May 132008

Sourdough Starter/מחמצת שאור/Levain

Once upon a time, when men were men, and women were ostensibly women (but who knows since nobody ever talked about them), bread was leavened not with packets of Fleischmann’s but with sourdough, a sinister froth comprised of wild yeasts and bacteria kicking it symbiotic in a mix of flour and water. Yes, in those heady days of yore, yeast was not something you bought, but rather something you dearly cultivated, giving it far more love and attention than all those children you put to work at six and married off at twelve. We’ve lost something since then, and it’s not just an uncomplaining pool of nimble child workers: it’s the taste of our bread. In this era of pre-sliced uniform bread product, we’ve forgotten that bread should be rich and complex, nourishing and fortifying, the staff of life and not the densely wadded ball of Wonder. Take my hand (briefly, because I don’t much like being touched) and let me guide you to the old school flavor.

First, to lay some background: a sourdough starter is a symbiotic colony of wild yeasts – microscopic fungi which can be found zinging about everywhere, from the air on down to the nether regions of Monistat users – and a certain strain of bacteria, the lactobacilli. In an active starter, water breaks down the starch in flour into simple sugars, which just so happen to be a yeast’s favorite food. The yeast digest the sugars, and subsequently poot out what just so happens to be a lactobacillus’s favorite food. Nature: gross in tooth and claw. With regular additions of fresh flour and water, the starter will chug on indefinitely, denying access to any nastier microorganisms, and happily leavening all your bread.

I should also mention that sourdough in this context does not refer to the actual flavor of the dough, but rather to the entire category of naturally leavened bread. Technically, what I’m talking about here should probably be referred to as levain, after the French, but that strikes even me as too pretentious. In short, you shouldn’t confuse sourdough the concept with its most recognizable application: San Francisco sourdough. San Francisco sourdough gets its flavor from a particularly gnarly local lactobacillus and a long fermentation time. The bread you make with a sourdough starter can range from not sour at all to sourer than any San Francisco loaf, depending on how long you allow the dough to ferment before baking – and depending on the particular bacteria in your starter, which vary enough to give each starter its own unique flavor. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

So, to get back to the topic, how do you start a starter? Read on.
Continue reading »