Monday, January 16, 2012

A Domestically Inept Bread Primer: Part 1

If you may recall, back in my angel food flop post I talked about my dear friend Ashley and mentioned that she got me a wonderful Christmas present despite the fact I totally screwed up her birthday cake.  None the less, she, being the good friend she is, got me a wonderful cookbook that I've been longing for!  She got me George Greenstein's Secrets of a Jewish Baker.  This is a fabulous book about bread!  Even if you are a newbie (or domestically inept) home baker, you too can appreciate the recipes and secrets poured out in this book.  I have quite a few bread books.  To be honest most of them are quite daunting (no offense Peter Reinhart- I still think you are a genius).  This book is different.  It introduced me to a whole new level of bread baking.  Though steeped in tradition, it beautifully weaves newer trends and tastes into the practice of old-school bread-making.

I think this book is a terrific way to develop confidence in bread making.  The recipes are generally quite simple and for the most part are consistent in the steps and techniques used.  That being said, I've decided to document my experiences with several recipes in this book as a means of walking you through basic bread-making principles and techniques.  Keep in mind I am not a master baker.  I am still (and will always be) on the road to better bread.  It the short time (about 3 years) I've dedicated to serious home bread-making, I've picked up some tips and techniques.  This is what I hope to impart on you today.  Rather that having one extremely large post, I've decided to break it up into a few parts.  Today, we're going to talk about starters...to start.  Okay that was cheesy...I'm sorry.

Sours, Starters and Bigas Oh My!
One of the main recipes in Mr. Greenstein's book is for rye sour.  Rye sour is basically a sourdough starter using rye flour.  A "starter" for a bread is a mixture of flour, water and yeast (in its most basic form) that is mixed up and allowed to ferment.  Part or all of the starter is then added along with the other ingredients in mixing up the dough that will then be baked into bread.  The purpose of any bread starter is to allow the yeast to  ferment and for the gluten (protein in flour) to develop.  This improves not only the flavor, but the texture, rise and shelf life of the bread.  A dough goes from being called a "starter" to a "sour" if it's been allowed to develop for a few days.  The term "sour" refers to the fact that over time as the yeast ferment they produce alcohol, which gives the dough a sour taste.  
Some starters require very little work, with only one or two steps and are made the night before or even a few hours before the actual bread dough is made.  Other starters are quite complex, being made in stages and taking days to develop.
Starters are made in numerous ways and can be called by various names such as a biga, chef or pre-ferment (just to name a few).  Now there are some nuances between these different types of bread starters (I'm sure Peter Reinhart is cringing at the moment) but that is beyond the scope of our domestically inept bread primer.  For now, remember this: a starter is a mixture of flour, water and yeast that is allowed to ferment.  How much of each ingredient?  Well that depends on the recipe you are using.  Typically though, starters are "wet," meaning they have a high water to flour ratio.
Now on to our rye sour.  First, we need rye flour.  There are lots of types of rye flour available: whole, white, medium etc.  What I use is Hodgson Mill's Stone Ground Rye Flour (which is the only kind available in my area).  Use whats available and cheapest.  There are lots of recipes out there for rye sour.  Most of them involve a mixture of rye flour, water, yeast and perhaps some caraway seeds or other spices for flavor.  Google it, or get Mr. Greenstein's book for the particulars.
George Greenstein's recipe for rye sour builds the starter in 3 stages, over a period of about 2-3 days.  Most of this time is unattended.  It only takes a few minutes each day to develop the starter.
First you mix the ingredients (including yeast) for the first stage, leaving a little flour to sprinkle on top.
Allow the mixture to sit for up to 24 hours the first time.  You can tell the sour has fully risen, because the top layer of flour has large fissures in it.
The rest of the process basically involves adding to the sour a little bit of flour and water, and allowing it to rise in between.  Once the sour is finished, you can keep it in an air-tight container in the refrigerator.  What you don't use immediately for your bread recipes you can save for future bread.  Just be sure to "feed the starter" every couple of days.  This is usually done by removing half of the starter and throwing it away, then replacing the same amount you took out with a flour/water mixture.  For instance, if you have a two cup starter, to feed it you would remove one cup, throw it away, and then add half a cup each flour and water back to the starter. Stir the ingredients in, allow to sit at room temperature for a few hours, and then place back in the fridge.
The feeding process just described can be applied to all sours, not just rye sour.  A traditional "sourdough" starter is made much the same way, but with wheat or bread flour rather than or in addition to rye flour (depending on the recipe).  Once you actually "build" the starter, taking care of it takes very little effort.  Now you have starter all ready to go anytime you want to make some bread.  Just be sure to always replace what you take out, so you can keep it going.   Theoretically, you can keep these starters forever, as long as you keep "feeding" them.  The longer they are kept, the more intriguing and developed of a flavor they will impart on your final bread product.
So this has been a brief introduction to bread and starters....tune in next time for more folks!

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