Working with sourdough :The Passionate Foodie

Working with sourdough :The Passionate Foodie

Lucinda Frye

Diverse and indigenous cuisine brought by the many ethnic people to St. Maarten from all over the world piques our interest. To this end, we are on a quest to find where it comes from, if it is used for celebrations, if it is exotic to some but everyday food to others. Anything to do with keeping the body and soul nourished with that which is produced from good old terra firma, is what makes the world go around.

The oldest known sourdough starter is said to have originated from clay pots unearthed in Egypt. Unbelievably, a loaf of sourdough bread baked fairy recently, using yeast harvested from 4500-year-old clay pots, turned out pretty decently.

Covid brought a resurgence of bread-making by home bakers. Now, while we enjoy some of the sourdough offered at tables in restaurants, we thought that making sourdough bread would be as complicated as making yeast bread – far from it! It is more complicated, that is, until you finally get the hang of it.

History tells us that sourdough dates back thousands of years. Yeast, the commercial stuff, only came about more recently. Commercial yeast was only discovered in the mid-19th century. Civilization and fermentation go hand in hand. The process of using sourdough in baking is a process as old as time, but with the recent resurgence, we thought we would try our hand at it.

“The process of sourdough fermentation involves harbouring a colony of wild yeast in a slurry of flour and water.” The mother dough or starter dough “forms a symbiotic culture of lactic acid bacteria and wild yeast that produce carbon dioxide responsible for the rising of bread dough.” Wikipedia

Sourdough techniques have progressed over many years; however, the same combination of three ingredients remains the same: flour, water and salt. Apparently, salt was not an ingredient in ancient times.

Having tried our hands at making bread with commercial yeast involving multiple risings, kneadings, etc., (needed to turn out a decent loaf) and not really succeeding, we moved onto trying to make no-knead bread with much more success – still using commercial yeast. But this sourdough baking piqued our interest and so the story for us begins!

As sourdough lives for many years under the right circumstances and, in fact, becomes part of the family, some folks give it a name. We went with Flossy! Flossy seems to be rather temperamental, perhaps we are not treating her quite right.

Flossy appeared on our doorstep one day, brought over by a friend whose spouse had just returned from San Francisco. San Fran is known for its great sourdough breads. One can get a starter going from a dried powdered- and packaged-bought product. One can also make the starter from scratch with little effort – just mix up a glue with flour and water, set it on the counter in a clean jar and feed it every day! All too soon, she will start to bubble prettily (during fermentation) and can be used to produce such delightful bread products. Really.

Flossy arrived already wearing her bubbly dress, all that was needed from us was to place her in a wide-mouthed jar, leave her on the counter and feed her every day! From then on, we could turn her into deliciousness!

No one mentioned that all too soon, we would have a myriad of little Flossie’s in jars decorating our counter, in the refrigerator and even in the freezer! A fine dusting of flour covers the kitchen now too.

The researching began via Google – the tips and comments of how to go about the process is overwhelming. There are many sites to explore where the photos of the end result are out of this world. How on earth do they do it?

The “simple” process proceeds thus. Mix up the glue, leave on the counter. Next morning, scoop out some glue, wash it away, add more flour and water to the glue left in the jar, give it a good stir, repeat this process for a week. Once the “real” thing starts forming, the scooped-out bit is called the discard – this can be used to bake with or tossed away/given to a friend or neighbour to start their own journey or used in a watered-down version to feed you outdoor plants However, there are many veiled threats of using this discard to bake with too soon – it will make you sick, etc.

All well and good, so far, but the constant caring for Flossy is reminiscent of having a toddler in the house again! The jar Flossy is in needs to be emptied of her, washed well, dried and then she may be happily ensconced back in her home for another few days.

Every morning, she needs to have some of her removed and equal parts of half-flour, half-water added and stirred – pity I forget about her some mornings and only fed the poor girl in the evening! Finally, she was well on her way to wearing a bubbly dress, but not before she had amassed a thin watery topcoat of pale-ale looking stuff. This is called “hooch” apparently, and is no problem – just stir the liquid in and add only flour, stir again and feed next morning.

Flossy has only had one bout of “hooch” thankfully.

Some days, we meticulously scooped out a portion of the bubbles – a cup usually. Her feed would be half-cup flour and half-cup water. However, she never looked like others of her tribe in the pictures I see! Other days, we would do what is highly recommended – weigh, weigh and weigh. This involves a lot of washing up – water is heavier than flour! Flossy is rather light when bubbly!

Throughout, we used her discard at baking attempts. You will see our one attempt at bread so far in the photos, compared to her father Bruce (from whence she cometh)! Flossy turned out pale and sickly looking, although her crumb and flavour were not bad at all.
Apparently, the main problem was we rather unkindly placed the still chilly dough in an oven that was not hot enough. We had mixed up the loaf per instructions with the many pull-folds needed, placed it covered in the fridge overnight (which extended through the next day and night as well, ooops) and finally set on the counter to come to room temp before being popped into the preheated oven. While the crumb and taste may have been promising, the overall pale and pasty look just did not cut it.

Talking about cutting it… making a stunning loaf involves a bit of handiwork with a sharp, thin blade, as the surface of the loaf needs this done before the final rising to gain the beauty of the loaf!

Our discards have been used successfully to make the following:

Flatbreads – the taste and texture of each was perfect and even better the second time around.

English muffins – hot buttered, they were wolfed down.

Cheesy pancakes – passable but needs some gentler, slower handling!

I hope Flossy survives as we have put a lot of care (most of the time) into her. However, these days, the weighing or measuring does not happen. It is all about eye-balling her needs which, thankfully, I found that quite a few out there in the world do exactly that!

Recipes to follow next week...

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