paying for the pretty packaging, head over to Rainbow Grocery in SF or Berkeley Bowl in the East Bay.

Most "sourdough" people will share a bit of their starter with you if this is the extra hobby you've been waiting for. For all your spare time.

But even if you take the time to make a starter which you keep alive for a few months in order to make two or three batches of these glorious homemade English muffins, I can guarantee you at least one happy mouth, your own, if not a messianic following. Not to mention the immeasurable learning one acquires from understanding the basics in the relationship between flour, yeast, air and water.

There's a chance that Dylan and I will co-teach a class on this very subject. Keep up with this link for announcements.

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Anonymous The Wine Makers Wife said...

This is such a treat to read. I am so scared to try sourdough on my own... My aunts and uncles live in Wisconsin and miss sourdough desperately. I am always smuggling as much bread in my purse as I can carry when I go visit. Perhaps after re-reading this post again I will have the knowledge and courage to try it on my own. Best! -Sara

4/30/2007 4:06 PM

Blogger puck said...

oh my goodness, those are beautiful.

i tried to make a starter once, but failed. i'm afraid to try again. maybe sometime, though.

4/30/2007 7:21 PM

Blogger Passionate Eater said...

Those cavernous nooks and crannies look like they'd hold the perfect pockets of melted butter and jam. Move over Boudin, because this looks like the San Francisco treat!

4/30/2007 8:13 PM

Blogger Cali said...

This is an amazingly serendipitous piece for me!

For the last week I have been thinking about making English muffins for the first time. I'm pretty good with bread making, (in fact my maiden name means breadmaker,) but English muffins are something I've just never made before. I'm not afraid of making my own sourdough starter, I just fear for the yeasties little lives once I am sick of sourdough starter keeping.

I hadn't actually begun looking up recipes or anything, but I've definitely been thinking about it. Now you've written about them. How perfect is that? Do we get the recipe over at Eggbeater?

5/01/2007 1:53 AM

Blogger shuna fish lydon said...


Smuggling bread? what is the world coming to?!


Thank you. Depending on where you made your natural starter the first time, I imagine it hurts almost no one to attempt it again.

Passionate Eater,

"cavernous nooks and crannies" Yes! This is what we strive for!


The recipe can be seen by following the link to Baking Bites. In the text here I say how Dylan and I have changed the recipe a bit, but all recipes are guides, so have your way with it!

You can always toss your starter when you're done with it. Starting it again is easier that keeping it alive.

5/01/2007 5:59 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Check out the new procedure for creating a starter in Peter Reinhart's "Whole Grain Breads." A lot of science went into it to make it much easier and more dependable. The technique is applicable to both whole grain and white flour starters.

Allen Cohn

4/08/2008 7:44 AM


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