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I didn’t mention it last month but I started some starter- sourdough starter!

…and I had found a butternut squash on the last day of the Minneapolis farmers market -for 50 cents!

Well, if you’ve ever loved a sourdough bread and mistakenly believed that it is beyond your abilities to make your own, then it’s time to think about it again.  If the only thing standing in the way between you and homemade sourdough is the notion that it’s too complicated, get you a cup of water and a cup of flour.  Mix them and leave it alone for a few days.  You are now officially on your way.  Some people say to let it sit outside in nice weather.  I’ve never done that, but it probably works beautifully.

It really is that easy- you don’t need packets of commercial sourdough starter- everything you need is in the air, literally!  I grew up reading The Mother Earth News, Carla Emery’s Old Fashioned Recipe Book, and other vintage hippie self-sufficiency propaganda when I was in my teens in the 1970s.  That’s why I make so much of my own stuff- not only because I believe in the principles of locally produced food with the least amount of chemical and processing intervention (it’s better for you, gives you, your loved ones and friends a genuine relationship with food based on familiarity and ownership).  It also saves you money and saves the earth.

If I buy my flour (I usually buy a 50 pound sack at a time) and make my own yeast, I can make a rustic loaf of sourdough bread for about 50 cents of ingredients, and another couple of bucks of oven heat, rather than the eye-popping, mind-blowing $5-6 bucks you pay at the store for a loaf of organic sourdough.  I mean there’s nothing wrong with that bread at all–except for FIVE OR SIX BUCKS???  If you can afford that, Go with God.  I will make my own bread.

When you start your starter, use a clean, preferably sterilized glass jar, a small ceramic bowl, or one of non-reactive metal (i.e. not aluminum) and pour a cup of boiled water into it.  When it is room temperature, stir or whisk in a cup of All-Purpose flour.  I suppose there’s no reason why you can’t use whole grain flour, or one of the new white and wheat blends.  But to keep things simple, I just use AP flour.  Oh, and some recipes call for adding commercial yeast at this point– even if it is as small an amount as 1/2 teaspoon.  Resist the temptation to do this!   Just use the flour and water, and cover your chosen vessel with cheesecloth or a clean dishtowel and just forget about it for a few days.  Pretend it doesn’t exist.  After a few days, a darkish water/liquid layer may develop on top.  Nothing to worry about.  Stir it back in, check on it after that, and you may notice bubbles and a faint sour odor.  That’s how it should be.  Let it work a little more (when it’s bubbling, we refer to the starter as ‘working’).

At this point you can do a couple of things.  You can make it directly into bread, or you can divide the starter, save some for later – or make other things.  Let’s do two things:  Divide the starter AND make bread.  Your first bread from a new starter is often like the first waffle or pancake or doughnut to come off the line.  It may be a a little balky, stunted, slow- er, not exactly the floating vision of sourdough nirvana you anticipated.  This is also OK.  For the very first batch of bread, go ahead and add a little commercial yeast if you must- you’ll probably still get all the flavor of the sourdough.  If you go that route, add a teaspoon of dry yeast to a little water, proof it (make sure it bubbles and is alive) and add it to the dough.  The only thing to keep in mind is that the wild yeast and the domesticated yeast might duke it out, and the wild yeast may lose the battle.  Nevermind- it’s not a big deal.  Also keep in mind that if you add milk, even pasteurized milk from the store, you really must scald it and let it come to body temperature before enriching your yeast dough with it.  To scald milk bring it almost to the boiling point.  If you accidentally boil it, the world won’t come to an end, and it’s still perfectly useable.  I used to freak out about so many of these things, and I just don’t anymore, because it will be just fine.

You knew that the gold-miners in 1800s Alaska used to be called Sourdoughs, right?  That’s because they kept their sourdough starter in a little leather bag around worn around their neck and beneath their shirt, to keep the starter  from freezing and to keep it vital.  Just don’t give the guy a bear hug or anything, and everyone will probably be happier.  But that’s how they made bread while they were taking gold that belonged to-, and continues to belong to Native people.

Different regions around the earth have distinct and different strains of wild yeast.  What you find in Egypt is different from what you find in Paris or San Francisco.  Wherever it is you happen to live- you have your own strain of wild yeast there. Lure it out of the air and into your oven and stomach, and you will have accomplished something that humans have been doing for thousands of years all over the earth.  If you do yeast baking on a regular or even on an occasional  basis, you probably have leg up on kitchens that are used mostly as a location to zap food in a microwave or switch on an electric coffee maker.  You will have ambient yeast in the air, and that’s an advantage, because when your yeast dough is rising in your kitchen, it naturally releases some of the little plants into the air.

So, back to dividing and making bread.  A couple days before you want to use your starter to bake raised sourdough bread, add another cup each of flour and water.  Save a cup of the stuff and put it into a jar or plastic container, cover with a little cheesecloth and secure with a rubber band.  Just let it sit in your refrigerator and if you don’t use it for a while, only remember to feed the starter with a tablespoon of flour and water about once a week and stir it in- this is quite important.  If it does separate with a liquid layer on top, again- don’t freak out- that’s what it does.  You do want to use it though, to keep it in good condition.  Every time you use the starter, you basically strengthen it and make it better.  You can keep it alive for years- and there are accurate and true stories about sourdough cultures that have been kept alive for a century- and it’s true!

There are other types of home-cultured yeast leavenings- the rarely seen old-fashion Salt Rising Bread (a very distinctive American frontier classic) relies on a combination of raw potatoes and cornmeal as the starter.  It makes a bread that is supposed to be mildly flavored like cheese, which comes from the particular yeast/microorganisms encouraged by potatoes and cornmeal.  Of course the cornmeal a hundred years ago wasn’t de-germinated and irradiated either, so it easily provided a great launch-pad for wild yeast.  I still want to try and make this bread sometime- if you’ve ever read The Little House on the Prairie books, you read about Ma making salt-risin’ bread.

So, you have divided your yeast, put some in the fridge for another baking, and you have more flour paste probably sitting in a bowl on your counter and you’re wondering what to do with it right about now.  Mix in about 1-1/2 cups of flour and  another 1/2 cup of water and let it sit overnight all over again- this presumes that your room temperature is somewhere in the vicinity of 65-75 degrees.  Now you’re going to extend the dough…and if all goes well, it will look sort of like a sponge.  There will be bubbles and should have a definite tangy, sour odor to it.  If it smells really truly ‘off’ try starting over with a whole new starter.  Sometimes you do get microorganisms that are not desirable – it’s a risk, and a small one, but again, not a big deal.

Now you have roughly 2 cups of flour mixed with about one of water in your bowl and it has sat overnight, with the wild yeast feasting on the starch and sugars in the flour and having a significant population increase.  At this point, add a tablespoon of vegetable oil, butter, or whatever your preferred fat is.  Also add 1-3 tsps sugar and some more flour.  You could use semolina (pasta flour, which is a ‘strong’ winter wheat with high gluten content), bread flour (another ‘strong’ flour), whole grain flour or more all purpose flour to make a sturdy dough.  You could probably add up to a tsp of salt with the flour at this point as well.

Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking describes the method for making a traditional yeast dough that’s used for french bread- there’s really no fat or sugar, but there is definitely a bit of yeast and quite a bit of salt.  I made that recipe a couple of times maybe 20 years ago, and it calls for very long periods of rising.  Like 5 hours at a time if I recall correctly.  It makes an authentic and very good bread- and the sourdough method I’m describing to you is distantly related to Julia’s process.  For a few years it was fashionable to say that the French bakeries never used Sourdough- they simply used ‘mother from the brewers (the guys who made the beer) and sort of domesticated the yeast from that point.  Now food historians are more likely to say with one voice that French bakers throughout history actually did use sourdough for their raised bread.        cf: the whole discussion of Searing Meat.  That’s another debate that caused a big Fracas for years.  Now most people admit that searing doesn’t seal in meat juices, but does caramelize natural sugars and raises the flavor profile of meat in a dish.  If cooks didn’t have controversies about sourdough vs not-sourdough, or The Virtues and Outcomes of Searing, what would we all do.  It’s more exciting than soap operas.

So your dough is now recognizably like a real bread dough.  Add more flour, knead it with your hands or a mixer with a dough hook for a minimum of 10 minutes to develop the gluten, which is what hold the dough together and captures the expanding carbon dioxide in big or little bubbles released by the yeast during baking.  We were amazed every time my mom said that Great-Grandma Dickey routinely kneaded her yeast dough by hand for an hour, or even an hour and a half.  I’ve done that, and it makes a yeast bread with a velvety crumb.  With any luck, your dough will rise, but I will tell you that many times, I have let that sour bread-dough rise for hours and hours, and it does not help at all to watch it.  I usually give it one rising, which means when you finish mixing and kneading, the next stop is the oven- just keep that in mind, whether you do a free-form loaf, or use a loaf pan.

I almost always do a free form round loaf for sour dough.  I like baking it in an oven hot as a blast furnace (like 425-450F) on a baking stone (sometimes called ‘pizza stones’- you can find them for $9-12 bucks in a lot of places now, not just kitchen speciality stores).  Just heat the stone for about 20 minutes in the oven.  If you’ve never used one before, this is what I do for all bread baked on stone:

Take the hot stone out of the oven, sprinkle very generously with cornmeal (it will smoke on the stone and smell good, like hot corn-perfume) and slide your bread dough onto the stone.  Sometimes I put it on the back of a cookie sheet also covered with cornmeal, so it has a better chance of actually sliding.

Next take a very sharp blade and very quickly make a bunch of slashes, criss-crosses, or V’s, or something artistic looking.  These slashes are very important because the allow the bread to expand properly as it bakes.  Also, as soon as the dough has been slashed, spray the whole loaf around with water, into the slashes and sides.  Buy a plant-spray bottle (the kind you use to spray mist on your ferns) and only use it for the kitchen.  The steam also helps give the dough lift and a superior crust.  Place the baking stone in the oven, and 3 more times, every 3 minutes, spray that loaf again all over.  You won’t believe the results if you’ve never done this before.  It’s like a professional baker sneaked into your kitchen and made your bread- but you did it!  Let the bread continue baking for another 30 minutes or so- when it gets dark golden brown take it out with hot pads or an oven mitt and thump it on the bottom of the load with the flat of your palm.  If it sounds sort of muffled and hollow, it’s done.  Put it on a cooling rack and let it come to room temperature.  You have bread.