February 6th, 2014

Our Starters, Which Art of Earth (and Fingers)

Last month, Nico and Charlie each made their own sourdough starters — the yeast + bacterial cultures that have been used to leaven bread since…leavened bread (which predates sliced bread, by the way).

Nico began hers the simple, local, wild way: just take some flour — in our case made from Western, MA wheatberries we milled at home — and add water, more or less in equal parts (to make a thick batter), then give it a stir or two every day and sometimes a little more flour or water.

Charlie’s was similar in composition but included a spoonful of beer trub, harvested from the bottom of a carboy of a recent batch of ale — to give it a sure kick of (commercially-cultivated) yeast and to see whether it might otherwise effect the process (of fermentation) or the product (the bread).

They also both contained what Charlie — and then all of us — began referring to as “finger yeast,” which we think may contribute another key source of wild microbes. Here they explain the process, with some gentle prodding (and some useful prompts c/o Christina Agapakis, synthetic biologist, science blogger, and infamous maker of “human cheese” [who blogged about us here!]):

Perhaps predictably, Charlie’s culture got off to a quick start as the “beer yeasts” went (back) to work doing what they do: munching carbs and belching air and alcohol. Within a day Charlie’s starter was bubbling away and smelling boozy. The yeast still seemed to want to make beer! And despite making things quite bubbly very quickly, the beer yeast seemed to be making a thinner and, ironically, less vigorous starter. Nico’s took a little longer to grow, but after 3 or 4 days of stirring and feeding, it began to build steam, and it more quickly took on the sour notes — rather than beer notes — we were hoping for. When fed, it would also puff up a lot more than Charlie’s, which was more likely to pool.

Eventually, both starters got to a place where they seemed ready for a test run — sufficiently sour and ready to go to town on some fresh flour — so we baked a loaf from each of them a week or so ago in order to compare and taste our homemade sourdough.

Our bread recipe was a synthesis of some variations on a few approaches we’ve been trying for the last few months: Peter Reinhart’s, Chad Robertson’s (and Michael Pollan’s remix), and Jim Lahey’s popular “no knead” recipe (which, crucially, helped us first get our feet wet, or hands sticky). Notably, though they’re all different in various ways, all involve a long/delayed fermentation and relatively little kneading.

Our own approach mixes as it departs from them all. We’re totally into starters and soakers and long fermentations and low kneading and hearty country loaves, but we’re hardcore about ingredients: we’re using 100% whole wheat flour (a lot of so-called whole wheat loaves are actually 70/30 or 50/50, with plenty of refined white flour to up the gluten ratio to better trap air and make the bread bubbly & springy); we’re also making “lean” breads (as opposed to “enhanced” with fats or sweeteners) and we’re trying not to use any active dry yeast — just flour + water + (homegrown) microbes + salt. It’s a challenge — for many, it’s long been a holy grail — but it feels elemental. And rewarding. Even when a loaf comes out flat, it still has amazing depth of flavor.

After mixing up their own soakers (water + flour, to help soften the bran and begin enzymatic processes) and starters (essentially, 60 grams of their cultures + 200g flour + 150g water) the night before, and letting them each go to work for 12 hours, they woke up and mixed their final doughs the next morning.

I baked the loaves for the girls while they were at school, scoring each one with a first initial, and they came out just lovely — and were even tastier than they were beautiful.

We’re still not sure why Charlie’s didn’t get as nice an oven-spring as Nico’s — may have been the beer yeast, or the hydration, or my kneading (which needs improvement). But both she and Nico — and Becca and I — were very happy with the results.

We’re looking forward to future experiments with microbes — maybe future videos too. It’s been fun to learn about all this stuff together, and we hope some people might want to copy our experiments and share theirs with us. We’ll do our best to keep you posted on future things a-brewin’.

In that vein, while we’re here, I should note that — indeed, as is speculated with regard to the intertwined history of brewing and baking — Nico and Charlie had already made their first homebrews before their first starter cultures and loaves of bread. They began with a base of cracked & milled (but not malted) spelt, water, sugar, and preserved fruit, mixed to their own proportions —

Rather than going totally wild with the microbes, though, in this case they each used some trub to get things started. And I can attest, as the sole guinea pig several days later, that their very-small-batch beers (micro-micro-brews!) were not bad: a bit odd, a tad flat & a touch sourish, but nonetheless, beery.

Here’s to feeding ferment.

Wayne&Wax

I'm a techno-musicologist, internet annotator, imagined community organizer.

I left my <3 in the digital global, but I reside in Cambridge, MA, where I'm from.

I represent like that.

wayne at wayneandwax dot com

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