Although I do a lot of cooking, I've never been much of a one for baking my own bread. Foccaccia was pretty much the only yeast-raised bread I'd seriously attempted, and I'm more of a cook than a baker, anyway. But I'm also a bread snob who was hopelessly spoiled by five years of living a few blocks away from Zingerman's, and New London doesn't have all that many bakeries, so finding bread that isn't a square squishy plastic-shrouded oblong has been something of a challenge. The DIY approach started to look a lot more appealing.
So about a month ago I acquired some sourdough starter from a colleague at work, and set to work cultivating it. Sourdough starter, if you've never made your own, is a colony of wild yeasts and lactobacillus bacteria that can be maintained in the refrigerator as long as you periodically feed it flour and water. It smells oddly like glue, but with a strong acidic whiff after it's been fed. When you feed the colony, it gets frothy (from the yeasts producing carbon dioxide) and doubles in size. You put half of the starter back in the fridge and use the other half to bake something; the yeast, once activated, raises the bread, and the lactic acid from the bacteria produces the distinctive sour flavor. It's like having a pet that's also a biochemistry experiment.
So far, this is what I've made:
- Sourdough bread loaf #1, part whole wheat. An abject failure: it didn't rise, and I don't think the gluten developed properly either. The result was a sad, bricklike object. I chalked it up to experience and moved on.
- Sourdough bread loaves #2 and #3, mostly white flour. Much more acceptable: they could have been a bit rounder and fluffier, but they had the right texture and made an agreeably dense, slightly sour bread. The feel of the dough was much more like what I remembered as the way bread dough should feel while you're kneading it.
- Raspberry sourdough muffins. Sadly, they didn't rise; I suspect I overbeat them. They were still edible, though, and I may repeat the experiment with the remainder of the frozen raspberries.
- Sourdough coffee cake. The sourness is barely perceptible amid the cinnamon and brown sugar topping, but it made an excellent breakfast.
Actual kneaded breads are something of a time commitment, and require advance planning, but I'm very pleased that one can also use the excess starter in everything from quick breads to pizza crusts (haven't made any yet, but they're on the list of Things to Try). And someday, I'll manage to acquire a banneton so I can make properly beautiful boules.