Thursday, May 04, 2006

on bread

As some of you know, I'm generally a low-carb proponent. However this should not be construed to mean that I don't eat bread or I put Splenda in everything. No. This is silly. Substituting one bad chemical for another is not going to get you anything but deprived and cranky.

No, generally speaking I'm opposed to the massive amounts of sugar, fruit juice, corn syrup and corn starch that goes in 95% of the prepacked processed foods found in the supermarket. I'm a proponent of eating real food: butter and meat and vegetables and WHOLE fruits, not juice cocktails, thank you very much. I think we eat too much white flour and corn in this country, and I will admit to a weakness for tortilla chips, but I couldn't tell you the last time I ate a slice of Wonder Bread.

With that disclaimer in place, I was recently introduced to the product of a wonderful Kansas bakery called Wheatfield's that specializes in "naturally leavened" breads. Their ciabatta is marvellous--chewy and crispy and holey, with just enough flavor of its own but not enough to overwhelm the slathering of butter which is of course the entire reason for eating bread. Right?

Anyhoo, I got curious about the use of "natural leavening" as opposed to commercial yeast in bread making. My mother's considered a champion bread baker, but she tends to prefer the soft white "tea bread" styles--dense and slightly sticky, enriched with milk and sugar. Myself, I'd rather have something a little sour, a little richer, and salty rather than sweet. So I went looking for basic methods on how to make your own "natural leavening"--what is generally referred to as a sourdough starter.

This dude's essay is particularly instructive and amusing:
The novel thing about sourdough baking is that it requires that you keep something alive in your fridge. I think of my starter as a pet, kept and fed so that Sandra and I will have all the bread we need. Sourdough "starter" is a batter of flour and water, filled with living yeast and bacteria.

Blend a cup of warm water and a cup of flour, and pour it into the jar. That's the whole recipe! I use plain, unbleached bread flour most of the time, but I've had good results with all-purpose and whole-wheat flour, too.

You should keep the starter in a warm place; 70-80 degrees Farenheit is perfect. This allows the yeast already present in the flour (and in the air) to grow rapidly. Temperatures hotter than 100 degrees or so will kill it. You can take comfort from the fact that almost nothing else will do so.

Within three or four days (it can take longer, a week or more, and it can happen more quickly) you should start getting lots of bubbles throughought, and a pleasant sour or beery smell. The starter may start to puff up, too. This is good. Here's the gist: When your starter develops a bubbly froth, it is done. You have succeeded. If this sounds brain-dead simple, that's because it is. People who didn't believe the Earth was round did this for millenia.

Yes, and their digestive systems were probably happier. If you don't believe me, come hang out in the restrooms about 1 p.m. when all the fat women in my office are purging their Lean Cuisine meals of the day before. That's what corn starch will do for you, friends.

So I'm thinking of baking bread again. Not like my mom does it, but like the ancient Jews did. Starting with the yeast and bacteria off my own hands. That seems appropriate, somehow.


Shirley said...

Heh! Was it you I was talking to about this a few days ago? I'm going to Oakland, CA for a little over a week at the end of this month. I was thinking about creating a starter there, it being close to San Francisco and all. What thinkest thou?

Holly said...

I think, go for it! But it's not like they have special yeasty air in San Francisco or anything. San Francisco sourdough is famously tart, but apparently you can get differing textures and flavors depending upon how long you let your starter sour and other factors. Must experiment.

I read one interesting perspective on bread starters that pointed out how, in the old days, the mother made the bread for the whole family, inside the house, and the yeasts that grew in the bread were essentially the same yeasts that were already in the bodies of the inhabitants. So they were, in effect, replenishing their own immune and digestive systems.

On the one hand that sounds kind of gross, but on the other hand, mother's collostrum innoculates babies against all kinds of diseases. Sit says, very reasonably in my opinion, that the human body knows what its invaders are, and a healthy immune system will attack the bad guys, as opposed to antibiotics which kill off the good stuff, too.

I don't have a lot of time for bread baking, though. Maybe I'll pick up this project in the fall. I tend to want to bake in the fall.