My mother sent along an article from the WP that I had missed, “Better bread starts with a sponge“, which discusses some sourdough techniques for home bakers.
I appreciate her sending that along, and have already sent her some comments. But since they’re easy blog fodder, I’ll repeat them here. I don’t really have any problems with Marcy Goldman, or her article; I want to try her “Favorite French Bread“. But there are some questions I have and comments to make.
- Goldman quotes Cook’s Illustrated as saying home bakers should “forgo a starter to save time and simply add vinegar for that characteristic acidic taste”. This is, so far, the dumbest thing I’ve read in 2013. To her credit, Goldman does not endorse this, but I expect better from CI and that tweedy little bow-tied jackass.
- Why is this dumb? Because anyone can make a starter. It is not the nuclear rocket brain surgery. It isn’t hard. I have made starters and baked with them, and I’m not Thomas Freaking Keller in the kitchen. All you need is flour, water, and time; that’s how the original Alaskan sourdoughs were made. Yeast is a possible addition, but isn’t strictly needed. (I’ll touch on that in a minute.) As far as time goes, you can get a starter going in 72 hours, and it will keep indefinitely with reasonable care.
- Goldman’s stater recipe calls for a cup of spring water, 1 1/4 cups of unbleached bread flour, 2 tablespoons each of whole-wheat and rye flour, and 1/2 teaspoon of instant yeast. The starter recipe I’ve been using calls for 3/4 cup of milk, “heated to a simmer and cooled to 100°F”, 1 cup flour (white, whole-wheat, or rye) and 1 1/2 teaspoons of yeast. Both make enough starter for one loaf in their respective recipes; I’ve doubled the recipe amount for my starter, and am feeding it with 1 cup heated milk and 1 cup rye or whole-wheat flour whenever I pull some starter out. That way, I always have enough starter. (I keep it in a crock on the back of my stove.)
- Here’s the thing, though: if you’re starting your starter with yeast, aren’t you just…growing more of the same yeast? I mean, if I want Fleischman’s, I can go buy that stuff all day long at the HEB. Or do the natural yeasts in the air eventually overwhelm your starter yeast? I have heard it said that’s what happens with packaged sourdough starter, like you might get as a souvenir in San Francisco or Alaska; you may get it home and bake some bread, but eventually the original strain will get overwhelmed by your wild local yeasts. (That doesn’t mean I don’t want to try baking with one of those starters; I do.)
- The one starter I’ve found that doesn’t call for added yeast is Nancy Silverton’s in Breads from the La Brea Bakery. I’d like to try that, but it takes 14 days to get to the point where you’re ready to bake with it, and it seems very fussy. While I was looking up Silverton’s starter, I found this starter recipe from Michael Ruhlman, which doesn’t take 14 days, doesn’t call for added yeast, and also looks like something worth trying.
- Speaking of Ruhlman, he’s probably worth a post of his own at some point. (I’ve been reading Ratio: The Simple Codes Behind the Craft of Everyday Cooking and The Making of a Chef: Mastering Heat at the Culinary Institute of America, the latter of which I paid $1 for at the Austin Public Library bookstore. At one point in Making, Ruhlman mentions a CIA chef who has a starter he’s kept going since 1985; the book came out in 1997, so that was at least a ten-year-old starter.)