sourdough, baking, whole wheat Clear Springs Press

How to Live on Wheat


         In the most ancient of times, flat bread was made from ground grains and water. One day someone allowed water and flour mash to sit on the shelf too long and it fermented. Disgusted but still hungry, this desperate soul cooked it anyway and discovered sourdough bread. The dough is soured by yeast and bacteria that causes the formation of carbon dioxide bubbles which cause the dough to rise and form lighter, spongier bread.

         Sourdough baking has an origin somewhere prior to recorded history. Until the 1800's, sourdough was the only way to bake bread. Today, it is uncommon but still used. Using sourdough techniques is a direct substitute for using commercial yeast to make your bread rise. There are sourdough cultures in use that have been perpetuated for hundreds and perhaps thousands of years. All of these cultures originated from wild yeast and bacteria combinations somewhere.

         When you are making sourdough don't forget that the dough has to be warm to rise. One of the most common mistakes is to allow insufficient time or temperature for rising. Sourdough is usually slower to rise than commercial yeast. Different cultures have a different speed. Some of them require 24 hours for the bread to rise properly.

         Sourdough is bread that has been leavened with a wild yeast culture. The culture is maintained in a dough sample which becomes 'sour' due to the action of the yeast and bacteria. A dough sample is then inoculated with the dough starter and allowed to rise.

         Many people like the taste of sourdough bread. The characteristic flavor of sourdough bread is due to the lactobacillus bacteria rather than the yeast which causes the bread to rise. The bacteria take longer, about 24 hours, to produce the flavor while modern bakers yeast will rise the bread in approximately 2 hours. Therefore, to get the flavor, use a traditional or freshly developed culture and give it plenty of time to develop.

         In addition to flavor, the bacteria create a variety of anti-biotics and an acid medium which inhibit spoilage organisms. Therefore, sourdough bread will keep better and last longer on the shelf than regular bread with the same ingredients and in the same environment.

Capturing a Sourdough Culture

         You can capture a culture from the air. Combine 2 cups of flour and 2 cups of warm water in a bowl and sit it in the open to collect the microorganisms from the air. Stir the mixture vigorously once every 24 hours. In 2 to 3 days, bubbles should appear on the surface. Add an additional cup of flour and water and stir. Repeat the feeding at approximately 12 hour intervals for several days. When the captured culture is active enough to be useful, it will form a layer of foam on the surface that is 1 to 2 inches deep. If it has not achieved this level of activity within 4 to 5 days, you should probably toss it and start over.

         A related method is to mix grapes or berries with the flour and water mixture. The fruits generally have yeasts and bacteria present on their surface. It is important to use wildcrafted fruits or organically grown fruits to avoid the impact of pesticides, fungicides and antibiotics that may have been sprayed on commercial fruits.

         Getting a good culture requires both active yeast and a compatible strain of lactobacillus bacteria. This may require some trial and error experimentation to get a starter with the right characteristics and flavor.

Activating a Sourdough Culture

         If you purchase a commercial sourdough starter, it may have been dried or freeze dried to preserve it. Whether fresh or preserved, it will need to be activated and fed to make it productive.

         Add the culture to 1 cup of flour and cup of warm water. Let this mixture set for about 12 hours at 85 to 90 degrees F (29-32 degrees C). Add another cup of flour and cup of warm water and let it sit for another 12 hours. If the culture hasn't bubbled up and shown itself to be satisfactorily active, discard half of it, add another cup of flour and cup of warm water and let it set for another 12 hours. Repeat again if necessary. Some cultures will fully activate in 1-2 days while others may take 3-7 days.

         Starter stored in a refrigerator should be fed every two weeks. Do not freeze a starter. For long term storage, dry a fresh starter. After drying thoroughly, it can be placed in the freezer.

         Before using this to activate the dough for your bread, separate out one cup of this mixture, add a cup of flour and cup of warm water to it and place it in the refrigerator to start the next batch.

A Baker's Yeast Culture

         Commercial baker's yeast is quite different from a sourdough culture. Baker's yeast is far more active and will cause bread to rise much faster than wild yeast. Sourdough cultures made from wild yeast vary widely in their activity and in the flavor imparted to the bread.

         To create a baker's yeast based sourdough starter, do the following:

To a non-metallic (stainless steel is OK) container with a lid add:

2 cups warm water
2 cups fresh whole wheat flour
1 package dry yeast

Place this mixture in a warm place and allow it to rise overnight. Now you have a sourdough starter. You have to keep renewing it as you use it. This culture will make the bread rise, but it will be faster than a wild culture and may not contain the bacteria necessary to impart the characteristic sourdough flavor.

Milk Based Sourdough Starter

         Using milk or yogurt with a live culture will introduce lactobacillus bacteria into the mixture.

Recipe 1:

2 cups buttermilk or yogurt with live culture
2 cups flour
1 packet yeast

Allow this mixture to set for two days before using it.

      In this starter you have the yeast fermenting the flour and the lactobacillus bacteria fermenting the milk sugars.

Recipe 2:

2 cups flour
2 cups milk
1 tbs. yeast
2 tbs. honey
A small amount of live lactobacillus culture from buttermilk, kefir or yogurt.

Allow this mixture to set for two days before using it. Use this batter in the recipes described below for a more strongly flavored sourdough.

         While using dairy products and commercial yeast may not equal a developed sourdough culture, they can be used if you don't have one. However, the lactobacillus bacteria in yogurt and buttermilk are adapted to metabolizing milk sugars rather than grain starches. Therefore, you will need to use milk in the recipes.

Sourdough Batter

         To make a basic sourdough batter, place the following ingredients in a non-metallic container and allow it to set in a warm place overnight:

1 cup sourdough starter
2 cups warm water
2 cups fresh flour

Sources for Sourdough Starter

         Here are a few sources of good established sourdough starters.

Oregon Trail Sourdough
P. O. Box 321
Jefferson, MD 21755 USA

Sourdoughs International
PO Box 670
Cascade, Idaho 83611

         This is an excellent source for some great sourdough starters.

         Use your favorite search engine to locate more.

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