Monday, October 27, 2008

You Too Can Bake Sourdough Bread or How to Make Better Bread With Your Bread Machine!!

A year ago I read Willa Cather's "My Antonia", first published in 1918. The novel presents what I consider an heroic story of hard-working immigrant families during homestead years in Nebraska. A friend thought the book depressing but I thought it remarkable for I grew up knowing families whose parents homesteaded under similar conditions. They came from the "old country" (countries) and lived their first few years in dugouts or sod shanties, enduring poverty and hardships. They homesteaded in clusters; Germans, Swedes, Bohemians. What courageous people they were. And how fortunate are we, their children, that they endured those hard years and passed on down to our parents the courage and strength to work hard and teach their children the same.

In 'My Antonia', the Bohemian neighbor, Mrs. Shimerda, is said to make her bread from a sourdough type leavening as follows... "She mixed her dough, we discovered, in an old tin peck-measure that Krajiek had used about the barn. When she took the paste out to bake it, she left smears of dough sticking to the sides of the measure, put the measure on the shelf behind the stove, and let this residue ferment. The next time she made bread, she scraped this sour stuff down into the fresh dough to serve as yeast."

My mother said her mother baked bread in a similar manner, using a "starter dough" that she kept in a pan. When she was ready to bake bread, she used a bit of the starter to provide a natural yeast, making a sponge first, then adding enough flour to make a thick dough.

Last March I acquired a tiny bit of dried sourdough starter from the Carl Griffith Sourdough Page. (You can read a cool story about Mr. Griffith here from where I've swiped his photo) So there I was, in March, mailing an envelope with a modest contribution for expenses and time to one of the volunteers with the "1847 Oregon Trail Sourdough Preservation Society. What I received in return was less than a tablespoon of dried starter. I was busy with other things so put that little bag away in the drawer where I keep my bread-machine instruction book.

Yesterday I took out that small amount of white crumbly mixture, and began the process of reconstituting the starter. By end of today I had the completed product.

The first photo shows the actual amount of dried starter. Sure seems like a
worthless bit of nothing, wouldn't you say? Ah, but never judge a book by its cover, or in this case, a yeast by its appearance.

The second photo shows the initial step of reviving the starter. The dried bits are stirred into a tablespoon of warm water and left to dissolve for a short while. The bits are irregular in size and seem lifeless. But remember this! We already agreed looks aren't everything!!!

In the third photo you can see the product after a bit of water and flour have been added. The mixture is left to sit in a warm spot while the sourdough yeast ferments. Not too warm, not too cool. The mix begins to show a few yeasty bubbles and I imagine that I can smell a teensy bit of sourdough aroma. (I use a plastic spoon and a china bowl because I read somewhere that I should not use stainless steel. I don't know if that's a problem or not but it gives me a perfect excuse to use this little vintage bowl that I found at some yard sale. It's perfect for this task. It was made by the Hall China company and I have several pieces in different designs and I love using them.)

The fourth photo shows a much larger amount after the addition of more flour and water. More rest. This time I place a clean linen towel over the bowl and place the bowl in my oven. The oven light should provide just the right amount of warmth. To ensure the temp does not get too high I have a brilliant idea. (Brilliant ideas don't come along very often so I'm particularly excited when they occur! So humor me here, okay?) We have an indoor/outdoor digital thermometer. The sending unit hangs just outside the back door on the deck and I step outside to retrieve it. I place it on the oven shelf where it "sends" the oven temp to the readout unit on the wall. Ooops...getting a bit warm. Crack the oven door a bit to release a bit of warmth. The yeasty stuff bubbles a bit and there is more fermentation.

I love the idea of making bread "the old fashioned way" but I decide to use the modern bread machine for several reasons. 1) Kneading bread dough has always been uncomfortable on my wrists. Don't ask me why. I don't know. It just feels really, really uncomfy. 2) While my bread machine works I can be doing something else and 3) I'm no dummy. (Take that last one with a grain of salt. It may or may not be true. If you really need to know, ask my siblings. They grew up with me and can and will give you their candid opinion. I will not, however, hand out their email addresses so find them if you can. Gotcha!)

Instead of using one of the bread recipes that came with the starter, I decide to use a recipe that came with the breadmaker. It called for a "starter" and I figured Carl's starter would work just fine. I don't like the heavy-duty-difficult-to-cut crust that the machine produces, so I select the "dough" feature. This means the machine mixes and kneads and then stops before the bake cycle. I remove the kneaded dough from the machine and place it in a crock bowl for the first rising, remembering to cover it with a clean linen towel. The crock bowl retains the warmth produced by the growing yeast. If you don't have a crock bowl, use a glass bowl. Stainless steel just won't do the trick. Not that the stainless steel is's just that the crock (or a glass) bowl will hold in the heat generated by the yeast. In this photo you can see my thermometer sending unit resting on the oven shelf. (Don't be silly and leave the unit in the oven during baking time! Or you'll be heading to the local electronics or hardware store for a new thermometer and you'll be cleaning melted plastic off your oven floor...not exactly a pleasant prospect.)

After the first rising, punch down the dough and place in the appropriate loaf pan which has been sprayed with Pam or your favorite spray oil. (You can skip clicking on this photo, cause you'll be able to see immediately that I am no Martha Stewart. My baking pans look as if they get frequently used. Not that hers don't! It's just that I don't have the cleaning staff that she has! Come to think of it, I don't have her entrepreneurial spirit, either, or I'd be charging you to view this page! )

And here's the finished loaf. Even though the recipe I used was for "regular bread" and not a sourdough type, it turned out wonderful. Great crust. Great texture. And great taste.

I placed the rest of the starter in the fridge for next week's baking. This initial process was time-consuming but now that the starter batch is in the fridge, the next baking will go much faster. And next time I'll try one of the "real sourdough" where you create a sponge and let it ferment before adding the rest of the flour. This loaf was yummy. I'm betting the next one will be, too.

Don't worry about my thermometer sending unit. It's already back out on the deck. Sending the temp. Reminding me this is late fall weather.

And, since you are a curious soul, be sure to read the key Scripture for today: John 6:26-40. Good bedtime meditation. Food for the soul. (To make it easy for you, just click here.)


cinnamongirl93 said...

I loved this post! I am amazed that you could get the starter. Is it from the 1800's? If so that is so cool!
I have never make sourdough bread. I do love it when I buy it. I'll have to go over and read the page about the starter. Thank you for the information!

Renna said...

I found this post very interesting! Like cinnamongirl, I wasn't aware you could purchase starter that way. Once you have the starter, does it continue to last? What I mean is, does it run out, or do you continue to always mix your dough from that same batch the way our grandmothers did?

I have arthritis in my hands and can't comfortably knead dough, either, so I also use a bread machine (my mom's, which seems to eternally be on loan to me). I don't like the hard crust it forms, either, plus mine's a vertical pan, so the loaves it produces always look like mushrooms! All that to say, I also use the dough setting on my machine!