Sunday, October 26, 2008

Sourdough - Woot!

One hot, hot morning a few summers ago in Seattle, after spending the night in my daughter's temporary corporate housing apartment directly under the living room fan...on couch cushions no less, I rose at dawn to go outside for, hopefully, cooler air. Since Seattle is supposed to never have heat waves, no one seems to install air conditioning. Too bad for us because it really was a heat wave, so even making coffee seemed unreasonable in that sweltering apartment.

I walked down toward Pike Market and was delighted when I came across Macrina Bakery. Coffee? They had wonderful coffee. Something to go with the coffee? The choices at Macrina early in the morning are daunting. I chose a couple of breakfast sweets and a sourdough roll. Christmas before last we were back in Seattle and, in Elliots Bookstore, I found Leslie Mackie's Macrina Bakery & Cafe Cookbook.

Now I could make some of their goodies for myself at home.

One of the things that caught my eye right away was their recipe for Sourdough Starter made with organic grapes. What an intriguing idea! It was too late that year for my own grapes, and last year I was in the throes of a brand new job, so this year I finally tried out the recipe! One of the differences between regular bread made with commercial yeast and artisan bread is the use of starters, sponges, and bigas which help develop more complex flavors in the bread. The version I'm making is the simplest, using only unbleached white bread flour. For the loaves I added a little whole wheat flour, too, for flavor.

After two weeks of faithfully feeding my sourdough starter, made with my own grapes, last night I started some bread and today I baked it and we ate it. Exciting!

Since the yeast in the sourdough was provided from the skins of the grapes growing near the mailbox, plus whatever is lurking in the air, I wasn't sure how it would taste or if it would rise. This is the first time I've tried to make sourdough, so I was a bit nervous about my levain (starter)...would it really taste a nice sour or a bad sour flavor...had the fluctuations in temperature at the beginning killed the yeast? I really wanted it to have a sour flavor, a good crumb, and a nice crust.

After mixing and kneading the dough, oiling it lightly, and setting it in a large mixing bowl with a light, loose wrapping of plastic wrap on top, I let it sit overnight over the fridge to rise.

This morning I saw that the recipe on that I was using (with no added yeast) wasn't going to do the trick, so I plopped the dough back in the KitchenAid mixer, attached the dough hook, and in another bowl proofed 1/2 teaspoon of yeast in 1/2 cup water. Once the yeast got fuzzy looking, I whisked in another cup of bread flour, then added that to the dough in the mixer. After a bit I decided that the dough still needed some flour, so, bit by bit, I added about a tablespoon at a time. I think I added about another 1/3 to 1/2 cup.

Eventually it was time for more kneading, oiling the dough again, back into the bowl, plastic wrap over again, then the rise.

This time, after about 4 hours, it had risen to double in bulk, so I punched it down, formed round loaves and set them on oiled parchment paper on a a baking sheet. A damp tea towel went over both loaves, then more rising time...about another 4 hours. At that point the dough had spread more than it had risen, but I really wanted to bake 'em and see what happened. I followed the directions in the recipe (below) for baking.

It took longer...closer to an hour 15 minutes than 35 minutes...but they baked up with a nice crust, a firm but moist crumb and....tah dah!...a nice sour flavor. The first loaf was almost finished off at dinner...and there were only three of us. Yummy!

Next time I plan to knead it longer by hand, to shape the dough for a bread pan instead of the round boule, and mist the top with water for a different crust. I loved the flavor and texture and look forward to a long, happy relationship with my levain. Let's see, sourdough pancakes, sourdough muffins, sourdough baguette, sourdough bread with apricots and pecans.....

Natural Sour Starter
Makes about 13 oz. of starter
For the Starter:
6 ounces organic grapes
1 ¼ cups unbleached all-purpose flour
1 ½ cups filtered water, at room temperature

For the Feeding Formula
1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
1 cup filtered water, at room temperature

It takes about two weeks to create a starter, but the time involved each day is fairly short. The starter you end up with can be used to bake with for years if you take care of it. Once the two weeks are up, you only feed your starter once a week.

Creating the Starter
Day One: Place the grapes in the center of a 10-inch square of cheesecloth. Gather up the sides of the cloth and tie with string, creating a sachet.

Leave a tail of string at least 10 inches long. Whisk flour and water together in a medium bowl until all lumps are fully dissolved and the consistency is like pancake batter. Using your hands, crush the sachet of grapes and lower it into the starter. Tape end of string to outside of bowl so that it doesn’t fall into the mixture. Set the bowl, uncovered, in a warm room, about 70 degrees F., and let sit for 2 days.
(Elle’s note: I had trouble finding a warm room. Even over my fridge, the warmest place in my home, was only warm now and then. We have a solar home & no central heating, so the temp varies by 20 – 30 degrees most days/nights. Eventually I put the starter in the microwave because the temperature stays pretty stable there, if not exactly warm.)
Day Three: Small bubbles will appear on the starter’s surface. Remove and discard the sachet of grapes. Now the starter is ready for its first feeding.

• Note: you will need to make a new batch of feeding formula every time you feed the starter. Combine flour and water (amounts listed above) in a medium bowl and whisk until flour is dissolved. Stir this initial batch of feeding formula into the starter and let sit in a warm room for 1 more day, uncovered.
Day Four: Stir the starter with a whisk and discard half of the mixture. Stir in a batch of feeding formula and let sit at room temperature for 2 hours. Then place the starter, uncovered, in the refrigerator for 1 day (Starters need oxygen, which is why they are usually left uncovered.) Store the starter on one of the refrigerator’s highest shelves to keep objects from falling into it.
(Elle’s note: I found that my dog Xam loved to eat the discarded starter, which made me feel better about discarding it.)
Day Five through Fifteen: Remove the starter from the refrigerator, stir it with a whisk, and again discard half of the mixture. Stir in another batch of feeding formula, let the starter sit at room temperature for 2 hours, then return it to the refrigerator. Repeat this process for 10 more days, feeding the starter at about the same time each day. Be sure to let the starter sit out for 2 hours after each feed before returning it to the refrigerator. After these 10 days the starter will be ready for baking and will require less attention.
(Elle’s note: I found that feeding the starter right after dinner and then putting it into the refrigerator two hours later before I went to bed worked really well. Since we had just finished washing up from dinner, it didn’t seem too hard to wash up the mixing bowl, whisk and measuring cups that were used each time the starter was fed.)

Starter - how it looked after 15 days

MAINTAINING a Natural Sour Starter

Once your starter has a life of it’s own and has become sour through the 15 day process given above, it is much easier to maintain than to create. Choose a day of the week that works best for you because you will feed the starter that day each week. The process is just like described in day 5 through 15:
Once a week remove the starter from the fridge and stir it with a whisk. If there is a crust, just remove it with a spoon before whisking. Discard half the starter, stir in a batch of feeding formula and let starter sit at room temperature for 2 hours, then return it to the fridge. Note: Never use up more than half of your starter.

Even with weekly feedings, the starter will lose some of it’s leavening power over time. Before you use the starter in recipes it will require a jump-start:
Remove the starter from the fridge 24 hours before you plan to use it to bake. Stir it with a whisk, discard half the volume, and add a batch of feeding formula. Keep the starter at room temperature and feed it again 12 hours later. Let the starter sit at room temperature for another 8 to 12 hours before baking with it. Measure off as much starter as your recipe calls for, then feed the remainder one more time. Let the starter sit at room temperature for 2 hours, then return it to the fridge.

Starters that are fed daily don’t need an extra feeding before being mixed into dough.

• It’s always best to use starter 8 – 12 hours after their most recent feeding.
• Starters should be at room temperature when they are used.
• Always feed the remaining starter when you remove starter to bake with.
• Never use up more than half of your starter.

Now you get to use your starter to bake something! I chose to bake a simple bread:

Sourdough Bread
From blog

The tradition of sourdough bread on the West Coast began with the forty-niners , the wave of prospectors who came west in search of gold in 1849, and it continued into Alaska when gold was discovered there a few years later. But the tradition really blossomed in the late twentieth century, when the artisanal bread-baking movement took root. Places like La Brea Breads in Los Angeles, Acme Baking Company in Berkeley, and Grand Central Bakery in Seattle introduced Americans to traditional breads based on natural levain, or wild starters.

Makes 2 loaves, 1 1/2 pounds each

1 cup sourdough starter - this is how it looked going into the dough bowl:

1 1/2 cup lukewarm (70°F) water
1 tablespoon kosher salt
4 1/2 cups organic unbleached white flour (I substituted 1/2 cup whole wheat flour for 1/2 cup unbleached white flour)

Put the starter, water, and flour in the bowl of a stand mixer and whisk to make a smooth batter. Using a paddle attachment for the mixer or a wooden spoon, stir in the salt and 3 cups of the unbleached flour, 1 cup at a time, to make a very soft dough. Use a dough hook or the wooden spoon to add the remaining 1 1/2 cups flour and mix or knead the dough until it is very smooth and elastic, about 5 minutes.

2. Lightly coat a 4-quart mixing bowl with oil and transfer the dough to the oiled bowl. Turn the dough over once so that the top of the dough is lightly coated with oil. Cover the mixing bowl with a very loosely applied layer of plastic wrap and allow the dough to rise at room temperature, lightly covered, until it has doubled in bulk, at least 8 hours, and preferably overnight.

3. Press the air out of the risen dough and gently knead it until it is springy again. The dough will have a smooth, flexible “skin.” Divide the dough in half and, working with one half at a time, shape the dough into 2 balls, tucking the cut edges of the dough into the center of the balls and stretching the “skin” over the surface of the dough balls without tearing it.

4. Put the balls of dough on a baking sheet lined with a silicone pan liner or baker’s parchment. Loosely cover the loaves with plastic wrap and let them rise until they are doubled in size, about 4 hours.

5. Put a baking sheet on the bottom rack of the oven and put a second rack one position above it. Pour a 1/2-inch layer of water into the baking sheet on the bottom shelf. Preheat the oven to 450°F, and if there is a convection option, use it. Just before putting the loaves in the oven, use a box cutter or a very sharp knife to cut shallow slashes in a cross over the surface of the loaves, about 1/8 inch deep.

Bake the loaves until they are well browned and sound hollow when tapped; an instant-read thermometer inserted into the center of a loaf will register 200°F, about 35 minutes. Transfer the baked loaves to a cooling rack and let them cool to room temperature before slicing.

Don't forget to feed your starter once you have removed the starter for the recipe!


  1. Puppy Dogs are just the best! That would be a great use for the 'toss off'.
    Your loaf is lovely.

  2. Great way to make a starter, I've always wanted to do that but hesitated because of my starter inabilities,but since I managed to grow our BBB starter I'm far more confident.
    Perfect adjustment to add some yeast the way you did, dough will accept any extra moisture far more easily when a bit of flour is added to make a paste. Love it!

  3. Ooh, a triumph! And what a gorgeous crust!

    It does take awhile to get things going with a starter, but oh, once it does, you have a friend for its life. (Are you going to name yours?)

    Like the cow!

  4. Tanna, Thanks! I'm a convert and now am looking for new sourdough things to bake.
    Xam will be a happy puppy.

    Baking Soda, It sounded a bit strange to use grapes, but it tastes wonderful! Guess I figured out how to add the yeast correctly, but didn't actually know if it would work. Bread makes for great experimentation.

    Tadmack, You are the first to notice my year three cow :)
    Had not thought to name the starter, but not a bad idea...thanks for your kind words about the crust.

  5. So did you use the Macrina recipe? I have been wondering about that one. Ironically I just made the hot chocolate bread from their tonight.

  6. Anonymous12:34 PM

    I LOVE grape starters! They have such earthy characteristics.

    Fantastic job on the sourdough loaf. I'm emailing you some fun recipes to try with your starter...starting with cinnamon rolls ;-)

  7. Ours is named Sadie. She gets quite sour, but isn't good at lifting, particularly not at lifting all of the stuff we include in our dough (oat bran, flax seeds, whole oats - stuff). So we include commercial yeast to do the grunt work, and let Sadie give us some flavor.

  8. Oh, I can practically taste that wonderful crust.

  9. Wow im impressed you had your own sourdough. Didn't know you could create a starter from grapes, how clever. Your bread look fantastic

  10. Peabody, I used the Macrina starter recipe, but not their bread recipe.

    Breadchick, Yes the grape starter has a lovely flavor. I would be thrilled to get your recipes. My new e-mail address is at the top, right side of my blog.

    Davimack, That's a great name for a starter...I'll have to think up one for mine. It seems that my starter likes a little help with the lifting, too. It's fine because the flavor is so great.

    Susan, I'm hoping to have an even better crust next time with misting.

    Katie, Yes, it' not difficult, just something you have to follow through with for a couple of weeks to get it going. Kind of fun to use my own grapes, too. Very local flavors :)

  11. What a fantastic way to make a starter. And, your crust looks crustily delicious.