Wednesday, December 5, 2012

starting a starter

[This post submitted to Sortacrunchy's Your Green Resource 12/6/12.]

As a gesture of goodwill towards our poor, defunct oven (editor's note:  fixed!  fixed!  FIXED!), I decided to start cultivating a sourdough starter.  While I love cooking, I have not yet done a whole lot of baking (aside from my favorite crackers or cornbread).

But all the bread at the store looks so icky.  Who knows how long it's been since it was baked?  What if there were little creatures who wanted a nibble first while it was in storage?  If I can make it at home, why not? 

Sour leavening is one of the oldest ways that people have created to make risen breads.  It uses the natural process of bacteria eating flour and excreting carbon dioxide to make the dough light.  I thought I'd give it a go, because it seems like a fun little process and I like making creatures in my kitchen.

It's not hard at all, but it takes time and attention.  Every tutorial I found online was really confusing.  So, I'm going to try to make this as simple as possible.  I will do three separate posts:  making the starter, proofing and baking with the starter, and storing the starter for future use.

To make, you need three ingredients:  whole wheat flour, AP flour, and water.  There are all kinds of debates online about grinding your own flour, using orange juice or yeast, or whatever.  I wanted to go with the most streamlined version.  You also need a very big glass jar or receptacle of some kind.  In an ideal world, I would buy a crock just to keep my starter, like this one.  But I didn't want to invest just for my first experiment.

Whisk together:

1/2 C whole wheat flour
1/2 C AP flour
1 C warm water

Pour it into your jar, cover with a clean cloth and leave in a warm, non-drafty place.  I left it inside the kitchen cupboard where we keep our glasses.

The next day, feed the starter with:

1/4 C whole wheat flour
1/4 C AP flour
1/2 C warm water

Whisk well to aerate and incorporate.  (I couldn't fit a whisk into my jar, so I used a chopstick to stir really thoroughly.)

Repeat the feeding each day for six more days.

Things should be happening in this time.  Your starter should begin to bubble and smell pleasantly ferment-y or yeasty.  It may release some thin brown liquid (called hooch) - not to panic.  It's fine.  Just pour it off.  If it turns pink or red or smells foul, dump it and start over with a clean jar.  It will begin to grow.  After feedings it will grow a lot, then it will kind of sink back down.

My starter on day six.  
And that's it for creating the starter!  A week, some flour, some water.  Just don't forget about it!

Now, this will create a lot of starter.  You have some options.  You can pour half off and discard when it fills the jar, and just keep adding flour and water.  You can keep it all and just have a LOT of starter until you are ready to bake and then store it.  Or you can use that extraneous starter to make recipes.  You just have to leave enough in the jar to keep fermenting.  The rule I've read is there needs to be at least a cup in there.  Here's the issue, though:  the starter needs to get to a certain strength to raise bread.  I don't think the first few days are strong enough.  But I didn't want to just throw away that extra starter, either.

I decided to use it to make pancakes, following a recipe from my favorite food blogger, Jenny at Nourished Kitchen.  We feasted on these this morning and they were amazing.  Thin, almost like crepes (could have been thicker if I added less milk), tender, a little tart, and rich.  With butter and maple syrup - nothing better!  Except trying to get maple syrup out of the baby's hair.

I halved Jenny's recipe and still had a ton.  Again, a lot is determined by how thin or thick you choose to make the batter.

1 C sourdough starter, proofed and bubbly
1/2 C flour (white, wheat, whatever)
1 egg, beaten
1/4 t salt
1/4 t baking soda
milk to thin the batter if needed
fat to cook the pancakes in:  butter, oil, bacon fat, etc.

The night before you want pancakes, mix together the starter and the flour thoroughly.  Put in the bowl of your mixer, cover with a towel, and leave somewhere warm overnight (I put it in the turned-off oven).

The next morning, use your mixer to beat the egg, salt, and soda into the flour and starter mixture.  Use milk to thin it to the consistency you want.

Heat fat in a cast-iron skillet over medium heat until a drop of water dances on the surface.  Drop batter by 1/4 cupfuls, fry on one side until bubbles start bursting on the top, then flip and fry 1-2 minutes on the other side.  You may need more fat as you go through the batch.  This made about 8 pancakes for me.  They were stupendous.

Stay tuned for the next post in the sourdough series:  making a loaf!

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