Tuesday, December 18, 2012

Tightwad tuesday: sourdough attempt #1

I finally acquired the third volume of the Tightwad Gazette, and have been enjoying it in sporadic bursts. About halfway through I found a recipe for sourdough bread (my favorite kind of bread, by the way) that the author assured her readers was not only inexpensive (less than 50 cents per loaf), but goof-proof.

Maybe not.

I carefully followed the instructions for creating starter, which my friend Carol, the bread guru, later explained to me was a "cheat" because yeast is actually one of the ingredients in the Tightwad Gazette recipe. Apparently "real" starter is made by cultivating the yeast that naturally occurs in flour or fruit, and has a mystique unto itself. Cheating aside, my starter wasn't the problem--but more on that later.

The initial rising happened overnight, per instructions, and this morning when I got up I punched the dough down and formed it into two baguettes.

My kitchen is cold and drafty, and especially so in winter, which makes it a hostile environment for yeast to proof. When I bake my regular wheat bread, I usually pre-heat the oven early, leave it open an inch or so, and let the bread rise on the stovetop. I figured the same would hold true for making sourdough, so for the second rising, I put the formed loaves on top of the stove while the oven pre-heated.

The recipe instructed that the loaves should rise about four hours before baking, but within two hours, mine were rising so quickly that they were joining at the side. So I popped them in the oven, and my house quickly filled with the most delicious aroma--even better than my whole wheat bread.

When the bread came out a half hour later I was slightly disappointed to see that the crust, while nice and chewy, was a rather anemic shade of beige. I whipped up a quick egg-white wash, brushed it on, and baked the loaves for another ten minutes, with only marginally improved results. The flavor, too, had a nice tang to it, but not the almost pungent flavor my tastebuds were anticipating.

One of the things I've discovered over the last few years of baking my own bread is that having a good recipe is only part of the equation for success. Methodology is often much more important than just the right ingredients in the right amounts. This is true in baking much moreso than cooking, since baking is more scientifically exacting, in that its success depends on the chemical reactions of the ingredients with their environment.

So I've done some research on a few bread blogs (blogs devoted to sourdough--who knew?) and I think the immediate fix is to not let the bread rise on the stove. Apparently if the dough rises too quickly, the distinctive sourdough flavor doesn't have time to develop AND the yeast consumes the natural sugars in the dough, which would otherwise carmelize into a nice, brown crust.

Besides sewing stockings and Christmas jammies, I think I've found my project for Christmas vacation: honing my sourdough skills. I see lots of French onion soup in my future...

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