Along with cultivating lactobacteria, I have captured and nurtured microscopic fungus. Yeast, the fungus responsible for beer, wine, bread and cheese, is perhaps one of the best loved microorganisms. So far, scientists have identified 1,500 species of yeast, and they speculate that there are thousands more unidentified flying yeast.
I don’t want to grow thousands of yeast species, just a few of the flour-loving kinds using an ancient method. In the days of the covered wagon, yeast could not be purchased in little jars and packets. Instead bakers and homemakers would trap their own yeast, using a sourdough starter. By adding water to flour, they gave the little fungus the moisture and food it needs to thrive. Presto starter!
Professional bakers say that you should add an equal weight of flour and water to make a starter. The perfect sourdough starter is nurtured with morning and evening flour and water feedings until it’s baking day. You can refrigerate it after it has spent a week on the counter top. Refrigerated starter has the definite benefit of only needing to be fed once a week, but to obtain a really delicious sourdough taste, it should spend a month or three at room temperature.
I starter my starter without fully realizing all the necessary steps. Initially, I starved my poor yeast with too little flour food — only two tablespoons of flour and water at a feeding. A watery film covered the top of my starter and only a few bubble appeared. So, I tossed half of the starter and added more flour and water in relatively equal amounts (by weight – the right way). Soon, my starter was bubbling like a cauldron of soup full from the carbon dioxide belches from happy fungus.
I continued feeding the starter and increasing amount of flour and water each time I fed it. By the end of the week, I wondered if I was fostering the blob or the fungus version of the Little Shop of Horrors plant. It was time to bake.
First, I mixed up a batch of pancakes from the Nourishing Gourmet and allowed it to soak overnight. Then, I attempted a whole wheat sandwich bread.
The pancakes possessed a fluffy, cake-like texture coupled with a sweet-and-soured flavor. However, I could have slathered some mortar between the bread and used it to repair our fireplace. I suspect that I under-kneaded the bread, then I further harmed my rising sourdough by rushing its rising process by placing it in a 350 degree oven for a minute. Later, I discovered that the rise can take half a day, not a couple of hours, as I have grown to expect from commercially yeasted breads.
Patience is not one of my better virtues. But sourdough demands it.
Today, I am attempting another sourdough sandwich bread. I will be more patient with it. I will wait for my yeast to complete their good, bubbly work, even if it takes them half the day.