Sourdough Home

“When you have only two pennies left in the world, buy a loaf of bread with one, and a lily with the other.”

— Chinese Proverb

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Thursday, June 26, 2008 - And on the other hand,

 you have more fingers. I've been reading Peter Reinhart's most recent book, "Whole Grain Breads: New Techniques, Extraordinary Flavor." It is, as you'd expect from Mr. Reinhart, a beautiful book with some great recipes. I've enjoyed all the breads I've made from the book, and some of them will become regular breads.

His recipes work more consistently with home-ground flour than any others I've tried. And breads I made based on several of his earlier recipes became best sellers at the farmers markets where we sold bread. A quick warning - this is going to be long. You might want to skip it.  tldr

I don't know if it is Mr. Reinhart, or if it is just part of the publishing game, but I do find the book is oversold in a number of respects, and as I've found with a number of his other books, he gets some of the technical details wrong. It is, perhaps, a bit presumptuous of an ordinary baker to be critical of someone who teaches at Johnson and Wales, who has won the James Beard award for at least two of his books. Still, I have been a baker since the mid 1970's, a professional baker since 2002, and have read more about baking than just about anyone I know.

Let's repeat that I have great respect for Peter Reinhart as a baker, as a cheerleader and recruiter for the artisan bread movement , and as a human being. Everyone I know who has met Mr. Reinhart sings his praises. His spiritual books are very moving, and have moved me. Still, I find errors in his baking books. (I'll quietly pray his spiritual books are more accurate.) And there are a few things that just annoy me. A lot.

The oversold or over-promoted part.... let's start with the new techniques part of the title of his current book. Using slow fermentations, soakers and retardation are not in any way new. He combines the techniques in interesting ways, but they are new in the same sense that placing dual headlights on the front of car horizontally instead of vertically is new. Effective? Yes! Interesting? Yes! New? No, not really.

At one point in "Whole Grain Breads: New Techniques, Extraordinary Flavor," Mr. Reinhart comments that one person's poolish is another person's biga. Sadly, in a sense he's right. Most of my visitors are in the USA, and we don't have a baking vocabulary to call our own. So we use French and Italian terms. Less often, a few German terms creep in. And all too often, they are misunderstood. So, what one person is calling a poolish may well be what someone else would call a biga.

However, as educators I strongly feel we have an obligation to use technical terms correctly and to instruct others in their correct use. There ARE very specific definitions of terms like Poolish and Biga. And we improve communication when we agree to use the correct definitions. So, in another - and very important - sense one baker's poolish is not and never should be another baker's biga.

As the webmaster and person behind this web site, I get a large number of emails from people having problems with sourdough. And a surprisingly high percentage of them are using techniques from Mr. Reinhart's books. Like Mr. Reinhart, I've been a practicing baker. Like Mr. Reinhart, I teach hands-on classes, though on a smaller scale. Unlike Mr. Reinhart, it seems, I get lots of emails from people having problems and I've refined my techniques over the years to handle the issues my correspondents encounter. Part of the problem comes from his non-standard use of baking terms. If I had nickel for every time someone told me they were making a barm of their sourdough, I could retire. Or when they tell me they are making a poolish from their sourdough.

Though it was used elsewhere, barm is a largely British practice that was an early alternative to sourdough. It used yeast from fermenting beer to raise the bread. It is a good technique, but like bakers yeast, it is an anti-sourdough. You can't make a barm out of a sourdough any more than you can make a vegetarian meal of pork chops.

Similarly, poolish is a yeasted technique. It was developed in the mid to late 1800's when bakers yeast became available. Bakers yeast is less labor intensive and, in the hands of apprentices, more reliable than sourdough. When bakers switched to bakers yeast they made two discoveries. Every time they baked, they had to pay the yeast company - sourdough was essentially free since all the water and flour in the starter left the bakery as bread. Also, the customers complained that the bread had less taste. Bakers are about the most thrifty people you'll ever encounter, so they had to come up with a way to solve these problems. And the same answers solved both problems. The Polish developed the poolish, the Italians the biga. Both are techniques that start with small amounts of yeast and cultivate it over night. The long slow ferment increases flavor and builds up the amount of yeast in the poolish or biga. When I bake bread in commercial quantities, I use about 1/6th the yeast to make a batch of 27 poolish based loaves of bread than it takes to make one loaf of simple yeasted bread. Back to the point, you can't make a poolish, a biga or a barm out of sourdough.

Many of the people who ask me for help with their starters are following Mr. Reinhart's instructions and they are invariably underfeeding their starters, both in quantity of food and frequency of feeding. In the current book, Mr. Reinhart talks about the amount of sourdough misinformation on the web.

He's right, there IS a lot of misinformation on the web. It's in the nature of the beast. There is no mandatory certification of web site content. So, you have to pick the web sites you rely upon carefully. I am very happy about the number of people who use my site, and how many people thank me for my help. I strongly feel that most of the sourdough oriented web sites are written about methods which have worked for the site's author. Which is why I suggest beginners pick one guru and stick with that guru. Switching gurus and methods will only confuse you until you get far enough along to understand how sourdough works.

One advantage a web site has over a printed book is the ease of correcting it. At one point, I mentioned making a biga out of sourdough. When I realized I was mistaken, I corrected the error. That is harder to do with a printed book.

Mr Reinhart talks about web sites that obsess about feeding schedules and feeding quantities. He Bread made with Nitro White Flourmentions that some bizarre sites put rulers in the photos of their breads. When I Google for sourdough, this site is usually on the first page of results, a fact which pleases me more than perhaps it should. So all this leaves me wondering, "Was he talking about me?"

On the off chance he was, and on the off chance that you, or he, are wondering about these topics, I'll finally explain and bring this long post to an end. I work very hard to make sure that this web site has extremely reliable information. When I make mistakes, and I do, I go out of my way to correct them. It is more important to me that the site be correct than I be correct. ALL the recipes at this site have been tested again and again and then again.

It's a truism that it takes a consistent process to create a consistent product. From seven years of answering questions about sourdough here, in, in the Bread Baker's Guild of America mailing list, the bread baker's digest, the Baking Fun mailing list and most recently at The Fresh Loaf, I have seen many of the same problems again and again. The biggest is people don't take care of their starter, their starter is on the ragged edge of death, and it will not deliver consistent - or good - results. And the people become sourdough dropouts. It can be argued that I over-emphasize the importance of a very regular feeding schedule. However, the result of this emphasis is the people who follow my suggestions and guidelines made consistently good sourdough bread. Is it the only way to make consistently good sourdough bread? Of course not. There are many paths to good sourdough. But, for me, the first step on the path is a healthy starter.

Which brings us to the rulers. A lot of time and trouble was spent, perhaps wasted, at Sourdoughhome testing flours. And after a while people wanted a way to gauge which flour produced bigger loaves, a way to tell how big or small the crumb structure was. I could have put my Swiss Army knife or a coffee cup in front of the bread, but I thought a ruler was a more reliable guide to the bread and crumb size.

Mr. Reinhart's references to these things left me wondering, gee, was it me? Having heard what a great guy he is, I am sure there was no ill intent in his statements. Just as there is no ill intent in my concerns about his ongoing problems with getting the names and details of basic techniques right

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