Thursday, 10 January 2013

Hermitcraft: Sourdough Starter

(I just uploaded a hermitcraft article last week, but a reader recently asked about sourdough starter, so I'll go ahead and answer this week.)

"Sourdough starter" was synonymous with yeast here in western North America before the concentrated item appeared in stores. Elsewhere it was called leavings, scrapings, or spook yeast, or just "yeast", for it was all we had for that in those days. Witness Henry David Thoreau, hermit and Walden author, who had to hike to the village bakery to procure "yeast". There he was sold a living batter, susceptible to being scalded to death in overhot water, that raised bread primarily by chemical reaction with sal (baking) soda. You tell me what that was.

The paste those Concord bakers doled out is properly called sourdough starter, as "sourdough" by itself usually describes the kneeded dough and its products. But in practice, the starter is also often called "sourdough", and this can confuse beginners. For that reason, I will henceforward identify the yeast culture by the word "starter".

SOURDOUGH STARTER

You will need:

Potatoes
Water
White flour (not whole wheat; see below)
A serviceable pot

Such a pot must be nonreactive (that is, not metal) and watertight. Beyond that, anything will do. The best ones are lidded, wide-mouthed for easy scooping in and out, and clear, so you can monitor the health of the occupants. Mine is a one-quart plastic jar that once held mixed nuts.

Pot secured, proceed as follows:

1. Peel, quarter, and boil the potatoes.
2. Strain, reserving the
water.
3. Eat the potatoes.
4. Stir up a batter with the flour and potato water. It should resemble slightly-too-thick pancake batter.
5. Dump this medium into your pot and put the lid on.

Within 24 to 48 hours the starter will begin, slowly at first and then with gusto, to bubble and work. At full élan it will have a yeasty, fermented smell.

Sourdough starter is a living thing, with wants and needs and specific rights under federal and provincial law. To be precise, it's a community of microbes -- hence the term "culture" -- that eat various sugars and fart out carbonic gas. (Sorry; you asked.) The sugars come from the ground grains you put back in the pot each time you use some. Keep this up indefinitely and your little sea monkey civilisation will thrive indefinitely, humming happily along on the kitchen counter, where you will bond with it as with houseplants, pets, and children. The longer it survives, the better it will get; new yeasts will happen by and set up shop, resulting in more active, versatile starter.

In any case, the starter must be fed at least once a week, even if that means throwing some starter out to make room. (This fact helps get me up and baking when I otherwise might slough off, because I hate wasting food.) The more you use it then the more you feed it, and the healthier it will become.

If however your starter goes too long without recycling, the yeast will suffer moral decay and the pot will be invaded by either a red bacterium or a grey mildew. They're both harmless, but they taste bad. To get rid of them, set aside a teaspoon of the cleanest starter you can rescue and throw the rest out. Then sterilise the pot (a thorough washing, followed by an overnight soak in a strong bleach solution), mix up a fresh batter, and inoculate it with the reserved starter. The yeast will then handily out-compete any intruders that come back aboard with it.

It's also good to feed other grains from time to time, to encourage a diversity of yeasts. You can stir in whole wheat flour now and then, but not too often, because it's full of oils that go rancid over time. Other effective treatments include corn flour (fine-ground cornmeal), masa or powdered oatmeal (not too much of either), and mashed rice or rice flour.

So this oughta get you started. (Get it?) I've got a sourdough cookbook in the works, which will include my recipes for crêpes, coffee cakes, breads, and fried razor clams, among others, but for the time being I recommend hermit bread as a first project. It's an easy enough recipe to build confidence, and a hard enough one to teach you a few things. And it's where I started, too.

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