Over the last couple of Christmases I’ve been gifted a couple books by Peter Reinhart, artisanal bread guru, that I had on my wish list on Amazon.ca. I finally got my act together this spring to try my hand once again at sourdough. I’ve had some success — and some fail — this time around.
First and foremost, I figured out the key to getting my seed culture started was that I needed to aerate the mixture better. I couldn’t necessarily always do it the recommended three times per day, but I realized that I had likely only been stiring out the air in previous attempts, rather than whipping air into the mixture. Since you’re trying to capture wild yeasts from the air, adding air into the starter culture seems to be key. It took about 8 days before I had any life, and so I had to wing it a bit (Peter Reinhardt’s instructions give you 5 steps to work with, so when my culture wasn’t following his schedule I just had to keep feeding it, keep aerating it and hope for the best). When it did take off finally, it went hog wild, billowing into a lively bubbly cauldron of life.
From that point, one more step and I had myself a mother starter, which seemed quite different from what I’d been expecting to have. My mother starter was more like a heavy dough ball than a well-hydrated goo, which is what I was expecting it to be. Again I suspect that our Canadian flours behave differently than Reinhart’s American instructions suggest it will.
All the same, I went forth and attempted his San Fancisco Sourdough recipe from Artisan Breads Ever Day. The recipe requires you to create another starter from the mother starter, and then make the dough, of which there are two varieties — the purist method (no added yeast) or the yeast method, in which you add some instant yeast to the dough to help things along. I tried the purist version of course, and yet again, like previous attempts two years ago, my bread did not behave as planned.
I had separated the rather copious dough ball into two halves to make more manageable-sized loaves (especially since it’s just Chris and I here eating it). When the dough didn’t rise during the fermentation stage, I was ready to cry. If there’s one thing Peter Reinhart lacks in his books (I also have his Whole Grain Breads, New Techniques, Extraordinary Flavours), it’s a trouble-shooting section. There doesn’t seem to be any place in either book where he discusses what to do when the bread doesn’t cooperate. And since there are so many factors at play when making sourdough, I feel this would be really helpful — because I’ve discovered you can save that defunct loaf from the composter (and save that $$ from the flour).
As it turns out, you can rescue a non-cooperative ball of dough by going back and adding in some instant yeast, with some warm water to activate it, and a little more flour to get the right dough consistency. The risk here is ending up with a very dense, overworked loaf. But I stuck it back in the fridge for another day to rise, and it did, and it was saved. Above is the result. A completely edible loaf of bread, maybe a little on the dense side, but totally usable. It wasn’t at all sour tasting, of course, because the fermentation didn’t really happen the way it would with wild yeast. The second dough ball did this with, which sat in the fridge about 4 days longer, actually did have a tiny bit of sour taste.
I have since read from other sources (thank you Interwebs), that sometimes a starter doesn’t work to the best of its ability until it’s been around for at least a month. The more aged it is, it would seem, the healthier it acts later in the bread making process. Completely reasonable.
And when I opened up the mother starter in the fridge after a week of ignoring it, I discovered that it had lots of air pockets, and had an altogether pleasant and very strong sour aroma, much stronger than it had when I originally put it in there. Another thing that Reinhart failed to mention might happen.
So I’ll keep trying. I won’t throw the baby out with the bathwater. Perhaps one of these days soon I’ll be eating my very one authentic, purist sourdough bread. Maybe eventually all this hard work will pay off. Because if there’s anything I’ve learned here, it’s that our ancestral mothers had the patience of saints.