I'll be the first one to admit I don't know how to make a good sourdough bread. I've got some sourdough starter that I originally made with Reinhart's techniques given in "The Bread Baker's Apprentice". And I'm working my way through another of Reinhart's books, "Whole Grain Breads", which uses slightly different terminology for sourdough starters. So my sourdough baking is a little bit haphazard, and I generally don't even think about baking sourdough breads until I am refreshing my mother starter, and tossing away a rather heartbreakingly substantial amount of sourdough discard. In my last sourdough bread baking, I tried to do something with this discard, having a loaf 'competition' between a couple of recipes I found on the Internet, one using sourdough discard (and some commercial yeast); the other recipe used no discard at all, it just elaborated some of the mother starter into a viable dough over a series of rises.
But what about actually using the sourdough mother starter itself, and not just the discards? That is what today's bread-off is about.
To that end, I am pulling out Reinhart's previous book, ''The Bread Baker's Apprentice" again. I am using his basic sourdough bread recipe from that book. Reinhart's recipe calls for essentially 2 steps: 1) make a firm starter, let it rise the first day and refrigerate it; then 2) the next day, take the firm starter out, warm it to room temperature, and then make the final dough with it and some other ingredients, baking the bread on that second day.
For today's bread-off competition/comparison, I'll be using two different wild yeast starters: (1) using the whole wheat starter that is currently in my fridge today to make a barm, which will be used to make a "firm starter" (essentially adding a 3rd step to the basic recipe above), and (2) using the mother starter that is currently in my fridge today, to make the "firm starter". The reason I am doing this comparison is primarily because -- I frankly admit this -- I don't actually understand what I've got in my fridge: I mean, I call it a mother-starter, but does it need to be elaborated into a barm before using it to make bread, or is it adequate to make that bread rise without such elaboration? Therefore,
1) Dough #1 will be elaborated from the whole wheat starter, to which I will follow Reinhards directions for making a barm, before I follow his directions for making the sourdough bread. I will use a cup of that barm to make my sourdough's firm starter.
2) Dough #2 will have its firm starter made directly from a cup of the whole wheat starter.
Except for the ingredients of the motherstarter that builds the firm starter, I will be making each bread with the same flour combination:
1 cup whole wheat flour
1 cup spelt
2 cups all purpose flour
1/2 cup rye
Dough #1's barm I wanted to make out of similar ingredients as the dough it would be causing to rise; but Reinhart specifically asked for bread flour for the barm. The only bread flour I had was some multigrain bread flour. So I used that, as well as some whole wheat flour and all purpose flour, in this combination:
153g - 1 cup whole wheat flour
137g - 1 cup all purpose flour
258g - 1 1/2 cups of multigrain bread flour
When first mixed, this concoction sure looked a lot like oatmeal. To turn it into a barm, I had to knead it and let it sit out for a time until it doubled.
Here are the ingredients for the firm starter for dough #1, using the barm. Only some of the barm is used (Note: Reinhart says to use 2/3 of a cup, or 4 oz; but when I weighed 1/3 of a cup of this barm, it came to 112 grams (very nearly 4 oz); I used 2/3 of a cup anyway, so the weight would be off, I am using double the amount of barm). The rest, I stuck in the fridge. It is at that point, no different than the other motherstarter I have in there except for the fact that this one has bread flour and all purpose flour, in addition to the whole wheat starter. I will likely be throwing this away, too, the next time I refresh my mother-starter.
The firm starter rose and was stuck in the fridge until the next day. Before going to bed myself, however, I gathered together the ingredients for the entire loaf (except for the firm starter). This would be the same for each loaf -- four different flours, some salt, and some water:
Saturday morning before going to yoga class, I took the firm starter(s) out of the fridge; after yoga class, I mixed up the final dough and let it double in size.
Dough #1, when it had risen, was very wet in comparison to the second dough:
Dough #1 rose in the expected time period:
Placing the one on the parchment paper into the oven was easy; but it was a bit of a struggle to score the loaf from the couche: I had deposited it on the hot stone in the oven, and had to score it by sticking my hand in a 500 degree F oven. Meanwhile the fire alarm was going off because of a spill from a pound cake that was made the day previously. But the breads turned out okay, if a trifle flat. The one that had been in the couche rose a bit more, I think.
The Baked Breads from Dough #1:
And here is the obligatory crumb shot. Some nice, artful holes in this bread. And it tastes good, with no obvious overly sour taste. The crust is chewy, not crunchy. My wife doesn't like it because there is too much unincorporated flour on the surface of the loaf, and that doesn't appeal to her. But otherwise the bread is acceptable.
Dough 2, I could make the firm starter directly with the whole wheat motherstarter. There wasn't much to that; I kneaded it, set it in an old yogurt container and when it had doubled, into the fridge it went:
The next day, I added it to the dough ingredients that were identical to the first dough:
I kneaded this for 12 minutes, rested for 10, and then kneaded for 4 minutes, as per Reinhart's instructions. I'm not convinced that it required this long, but I was following orders. The heat from the kneading (whether from friction or my hands?) did change the consistency of the dough, but this was accomplished about 5 minutes into the kneading; the continuing of kneading at this point simply made the dough get all over my hands, to the point where it took most of the 10 minute rest period to scrape it off under a tap. The dough substantially cooled off in the 10 minute resting phase. Prior to the resting phase, this dough had a lot of 'snap' to it. Afterwards, it didn't have as much (this is a subjective judgment):
But dough #2 rose nicely in the bowl:
I cut it and shaped it. My boules are a bit misshapen -- I believe I overly manhandled them because they were a bit sticky.
The finished loaves of Dough#2:
When these were cool, I moved 2 of the 4 loaves into the freezer; it will be a while before I can eat 4 loaves of sourdough bread by myself because my wife doesn't really care for it, usually. Meanwhile, I will still be refreshing my mother starter and tossing away lots of discard. I believe that this is why people don't make their own sourdough bread -- they are disheartened by the amount of discard.
I really think that I need to cut down on how much motherstarter I keep on hand. Reinhart's amounts are suggestions only; he gives the ratios, too, that will refresh a mother-starter, and I can certainly cut back on how much I keep and feed. Another alternative would be to feed it, let it double, and then freeze it right away, and only bring some out to room temperature as required.
My wife will eat this. She doesn't feel that it is too sour smelling or too sour tasting. This bread is acceptable to her. But, once again, she doesn't rave about it.
Notes to Myself:
- This experiment proved to me that you don't have to make a barm before using the mother starter; you can use the motherstarter itself to make the firm starter which will leaven a sourdough. (Reinhart suggests that if you do this you will have to reduce the water in the final dough to compensate for the wetness of the mother starter, but I have found that this is not necessarily so. Both of these doughs required me to add about 2 tbsp more water just to get the flour incorporated before they could be kneaded).
- There are 2 places in the bread making process where overhandling will cause some degassing of the bread which will result in a more dense and less lovely crumb: 1) during the forming of the bread (into boules or batards, etc), and 2) during the transfer of the proofed bread into the hot oven. Number 1's overhandling can only be minimized by an artisan level of practice and attention to detail, so that the dough is shaped quickly and properly (something I feel I haven't yet achieved). Number 2's overhandling can be lessened if we take a tip from the big bakeries. I watched a video online of how a bakery placed long baguettes in their oven using what was essentially a huge flat peel covered with a rolling cloth. It should be fairly simple to devise a rolling cloth for my tiny kitchen pizza peel, to get a boule or a batard to roll off without too much overhandling. I have a design in mind and I will talk with my wife, the quilt designer, about what materials it should use, and how it should be built.
- The formed loaves probably don't require a full 2 hour proofing; 90 minutes will probably suffice (depending on the humidity of the day, of course)
- I baked these breads for 20 minutes using steam, and then turned them 180 degrees and gave them another 20 minutes. That worked pretty well, I think.
- Figure out how much bread you will be baking in the next 3 days with the motherstarter you are about to refresh. If you have loaves on hand, you do not need to refresh it in the amounts that Reinhart suggests -- but use his ratios, and always be sure the motherstarter doubles in size before putting it back into the refrigerator. For example, if a sourdough recipe makes 2 loaves, and you will only be eating 2 loaves in a week, and the recipe only calls for 2/3 of a cup of motherstarter to make the firm starter, why do you need to have on hand 6 cups of motherstarter? At the most, all you really need is 1 1/3 cups of motherstarter: 2/3 to make 2 loaves if you run out, and another 2/3 to refresh. Even then, you will likely have some discards.
I think that the instructions on maintaining a sourdough motherstarter in Reinhart's "Whole Grain Breads" are simpler than those in "The Bread Baker's Apprentice", and I have been following his "Whole Grain Breads" methods to refresh the motherstarter in order to make his recipes. However, I don't suppose I really have a handle on it all yet, and I hate the fact that I am still throwing away far too much starter every time I refresh it.
Reinhart's refreshing method is based on refreshing 100 g of motherstarter to come up with 625 g of new motherstarter. But let's say I only want 454 g of motherstarter (just enough to have 2/3 of a cup to make bread once, and also enough to have 2/3 of a cup to refresh, if I wanted to use Reinhart's official 'Whole Grain Breads' refreshing method). How much motherstarter would I require to refresh to hit this target? About 73 g. This is only slightly less than 1/2 cup.
In other words, here is what I should put on my recipe card, for refreshing amounts:
To Refresh your Mother Starter:
Discard all but 73 g of motherstarter (about 1/2 cup, or just under) = 33.3%
- add 218 g of whole wheat flour (about 1 2/3 cups, or just over) = 100%
- add 166 g of spring water (about 3/4 cup or just under) = 75%
(Total weight when done: 457 g, about 1 1/3 cups once degassed)
Note that the final amount, 457 g, is not double the original amount, it is more like 5 1/4 times the original amount. Reinhart gives directions in "The Bread Baker's Apprentice" to double, triple or even quadruple the motherstarter by weight, but I find it terribly confusing to reconcile the methods from the two books. In "The Bread Baker's Apprentice", if we were doubling the 73 g of motherstarter, we should end up with a total of 146 g, by adding 36 g each of flour and water. But over time, wouldn't this result in a different hydration? Sourdough starters can be so confusing (to me). In "The Bread Baker's Apprentice" he says that doubling the barm on a feeding gives a sour bread, but tripling it makes it less sour, and quadrupling it at a feeding makes it even less sour.
I likely will stay away from tripling or quadrupling the motherstarter until I know what I'm doing. I spent a morning trying to understand what he was doing in "The Bread Baker's Apprentice" and trying to reconcile it to this process of refreshing the motherstarter, but I just wasn't getting it. It is likely that I am once again confusing different stages of the build, so that I am trying to compare his "seed culture" to his "barm" to his "mother starter". The terminology is very vague and changes from book to book, which makes it problematic for anyone like me to actually learn what to do.
Reinhart's "Whole Grain Breads" mother starter has a 75% hydration, which is fairly wet. In "The Bread Maker's Apprentice", during one of his frequent asides (or grace notes) to the basic sourdough recipe, he describes variations of sourdough ingredients, and says that some bakers work exclusively with firm starters, and even keep the mother starter in a firm state. The wetter the dough, he says, the more the lactic bacteria take over from the acetic bacteria, and the less sour it tastes. He suggests reducing the water weight to 50-57 percent of the flour weight when refreshing the mother starter, to make one of these firm motherstarters, which will give a more sour taste. Therefore:
For a firmer mother starter and more sour taste:
- add only 109 g of water, about 1/2 cup (for 50%),
- or add 124 g water, a line midway between 1/2 cup and 2/3 of a cup (for 57%)
- If your wife doesn't like too much sour flavour, consider doing as Reinhart suggests, and when refreshing the motherstarter, triple or quadruple it (rather than merely doubling it): because the wild yeast will grow quicker than the bacteria, which catches up to the yeast at around the third day. Or, if that spooks you a bit (see previous note), you could use your motherstarter the day of, or the day after refreshing it, when the beneficial yeasts are still stronger than the beneficial bacteria in the mixture.