I’m struggling to find a direction I’d like to take this blog in; the internet is already saturated with recipe content, and the advent of Pinterest has all but ruined food websites for me. I share an unspeakable amount of pin boards with my girlfriend (honestly, one is too many), and I’ve been conditioned to cringe every time I get an email notification exclaiming the addition of a new miniature succulent or rainbow glazed doughnut to a digital pin board. Sure, I could turn my email notifications off, but then I wouldn’t be able to complain about it.

Of course I say this now, but I have a feeling that my posts will slowly devolve into a personal dumping ground for trouble shooting recipes and tweaking variables in ingredient lists. Maybe some value can be gathered from the notes…but maybe not. Time will tell.

In any case, Jim Lahey’s recipe managed to solidify bread baking as at least a transient hobby for me, and after a few months of dialing in the recipe, I began to look to the next frontier. For me, that happened to be sourdough baking.

I’d never really paid much attention in chemistry class – in fact I spent most of my time playing the amicable computer game Dolphin Olympics (link here). Reaching the mythological space diner became more important than learning the periodic table; but I digress.

I can’t recall whether the topic of fermentation was covered during chemistry, let alone any high school science class, but I’d come to find out that it’s this practice that makes sourdough bread possible. Essentially, fermentation is the process in which sugars are broken down by yeast and bacteria, eventually resulting in the creation of alcohol and C02. There’s obviously much more to be said on this matter, but that will likely (possibly) be covered in a post down the road.

What you need to know for now is the following:

Yeast eats sugar and shits out booze and carbon dioxide.

And it’s this elegant river dance that allows sourdough bread to be. So, after reading one too many articles romanticizing about the “alchemy” of sourdough loaves, I decided to take the plunge and learn how to bake one myself.

Side Note – You’d be hard-pressed not to find the word “alchemy” used when describing sourdough baking. This conjures up magical thoughts; something akin to wizardry or Harry Potter. In reality, it comes down to the fastidious process of fermentation, not a dementor. It’s science, you imbecile…go play Dolphin Olympics.

 Anyway, to begin sourdough baking, you need a sourdough “starter.” The term starter takes on many names – Chef, mother, levain, preferment, etc. – and they are all, somewhat moronically, used interchangeably with different terms and phrases. This was a concept that frustrated me to no end, as one author would talk about the levain (or leaven; stupid, I tell you), while others insisted on it being the starter. I’d like to clear the air and take the time to describe, at least what I understand to be, the proper semantics:

  • Starter – What I believe to be the proper term in describing this piece of the sourdough puzzle. A starter is nothing more than a mixture of flour and water that has been let to sit for multiple days (weeks, months, etc.) at a time. Yeast happens to be a naturally occurring microorganism that’s found on the flour, our hands, the air (just about everywhere). These natural yeast spores, whether you like it or not, will find their way into your water/flour mixture. When they do, the process of fermentation begins, albeit slowly. The flour/water mixture needs to be fed (given) more flour/water as the yeast begins breaking down the previous batch. An entire post could be designated to this topic, but just know that the starter is a batch of wild yeast spores that you’ve lured into a jar through the promise of food (water/flour). Once you’ve trained your yeast to adapt to your feeding schedule, you’ll be able to successfully use a starter in the same way you would commercial yeast purchased from a store – to leaven bread (make bread rise).
  • Chef – See Starter
  • Mother – See Starter
  • Preferment – An all-encompassing term used to describe literally any pre-fermented dough. Pre-fermented dough being any proportion of flour & water mixed together with yeast (be it commercial or naturally occurring) and allowed to rise.
  • Levain – A portion of prefermeneted dough. Cookbooks notoriously distinguish between this and a starter. Essentially, it’s the portion of your starter to be used in your dough recipe.
  • Poolish – A type of preferement; usually equal parts water and flour with the addition of commercial yeast.
  • Biga – Also a type of preferment; usually a higher flour to water ratio with the addition of commercial yeast.
  • Sponge – See biga.
  • Commercial Yeast – Think of this as any yeast purchased from a store. There are many nuances to this, but some of the largest categories are the following:
    • Fresh Yeast – I’ve also heard this referred to as ‘baker’s yeast’. Usually purchased in block/cake form and is typically harder to find at your run of the mill grocery store.
    • Active Dry Yeast – Usually necessary to presoak in water before adding to dough formula.
    • Instant Yeast – Can be added directly to dough formula.

As far as I know, there are three ways to leaven bread – 1) through the use of a sourdough starter 2) through the use of commercial yeast 3) through the use of chemical leavening agents such as baking soda/powders.

Also worth noting – ‘sourdough’ bread and ‘naturally leavened’ bread are phrases that can be used interchangeably. It’s often a misnomer that all sourdough bread needs to be sour. In fact, many fancy French blokes often view this as a bastardization of the bread, showcasing the baker’s inattention during the fermentation process. Some people, however, just prefer the taste of sour bread, so no one is necessarily right; it’s just a matter of opinion.

I personally like a more utilitarian loaf of bread that can be used in both savory or sweet dishes, so I air more on the side of less sour (although a hint of tang never hurt nobody).

The focus of this blog will weigh heavily on sourdough bread recipes. An entire post could be used to highlight the (supposed) benefits of naturally leavened baked goods, but it’s undeniable that a sourdough loaf of bread has better keeping qualities (upwards of a week when stored properly), leaves you feeling fuller, and creates a depth/complexity of flavor that’s just unachievable when working with commercially or chemically leavened bread.

As I’m attempting to wrap this post up, I’m realizing that nearly everything mentioned above could be expanded upon and explained more properly. I’m only scratching surface of many of these topics and it’s leaving this conclusion feeling rather incomplete. More information coming in the future to be sure, but in the meantime, happy baking.

Copyright © 2019 Loaf Bakehouse

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Copyright © 2019 Loaf Bakehouse
Copyright © 2019 Loaf Bakehouse
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