Artisan Breads 1..2..3..      
                Techniques and Tips for your Easy Artisan Loaves
Starting
and Using
Sourdough
Cultures
Sourdough/Natural Leavening

Admittedly, sourdough used to be the domain of only the most dedicated
and experienced home bakers, requiring mystic  techniques and a furtively
obtained starter.  Over the past few decades, the secrets of sourdough have
been unlocked and now we find that sourdough baking is as easy, if not
easier than baking with commercial yeast.  Anyone who bakes once a week
or more should have a sourdough culture on hand.  

The nutritional value of sourdough has long been extolled and for good
reason.  Because of sourdough’s relatively high level of protein,  NASA
considered the use of sourdough on space missions back in the 1960’s.  As
you might guess, the potential problem of thousands of crumbs flying
around a spaceship apparently doomed this effort.  Scientists have only
recently begun to unlock the molecular secrets of sourdough.  Sourdough
helps the body unlock minerals from whole grains better than commercial
yeast.   Compared to regular breads, sourdoughs have a lower glycemic
index, which means that it causes less of a rise in blood sugar after eating.  
Whole grain sourdoughs may cause less intestinal irritation than other breads
in individuals with celiac disease.

Sourdough is composed of two forms of living, symbiotic organisms, wild
yeast and lactobacillus bacteria along with flour and water.  Lactic acid
from the lactobacillus gives sourdough its tangy flavor.  By manipulating the
amounts of flour, water, temperature and fermenting times, many variations
on sourdough flavor and texture in baked goods may be achieved.

I am of the opinion that the characteristics of a particular sourdough culture
are determined by the local environment and the composition of the
refreshing flour, and not so much by the particular strain of sourdough that
the yeast and Lactobacilli come from.  Because of this belief, I don’t worry
about cross contaminating different types of sourdoughs or letting different
sourdoughs mingle a bit.

Starting with Starter

You can get started with sourdough in a number of ways.  The easiest way
is to get some starter from a friend.  Sourdough is available via mail order,
but the  process required to reactivate it once it comes in the mail is just as
involved as starting one yourself from scratch.  Finally, you can start your
own sourdough culture in less than a week’s time by activating wild yeast
from organic rye flour.  This method is easy, fun and I highly recommend
it.  Many bread baking books seem to unnecessarily complicate the process
of starting a sourdough culture.  The process is actually ridiculously easy as
I outline below.

My method uses orange juice instead of water initially.  The orange juice
adds acidity which helps the wild yeast to establish.  Some municipal water
systems keep their water slightly alkaline to save wear on the pipes and the
orange juice should help compensate if that is the case.  If you know your
tap water is acidic, you may just use that instead.  Speaking of municipal
water, people often wonder if unchlorinated water should be used when
starting a sourdough culture.  In my experience, the amount of chlorine in
municipal water systems really doesn’t deter yeast growth, so go ahead and
use plain tap water.

Day 1

In a small bowl or plastic container mix together equal amounts of orange
juice and organic rye flour, say 1/3 cup of each.  Stir it for a minute to
work plenty of air in, then cover and let it sit at room temperature for 24
hours.  Stop by at least 3 or 4 times a day to admire any bubbles that may
be forming and to stir it again for several seconds
.

Day 2 and Subsequent Days

Using a clean spoon, discard half the mixture, then add another 1/3 cup
each of water and organic rye flour.  Again stir it for a minute to work
plenty of air in, then cover and let it sit at room temperature for 24 hours.  
Continue to stir it 3-4 times a day for several seconds until the bubbles are
forming quite profusely.  

Continue the process of discarding half the mixture and adding fresh water
daily until the volume of the starter doubles within 12 hours.  This should
happen within a week, sometimes in as little as 3 days.   Watch the sides of
the bowl or container closely, as a vigorously growing starter can double
then collapse when you’re not looking.  Any sourdough stuck up on the
sides of the bowl will clue you in to the fact that this has happened.   

Once the starter is doubling every 12 hours, refresh it every 12 hours twice
more  and cut back on the amount of water in the starter.  Instead of
refreshing with equal volumes of water and rye flour, refresh every 12
hours (twice) with 1/3 cup water and 2/3 cup organic rye flour.  Your rye
sourdough starter should now be ready to use.

Once the starter has doubled and been refreshed successfully two or three
times, the starter should be refrigerated.  From now on, the starter will be
stored in the refrigerator except when being refreshed.

Conversion of Your Rye Starter to Other Types

The rye sourdough starter you just created can easily be converted to other
types of sourdough.  Lets review the different types of sourdough and their
relative merits.  Sourdoughs are classified by the type of flour (wheat or
rye) and also by hydration levels.
























Liquid Levain/Sourdough

Because of the ease of mixing and measuring, liquid levain or sourdough is
easy to use.  Since wild yeast and bacteria tends to grow and mature faster
in a moister medium, the levain typically develops a strong sourdough flavor
and much alcohol is produced.  A 1:1 mixture of flour and water by volume
is typical yielding a hydration level of about 150%.

To make a liquid levain, place ¼-1/3 cup of the rye starter that you made
previously (or any other sourdough starter, for that matter) in a bowl.  Add
½ cup of water and ½ cup of all-purpose flour and stir until well mixed.  
Cover and allow to ferment at room temperature for about 12 hours.  After
the fermentation, discard all but ¼ to 1/3 cup of the starter and again stir in
½ cup water and ½ cup all purpose flour until well mixed.  Continue this a
total of three times then refrigerate the liquid levain after the last cycle.  
Refresh the the liquid levain when removing some for baking or weekly as
described below.

Midrange Hydration Sourdough

This hydration level was popular in North America a few decades ago.  
Flavor is tangy but not overpowering and alcohol production is more
modest.  The culture is thick and sticky which makes handling and cleanup
a bit more of a hassle.  Refresh the starter by discarding all but 1/3 cup of
the culture and stirring in 1/3 cup of water and 2/3 cup of flour.

Stiff Levain/Sourdough

Stiff levain typically runs about 54% hydration (typically around 3 parts
flour to one part water by volume).  Since the sourdough culture grows
slower and matures less quickly in a drier environment, stiff levain tends to
produce less alcohol and typically has a milder flavor.  Stiff levain tends to
stay fresh in the refrigerator longer than wetter sourdoughs and handles
neglect better also.  Refresh the starter by discarding all but 1/3 cup of the
culture and stirring in ¼ cup of water and ¾ cup flour.

To make a stiff levain, place ¼-1/3 cup of the rye starter that you made
previously (or any other sourdough starter, for that matter) in a bowl.  Add
¼ cup of water and ¾  cup of all-purpose flour and stir until well mixed.  
Cover and allow to ferment at room temperature for about 12 hours.  After
the fermentation, discard all but 1/3 cup of the starter and again stir in 1/4
cup water and 3/4 cup all purpose flour until well mixed.  Continue this a
total of three times then refrigerate the liquid levain after the last cycle.  
Refresh the the liquid levain when removing some for baking or weekly
(whichever is sooner) as described below.

Refreshing Your Sourdough Culture

Sourdough cultures should be refreshed at least weekly, though if stored
properly (see below) you may get by stretching the refreshing out to two
weeks, particularly with stiff levain.  Culture refreshing involves the
following steps

  1. Using or discarding a most of the old culture.  If you followed the
    instructions for starting a culture listed above you should have 1 ¼ –
    1 ½ cups of active culture.  Stir up the culture to mix in the alcohol
    layer, if a liquid one, then scoop out all but about 1/3 cup of the
    culture.  Use it to make a batch of dough or discard it into your
    compost bucket (see the section on using excess sourdough below).
  2. Add an appropriate amount of water, stir, and allow the culture to
    stand a few minutes to soften up the old culture.  Typical amounts of
    water are listed below.
  3. Add the flour.  See above for amounts.  As with measuring flour for
    dough mixing, you should dip the measuring cup into the flour
    canister, scoop, tap the measuring cup with a knife a few times, then
    level off with the knife.
  4. Stir a lot.  Stir the culture, water, and flour together until the mix is
    smooth, then stir another 15-30 seconds to make sure plenty of air
    gets into the mix.
  5. Cover the culture mix and allow to stand at room temperature for
    several hours then refrigerate.  For cool kitchens (65-70 degrees F)
    12-14 hours is typical, and for warm kitchens 75-80 degrees F) 10-
    12 hours should be adequate.  Don’t worry about the sourdough
    doubling or being fully “mature”.  All you need is an active culture
    and refrigerating or using the culture a bit before or after maturation
    is fine.

Sourdough Type        Water        All-Purpose Flour
Liquid Levain               ½ cup        ½ cup*
Sticky Sourdough         ½ cup        1 cup*
Stiff Levain                  ¼ cup        ¾ cup*


                                        Water        Medium Rye Flour
Medium Rye Starter        ½ cup        1 cup


Converting from Liquid to Stiff Sourdough and Vice Versa

If you choose to keep only liquid levain, you will inevitably start to run
across many sourdough bread recipes calling for stiff levain.  If you choose
to keep only stiff levain the converse will happen.  Don’t worry though, its
easy to convert your sourdough from one form to another.

First, let’s review hydration ratios.Assuming that a cup of water weighs 240
grams and a cup of flour weighs 142 grams, a cup of sourdough culture
ingredients should look like this:

Liquid Levain:  Total weight = flour + water
Since we know that the weight of the water is .54 of the flour we can say
Total weight = flour + .54(flour)

For Stiff Levain:  Total weight = flour + water
Since we know that the weight of the water is 1.63 times the flour weight,
we can say:
Total weight = flour + 1.63(flour)



Converting Stiff to Liquid Levain

In a cup of stiff levain there should be about 106.5 g of flour and 60 g of
water.  To convert this to a liquid levain (which should have 174 g of water
for 106.5 g of flour), 114 g (1/2 cup) more water must be added.  The
resulting mixture is now a bit more than a cup of volume, so the amount of
starter over 1 cup can be discarded and 1 cup of liquid levain remains.

Converting Liquid to Stiff Levain

In a cup of liquid levain there should be about 71 g of flour and 120 g of
water.  To convert this to a stiff levain (which should have 222g of flour
for the 120g of water), 151 g (about 1 cup) more flour must be added.  The
resulting mixture is now a bit more than a cup of volume so the amount of
starter over 1 cup can be discarded and 1 cup of stiff levain remains.

Storing Your Sourdough Culture

When not being refreshed, cultures should be stored in the refrigerator.  
Since Lactobacilli are not tolerant of near freezing temperatures, the culture
should be stored in the warmest part of your refrigerator, say the door or
the bottom shelf above the vegetable drawers.  A common problem is losing
the viability of your sourdough culture during vacations despite refreshing
the culture immediately before and after being gone.  The culprit here is
probably the refrigerator getting too cold during the vacation given the fact
that you aren’t opening the refrigerator door when you’re gone.  Again, to
avoid this, store the culture in the warmest part of the refrigerator.

Sourdough cultures will deep freeze well and some bakers have been known
to mix up a large batch of sourdough culture then freeze it in small portions
and thaw out portions as needed for sourdough baking.  Freezing tends to
work best with stiffer cultures and obviously takes some planning ahead to
allow for thawing time.

Troubleshooting Sourdough Cultures

The most common problem is a culture that loses its activity.  This can
happen because of improper storage, too infrequent refreshing,  or bacterial
contamination.
Except when being refreshed, sourdough cultures should be refrigerated.  
Since Lactobacilli can be rendered nonviable in temperatures close to
freezing, the culture should be stored in the warmest part of the refrigerator
(the door or bottom shelf in most refrigerators).   Sourdough cultures
should be refreshed weekly, preferably when some of the culture is
removed to bake bread.  Although some cultures such as stiff levain may
still be refreshed after storage  periods much longer than a week, the
chances of refreshing successfully start to drop after a week.  Bacterial
contamination can occasionally ruin an established culture.  This is indicated
by an off color and a bad smell in the culture (always discard this culture).
A number of options exist when encountering a sourdough culture that has
lost its rising activity
  • First, you may want to try refreshing the culture a few more times.  
    Often this is enough to re-establish a properly growing culture
  • You could place a bit of another sourdough culture into the lagging
    culture with hopes that is will help restore a new balance.  Although
    some sourdough purists would abhor mixing one type of sourdough
    with another, chances are this has already happened on its own if
    you keep more than one type of sourdough in your kitchen.  I keep
    three types of sourdough at home (a liquid levain, a stiff levain, and a
    rye sourdough) and if one starts to act a bit sluggish I transfer a bit
    of a more active culture to it.
  • You could discard the old culture and start a new one

Problems Starting a Sourdough Culture
  • Make sure your organic rye flour is fresh and try a different lot
  • Try decreasing the pH of the water (using orange or pineapple juice)
    if you haven’t done so already.
  • When first starting the culture, be sure to stir the flour and water mix
    vigorously 3-4 times/day to aerate.


Sourdough Cleanup

Sourdough almost destroyed my first marriage.  No, seriously! (It later
failed for reasons only partially related to baking).  Anyway, for a couple of
years I baked almost exclusively with a sourdough starter and cleanup
became quite an issue in our relationship.  The bits of sourdough would
stick to the sink and dishcloth, containers would soak for hours in the sink,
and everything around the sink would get a sour smell.  Therefore, in the
interest of saving your relationships, or at least making your kitchen sink
area smell better, a few words regarding cleanup are in order.

Some bakers advocate dry methods for cleaning up sourdough bowls and
utensils but I like using copious amounts of running water and a coarse
bristled kitchen scrub brush instead.  Washclothes, sponges, and
Scotchbrite scrub pads and sourdough don't mix, as they end up becoming
a culture medium for the sourdough before they can dry out.  Cleansing
sourdough encrusted items in the dishwasher usually works, but a pre-
scrubbing with a brush will help the dishwasher out.  The advantage of a
scrub brush is that it can be tossed in the dishwasher as needed and the
coarse bristles do not provide a good spot for sourdough culture or fruitflies
to grow and reproduce.

Finally, if you do get the sour stinky smell from pouring too much starter
down your sink or cleaning up too many sourdough encrusted utensils, pour
some baking soda on your washcloth or sponge, rub it in, then wash it
down the sink.  Pour some baking soda down the sink also.

An alternative to problems with cleaning up sourdough would be to just not
clean up and leave your cooking gear with a little sourdough crust.  I
imagine this is how the miners did it in California and Alaska but obviously
this could cause problems in your relationships also.

Sourdough and Metal Utensils

Some folks will caution you against using metal mixing spoons for
sourdough or letting sourdough ferment in a metal bowl.  There is some
truth to the fact that acids in sourdough will eat away at metal but the risk is
often overstated.  Modern metal utensils are typically plated with an acid
resistant finish and fifteen minutes of exposure to sourdough isn’t going to
cause any problems at all.  Prolonged exposure though, can cause problems,
so don’t ferment your sourdough in a metal container and wash (or at least
rinse) your metal utensils soon after using them with sourdough.

Basics of Sourdough Baking

Traditional Sourdough Methods

Traditionally, sourdough breads are made by mixing the starter with some
flour and water, letting it ferment over several hours at room temperature
(this is known as the “sponge”), then adding more flour, salt, and any other
ingredients for the final dough.  The final dough is fermented for several
hours at room temperature, then the dough is kneaded, shaped into a loaf
and allowed to rise more at room temperature one last time prior to baking.  
The long lengths of time involved make for adequate gluten development
and the blissful tangy flavor.  Most of the sourdough recipes in this book
work on this basic premise.   

Some say the dough proofing is complete when the size of the dough is
doubled and the dough will hold an indent when pushed with a finger.   I  
don’t get too hung up on the dough doubling in volume.  Obviously the
dough should be bigger, but sometimes it will be less or more than doubled.  
I like to judge proofing by sound.  You can see bubbles forming in an
actively rising sourdough dough, but you can hear them also!  Take the
cover off your final dough after 5-6 hours of rising and place your ear to
the dough.  The yeast is so active at this point that you can actually hear the
gas bubbles popping.  Once you start hearing the gas bubbles, the dough
will be ready to form into loaves within another 1-2 hours.


One Step Method

With many sourdough breads you can combine the sponge development and
proofing steps into one.  Simply mix the starter with all the dough
ingredients and allow the mixture to ferment over 12-18 hours, then proceed
to loaf shaping and baking.  This is a kind of sourdough version of the
Lahey method and for many breads gives results identical to traditional
methods.
 

Alaskan Methods

Traditional sourdough bakers in Alaska often leaven their breads not through
the action of the wild yeast but rather through a chemical reaction between
baking soda and the acidic sourdough.  This is akin to making Irish soda
bread or buttermilk biscuits but instead of reacting the soda with the acidic
buttermilk, the baking soda reacts with the acidic liquid sourdough to
produce leavening carbon dioxide bubbles.  The trick here is to use the right
amount of baking soda.  Too little will result in inadequate leavening.  Too
much will give a subtle bitter, off flavor to the bread.


Sourdough Substitutes (Faux Dough)

Although I am a firm believer in the  use of sourdough cultures, in the
interest of full disclosure, I should discuss some easy substitutes for
sourdough in your bread baking.

Not Cleaning Your Dough Container:  Yes, this is as gross as it sounds.  
Simply don’t clean out your dough container between batches of dough and
the leftover dough along the sides of the container will keep growing and
acidify, giving your dough a bit of sourdough flavor.

Buying Sourdough Flavoring:  This is a powder made from sourdough
extracts and organic acids. that you add when mixing up the dough.  The
sourdough flavor achieved tastes just like the bread at the Cheesecake
Factory, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Add Acids To Your Dough:  Adding sour cream, yogurt, or vinegar will
give your breads that sourdough tang without using sourdough.  Several
recipes in this book use acidic foods to that effect.

Add Sourdough, but Use Yeast for Your Leavening:  Add some true
sourdough starter to your dough but add yeast also.  The sourdough will
add flavor but the commercial yeast will do the actual leavening.  This is
popular with European bakers, but I’m not a big fan of the technique.  I
haven’t heard any good rationales for this method and if you put a
sourdough culture in your dough, why not just let it do all the leavening?
Sourdough can describe any mixture of flour, water, wild
yeast, and lactobacilli.

Levain is typically used in English as a French term for
sourdough or a wild yeast culture although it is
occasionally refers to a "chef" that has been refreshed with
flour or water.

“Chef” or “mother”  is a portion of unbaked dough saved
back that is mixed with flour and water to create a new
batch of dough.  A chef could use wild or commercial yeast
for leavening, depending on its origin.
Baker's
Percent
Hydration
Percent
Water by
Weight
Percent
Flour by
Weight
Parts Flour
to Parts
Water by
Volume
Culture
Type
163%
 
 
1/1
liquid
sourdough,
liquid levain
125
56%
44%
8/6.25 or
1.28/1
 
100
50
50
4/2.5 or 1.6/1
 
81%
43
57
2/1
Sticky
sourdough
70
41
59
4/1.75 or
2.29/1
 
65
39
61
8/3.25 or
2.46/1
 
60
38
63
4/1.5 or
2.67/1
 
54
35
65
3/1
Stiff Levain
Starting Your Own Sourdough Culture
Video
Refreshing Your Sourdough Culture
Video