A quick apology - life has been complicated of late, and busy. That has meant that I haven't been updating our web page with fresh content, sending out newsletters, baking as much as I'd like, or even maintaining my starter the way I should. Even worse, I didn't schedule any classes for April! All that has led to the current newsletter.
In a recent Facebook discussion, someone wanted to start a vegan, whole grain, all natural sourdough baking group. One person commented that "proper sourdough" should be vegan in any case. Good heavens! "Proper sourdough"? What is that anyway? From time to time I've tried to define it, and every time I did someone handed me my metaphorical buns on a slice of toast. Every time I hear someone talk about "real", "proper", or "classical" sourdough it turns out what they mean is, "bread I approve of." Sorry, it's a bigger world than your preferences!
People have been making sourdough bread for something like 6,500 to 10,000 years. Until the mid to late 1800's there were only three major ways to raise bread. Baking soda, sourdough, and leftover beer yeast. Of the three, sourdough was, by far, the most common. In the mid to late 1800's, reliable bakers yeast became available, and sourdough was quickly all but forgotten. Yeast was easier to use, and in the hands of the inexperienced or careless, far more reliable. All this means, that if a bread was made before 1850 to 1875, chances are good it was originally a sourdough bread. And that covers a LOT of territory.
I used to be a purist and insist that to be a "real" sourdough bread a bread had to be made with only sourdough. However, German bakers make lots and lots of very good sourdough bread using an exhausted starter to acidify and flavor the dough but raising it with bakers yeast. As the child of a German mother, I can't just ignore all the wonderful breads of Germany!
The best description I have, today, of what a "proper sourdough" bread is would be "a bread made with a sourdough starter". I DO draw the line at bread made with chemicals added to create an illusion of sourdough and raised with bakers yeast. After that, things get murky. Many people add honey to sweeten their loaves and butter to add oil to their loaves to extend their shelf life - neither of which is vegan. I guess the theme song here would be - Don't Fence Me In!
We've talked a lot about how different people handle their sourdough starters. One of the more surprising comments I've received is that, "I don't worry about that stuff - I just let my starter sit out. When I need it, I feed it and then bake." One person said they leave their starter out as long as 3 weeks, and then feed it once. From what they said, they feed the new starter about 2% of the old starter, 100% water and 100% flour. And then, I'm told, it just takes off!
With all the excitement in our lives, our starter had been sitting out for three weeks. So I thought, "What the heck, why not?" I took some of the starter, broke it up into some water, and then stirred in the flour. And then I let it sit. As a control, I also fed the starter the way I usually do. The results?
The 2% starter feedup showed signs of life and rose a good bit. It smelled better than I was expecting after 3 days. However, it wasn't as active as I really wanted. The top had dried out, and the lower parts were gooier than usual - perhaps I should have stirred it regularly?. My regular feedup was still sluggish after 3 days of feedings, but more active than the 2% starter. I should have known better, but I baked with these starters. The results were what I should have expected of a not-quite-ready-for-prime-time starter. The breads rose considerably less than usual. This was a reminder, which I should not have needed, that you need a consistent starter to create consistent bread. First you get the starter ready, then you plan on baking!
At this point, I am firmly in the "feed it or refrigerate it" camp and feel that there is no substitute for caring for your starter. Still, your results are your results, my results are my results. Or, as they say at the gym, "You do you and I'll do me!"
Back in the late 1970's there was a journal for natural food bakers called "Millstream - A Natural Foods Baking Journal". A baker friend stumbled onto 8 issues of the magazine and asked if anyone could scan them and make them available. So, I volunteered Beth, my wife and best friend, to scan them and offered to make them available online. Now, I've made them available through sourdoughhome.com Just follow the Millstream link.
It is faster to scan and post magazines than to read them. Which is my way of saying that I haven't read all of the magazines yet. In what I've read so far, there are some interesting points of view I agree with, and some I do not. The publishers of the magazine printed a disclaimer indicating that they didn't agree with everything they published in the magazine. Like them, I don't agree with everything in the magazines, but view it as an interesting window into the dawning of the artisan baking movement in America as well as the most recent wave of the natural food movement.
Well, my starter is coming around, and with luck next time I'll have more information about our revised Cement Creek Bread, as well as a great caraway rye bread. (Those were the promises hinted at in the subject line.)
Until next time, may your dough always rise, and - if you're lucky - rise enough to make you happy!