The Stuff of Life

The Stuff of Life
For those of us who find nature to be both aesthetically beautiful and life-sustaining.

Thursday, June 12, 2014

The Importance of Sourdough Cultures and Sourdough Bread in Self-Reliance

Sourdough, ah sourdough. There is rarely a bread connoisseur that doesn't love good sourdough. What is sourdough you ask? Allow me to start by telling you what sourdough is not. Sourdough is not store bought yeast. Store bought yeast was a commercialized, mass produced, product intended to give the home baker a fast rise on the end product. This speed of rise time enabled the mass production of that tasteless, long, square loaf we purchase at the grocery store that barely resembles its ancestral roots. Store bought yeast gives that quick rise, but due to the quickness of the rising time, the flavor development suffers, the interior crumb suffers, the crust suffers. It's common sense really. Anytime we try to hurry something too much we are compromising our mission somewhere along the path.  
What sourdough is, however, is a natural occurring combination of live, wild yeast and bacteria coming together in a symbiotic dance of carbohydrate love. O.K., that's probably a little too far, but you get the's good stuff. Store purchased yeast is also alive. But, it's not a natural wild yeast and it is a single type of living organism that has been carefully selected and mass produced. Sourdough flavor comes from the naturally occurring acids that develop from the interaction of the yeast and the bacteria. You can develop flavor with commercialized yeast, but you must use a very small amount such as 1/4 teaspoon and wait for hours and hours to allow the flavors and textures to develop. Another benefit of sourdough is longer shelf life. A homemade loaf of sourdough at my house can keep up to a week not that it generally lasts that long. Whereas, my other breads have a lifespan of 1-2 days and then they are destined for the bread salvage yard of breadcrumbs and croutons. 
Sourdough cultures are kept and maintained by daily feedings of 2-3 times a day of flour and water and vigorous stirring each time. I stir mine throughout the day whenever I am thinking about it or walking by. The cultures really flourish with a lot of air whipped into them. A nice warm spot on your kitchen counter and daily feedings and stirrings is all that is required to maintain a culture. If you are not going to bake for a while you can place them in the refrigerator after they are well developed. I put a piece of plastic wrap over the top of the jar, a paper towel over that and a rubber band around the paper towel to hold it all in place and then into the refrigerator the culture goes. 
They can keep for a long time in the refrigerator as they go into a dormancy state. A lot of yeast dies off during dormancy, but the goal is that not all of them die because you will pull it out and feed it every so often. Remember... this is a living organism and it needs to be fed. It eats the flour for fuel and once it eats up all of its food supply and has no more it slows down and over time it begins to die off. The idea is to keep it alive so don't forget them for too long.
How long can you refrigerate the cultures? A long time. The answer varies depending on which blog you read or site you visit or video you watch. I will tell you that mine keep for 3-6 months totally neglected in the refrigerator. I pull them out and pour off the "hooch." The hooch is the dark liquid alcohol that develops on the top during dormancy. Some people stir it in. I pour mine off. And give them a few days of feedings and stirrings and they take right off again. 
Sourdoughs flavors are all a little different depending on the local wild yeast. I have a large collection of sourdough cultures from around the world. Some are derivatives of the same yeast that leavened the first loaf of bread in ancient Egypt over 5,000 years ago. One is a local one I captured myself. Capturing wild yeast is quite easy and I will describe how to do that in a future post as well as share some sourdough recipes with you. There are also places online to purchase wild yeast sourdough cultures in their dry form and you feed and care for them after they arrive in the mail.  
I hope you will begin to read up on sourdough breads and gain an appreciation for the skill of capturing your own wild yeast and housing your own wild yeast culture. Not only does it make better bread with better flavor than anything you can buy at the store, but it is one more step toward being self-reliant. Flour, water, yeast and salt is all that you need for a beautiful loaf of bread from home. By using wild yeast, you are just a little less reliant on mass production and a little more reliant on yourself.

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