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My First Sourdough Bread!

I have been kneeding bread — on my knees if need be :-) for years now.  Wonderful breads like fresh dill and minced onion, columbian honey bread and cheesy herb.  In my cookbook I have recipes for whole grain spelt bagels and an assortment of muffins and waffles that are wholesome and a knotch above the sugar loaded and preservative laden “foods” we find in the mega-marts.  But in all my years of crafting the perfect whole grain spelt bread I have always “cheated” … in that I used store bought rapid rise dry yeast.  But at almost $8 for a four ounce jar these little beasties can be an expensive ingrediant in my recipe.

So this week (ok last week, because it takes that long) I decided to make my own wild yeast culture!  I realize that people have been doing this for over 4000 years but for me this was a completely new adventure.  So I did what any high-tech homebaker would do … I Googled it.  There are thousands of recipes for how to grow your own bread starter.  Some use fermentation of grapes or pinapple and some even use COMMERCIAL YEAST as one of the ingredients!  But the basic recipes … for the purists out there who consider kneeding bread a sacred art … call for only TWO INGREDIENTS:  Water and Flour.

Apparently these yeasts live in the air, all around us … all the time!  Who knew?!  It is the ultimate field of dreams … build it and they will come.  So last Tuesday I set out to make my first sourdough starter!  Ok, I actually started on Monday, but my unlabeled goop in the glass bowl got tossed down the sink by my child who was on kitchen duty that night.  Can’t blame her … who would keep pancake batter in a glass bowl out in the open?

For my basic whole grain spelt sourdough starter I used:

  • 1 ½ cups Whole Grain Spelt Flour
  • 1  ½ cups Filtered Water
  • 1 tsp Honey

(I’m not sure why I decided on using the honey.  I saw many recipes that only used water and flour … but somehow the thought of adding honey and its anti-microbial qualities just seemed like a nice idea for something that would be sitting out for the next 6 days!  Yikes.  We don’t leave food out that long unless it is hiding under the clutter in my teenagers room.  Oh, don’t go and groan — it seems to be right of passage or perhaps payback for all the gum we put under our desks back in the day.  But back to the yeast!  You place the three ingredients in a very clean (not from your teenager’s room) glass container and mix very well until you have something that looks like a thin pancake batter.  Cover with a tight fitting lid and wait.

You will want to stir your starter 2-4 times a day as it will separate and you also want a chance to bring in more fresh air (loaded with these invisible wild yeast) into your brew.  Working with whole wheat flour (and Spelt is a whole wheat grain) you will want to make sure that your starter does not go rancid while you are waiting for the culture to flourish.  It should have a light and pleasant sour smell not a foul harsh odor.  You will keep stirring your starter a few times a day for the next SIX DAYS.  Unlike some recipes that call for feeding your colony every day by adding more flour and water, this method does not add any additional ingredients during the culture.

By day 6 you should notice little bubbles in your batter and a distinct sour dough smell.  Let the baking begin!!

Unlike store bought rapid rise dry yeast which you can usually just add to your flour and kneed directly … you will need to PROOF your starter before adding it to your recipe.  This is the step that bakers call creating the sponge.  To make the sponge, take your active sourdough starter and place it in a large glass bowl and add 1 cup of spelt flour and 1 cup of warm filtered water (not hot, or you will kill the yeast colony that you just spent the last 6 days cultivating.)  Mix well again so that you have no lumps then let this sit in a warm place.  I like to use my oven with the light on.

The longer you let your starter proof, the stronger the sour dough flavor will be in your baked bread.  When you see a frothy bubbly mixture on the top of your sponge then you know the yeast is ready to be added to your recipe.  For my first attempt today, I let the yeast culture proof for four hours.   The result was a mild sour dough flavor that was wonderful and subtle.  Next time I will let one proof overnight and see how that compares.

To make your bread add one cup of the yeast sponge to your recipe and then take the remainder of the starter and place it in a glass jar with a vented lid in your refrigerator.  If you bake bread every week, you won’t need to concern yourself with feeding your starter.  You merely repeat the steps above … take the starter out of the jar, add 1 cup water and flour and let the batter proof in an open glass bowl for a few hours … use one cup for your recipe and put the rest back into a new sterile glass jar with a vented lid.

Later I will post some recipes that use the wild yeast sourdough starter.  Admittedly my first attempt still needs some tweaking.  In my case, I should have added more flour and created a stiffer dough.  The yeast in my culture over powered my soft dough and it did spill over the edge of the clay loaf pan on its second rise.  However the flavor was amazing and my dinner table of five tonight managed to eat all but two slices of the maiden loaf, along with a lovely home made lentil soup and fresh salad with warm garlic dressing.  Yum!

I realize it is not common for a woman to be so excited about yeast, but I feel like I have joined some secret society of underground bakers — or underground brewers I suppose.  Tonight my little yeast colony is spending their first night in the fridge, and I am going to be dreaming up new ways to incorporate them into brand new homemade memories.

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