Sourdough Starter Primer
Using A Sourdough Starter
WOW - we're FINALLY going to talk about using a sourdough starter! The payoff for all the work in starting and maintaining a starter is finally within sight! There are two major ways to use sourdough starter, depending on what you want to make. If you are making quickbreads, cakes, biscuits, waffles or pancakes, you'll probably want to use a mature starter. We'll talk about that at the end of this page. The other, and more common, use of sourdough starter is to make leavened bread using sourdough instead of commercial baker's yeast. That is the primary focus of all these pages. We call using sourdough this way....
Making Sourdough Breads and Rolls
After the importance of cleanliness, the most important thing a culinary student learns is "mise en place" which translates from French as either "everything ready" or "everything in its place." Have you ever been the dweeb knocking at a neighbor's door asking if they might have a cup of this or a dash of that because you didn't have everything you thought you had? Because you didn't realize a recipe for Pecan Sandies actually called for, well, Pecans? Before you start cooking or baking, it helps to have everything ready and in its place. And that starts, since this is a sourdough web page, with the sourdough starter.
When is a starter ready to use?
With the exception of quickbreads, and we have some really neat quick-bread recipes, when I talk about using sourdough starter in all these pages, I am talking about an active sourdough starter. One that can, and recently has, doubled its size after a feeding. If you watch a starter after it is fed, for a while it just sits there, like someone after a big meal. It's a lag phase.
After that, it begins to rise as the critters produce gas which is trapped by the dough. Sometimes I compare a starter to a sponge. If you dip a sponge in water and pull it out, it will leak water. It's porous. Sourdough starter, and bread dough, are held up by trapped gas, but just as a sponge leaks water, starter and dough leak gas. After a bit more time the gas being produced by the starter and the gas leaking out of the starter are at an equilibrium. How long it takes to get there depends on your starter, the temperature of the starter and where it's rising, the density of the sponge, the strength of the flour and a lot of other variables. Still, sooner or later, it will reach a peak.
As the starter runs out of food, the gas production declines, and the starter begins to fall again as the starter leaks more gas than is being produced. As the starter is beginning to fall, you may see little cracks, like ravines, form on the surface of the starter.
I like to use the starter somewhere in the time period where it has reached its peak through the time it is just starting to fall. It's active then.
How To Use Starter
With the exception of quickbreads, sourdough is best when used alone. Adding yeast to sourdough breads makes the dough rise too quickly so the bacteria in the starter don't have enough time to do their work.
When you say "sourdough" or "sourdough bread" to many people, they have an immediate image form in their minds. Usually in the United States, it's an image of San Francisco Sourdough Bread as if no other sourdough bread had ever existed. But sourdough is just a riser, not a style of bread. Just about any bread can be made with sourdough, and any bread that was made before the mid to late 1800's was, more than likely, originally made with sourdough. Sourdough is just a riser. It's not a religion, it's not an icon or a holy grail, and sourdough bread can look like any bread because it can be any bread.
Sourdough does bring some health benefits to bread, it extends the bread's shelf life, and it makes bread taste better. I make cinnamon raisin bread, sweet rolls, and much, much more with sourdough. I went through a long period where I converted every recipe I could find to sourdough.
To convert a recipe to sourdough, I start by replacing each packet of yeast (about a tablespoon, or 6 grams) with a cup (or about 280 grams) of active sourdough starter. I adjust the recipe to accommodate the water and flour in the starter. I figure each cup of starter has about 1/2 cup of water and 1 cup of flour in it, while 280 grams of starter mixed the way we talked about in maintaining a starter will have 140 grams each of water and flour.
If the bread rises too slowly, I'll use more starter the next time. If the bread rises too quickly, I'll use less starter next time. If the sourdough taste is too strong for the flavor profile of the bread, I'll use more starter the next time. And if the bread has too little sourdough taste, I'll use less sourdough starter.
No, that wasn't a misprint. To get flavor out of sourdough starter takes time. And one of the best ways to get more flavor out of the starter is to use less of it, so it will take longer to raise the bread. If you use more fresh and active starter you'll get a fast rise and less sourdough flavor.
There are two other common tools to manipulate the sourdough flavor. The ash, or mineral, content of the flour you are using really impacts the flavor. More ash means more flavor. So, adding a bit of whole wheat or rye flour can really have an impact. And the temperature plays a big role also. At temperatures in the 45 to 68F and the 80 to 90F range, the yeast is comparatively slower than the bacteria so you are giving the bacteria an advantage. Overall, I prefer a long slow cool rise to an accelerated rise.
There are lots more tips and techniques in the Tips and Techniques page.
Its odd. I love cakes, waffles, quickbreads, pancakes and biscuits but I really haven't played with using sourdough to make these very often. A pity, really.
All of these baked goods are made by mixing baking soda with an acid. Many fine baked goods are made with buttermilk and baking soda.When they are mixed together, they produce the gases that raise the baked goods. In these baked goods, sourdough starter can be used to do what buttermilk does. The acidity of a ripe, mature starter reacts with the baking soda and produces gas.
As you can guess, you don't want a fresh active starter for this. A starter that's been sitting out for two or three days works better. There is a point of diminishing returns here. At some point the starter begins to turn bad and develop off tastes. When that happens depends on your starter. I'd stick to the two or three day time frame.
If you want to explore this, I can suggest looking at the rec.food.sourdough FAQ. It has a number of good recipes for waffles, pancakes, biscuits, quickbreads and a chocolate cake to die for. I am working on this area, and have a few really nice recipes.