Wild Bread Notes (or… KISS)

Sourdough September summary: importance of the float test for the levain; scheduling; disregarding advice from some experts; KISS; it’s Sourdough September

The baker’s skill in managing fermentation, not the type of oven used, is what makes good bread. – Chad Robertson

It’s so thrilling that I have finally been able to embrace baking with wild yeast! And the three essential things I learned this summer are:

  1. Don’t be afraid.
  2. Put a hat on the bread for the first half of the baking time.
  3. Make sure the starter floats.

Yesterday, when it was 30C outside, it was really hard to believe that it was the end of September. But today, with the outdoor temperature mercifully at the correct level (around 16C), the following note from BREAD magazine isn’t so difficult to fathom.

This is the last week of Sourdough September! I hope you’ve developed a real taste for it and will continue on nurturing your starters in October and beyond. Basically, once you get into the rhythm of maintaining one, making bread with it is just a matter of finding a schedule that suits you.
Personally, I’m a firm believer in making your dough do the work while you sleep — overnight fermentation is a cool way of developing flavor to your bread and allowing the yeasts to eat the sugars in your dough whilst you rest!
-BREAD Magazine Update, 24 September 2017

We’ll definitely be continuing to use the Mason starter bubbling away happily in the fridge. I’m really interested to see how it will act as the kitchen temperature drops when autumn really sets in. I’m also very excited about using it for making naan, focaccia, fougasse, etc. etc.

Here are the resulting loaves from this month of “Sourdough September” (I would have baked more, but our freezer isn’t large enough….):

BBB Swiss RyeTartine BreadTartine Bread
BBB Swiss Rye, 10% whole wheat, 70% sifted whole wheat
Tartine BreadTartine Bread
50% sifted whole wheat, 25% sifted whole wheat

Like the editors of BREAD Magazine, I too am a big fan of using the fridge for final fermentation too. But it’s the schedule for refreshing the levain that has proven to be the trickiest part of this fascinating (and delicious) process of making bread without commercial yeast.

However, I think I might be getting a handle on it. Last night just before dinner, I stirred the starter in the Mason jar (it was splitting and turning to alcohol — but it hadn’t gone off). I put a spoonful of the not-quite-funky starter into a bowl and stirred in 50gm whole wheat flour and 50gm water, covered it with a plate and left it on the counter overnight.

Don’t be alarmed if your starter stinks, nor if it has a liquid floating on top of it. Once you have refreshed it, you will notice it smells fresh. […] After a while [in the fridge], your starter will separate, dark liquid will float on the top and it will smell. Unless it is mouldy, all this is perfectly fine. I once found some starter in the back of the fridge that had been there for about 5 years. It was perfectly fine and refreshed beautifully.
-Jane Mason, ‘Demystifying Sourdough’, All You Knead is Bread

It has been pretty warm and humid the past few days (it only went down to about 20C last night) so it was no surprise this morning that the levain seemed like it wanted to float but quickly sank. So I stirred in 15gm flour and 15gm water, covered it and we sat outside on the porch to have coffee and scones.

When we came in (about 40 minutes after adding more flour??) I thought I’d check to see if it would float. And it did! Whoohoooo!

And look at the bread that resulted. It just came out of the oven so it’s still baking inside but I can’t wait to taste it! It smells fabulous.

Tartine Bread

I still have WAY too much wheat starter in the Mason jar in the fridge though. Would anyone like some?

For the past month, I have been experimenting with just how much sifted whole wheat flour to put into the Tartine Country loaf. Sometimes I have put the resulting bran onto the seam side of the shaped loaf just before putting it in the fridge to proof. Sometimes the bran has gone into scones and once it went into the mixture for making granola.

Tartine Bread

Putting the bran on the seam side of the shaped loaf makes a real interesting pattern on the bottom edge of the loaf.

Tartine Bread Since achieving such thrilling successes this summer with wild bread, I’ve been reviewing some of the bread books I’ve read to see what they have to say about creating and maintaining starters. Because before, when I had vowed never ever ever ever to capture yeast again, I pretty much ignored the sourdough sections and/or blocked them out of my mind because of the horror of creating loaf of sour bread after loaf sour bread.

In Flour Water Salt Yeast, Ken Forkish says that a starter should be ready in five days and that “whole grain flour is preferable because there’s more yeast and mineral content in the bran and outer layers of the wheat or rye berry than in the endosperm” and to “reuse the same container for each successive mix without cleaning it. The flora building up inside the container is safe and will be valuable in making the culture active.”

In Artisan Baking Across America, Maggie Glezer writes, “What nobody can predict for you is the time needed […] before your starter is fully active. I have found it can take anywhere from 7 to 14 days for hte starter to become fully active.”

In Local Breads, Daniel Leader says that a starter can be created in 10 days and writes, “Liquid levain calls for the same ingredients as any other sourdough starter: spring water, flour and faith”. He advises to “go by sight, smell, and taste in judging its readiness”.

In The Bread Bible, using whole grain rye or wheat flour and water only, Rose Levy Beranbaum also says that a starter can be created in 5 days. However, she cautions to have “everything that will touch the starter spotlessly clean (including our hands) so as not to contaminate” the starter but that as soon as “the starter is active, it will be much more resistant to contamination”. She also says that “during culturing, the starter will give off many aromas, including cheese, citrus/tangerine, apple, and when fully mature, fresh paint”. Hmmmm, what about the stink of varsol I achieved when making a rye starter a few weeks ago? :lalala: The only mention of “floating” is for her walnut bread that calls for instant yeast, saying that “the resulting bread […] is identical to that produced with the original laborious and traditional method of proofing a biscuit-dough-consistency sponge by floating it in a bowl of warm water until it rises”.

In Bien Cuit, Zachary Golper says that creating a good starter “requires at least 24 days to mature” and calls for “organic grapes (seeded or seedless) preferably locally grown)” and “rye berries” on day 1, dark rye flour on days 3-6, “medium whole wheat flour” on days 7-21, and to discard all but 100gms of the starter with each feeding (ie: to discard half). What?? That’s craziness! However, Golper also talks about the advantage of long, cold fermentation. And his bread does look wonderful….

All of these — especially Golper’s instructions — seem to make the process needless complex. It’s NOT rocket science, after all.

Thank goodness for Jane Mason and Chad Robertson!

In Tartine Bread, Chad Robertson says that a starter can be made in 2 to 3 days, and also stresses the need to check that the starter floats before trying to make bread with it:

Developing a starter begins with making a culture. A culture is created when flour and water are combined, and the microorganisms-wild yeast and bacteria present in the flour, in the air, and on the baker’s hands-begin to ferment spontaneously. […] [F]eed the culture […] with equal amounts of water and 50/50 flour blend. You have now begun training your culture into a starter. […]
    Keep in mind that training your starter is a forgiving process. Don’t worry if you forget to feed it one day; just make sure to feed it the next. The only sure way to mess up a starter is to neglect it for a long period of time or subject it to extreme temperatures. […]
    The night before you plan to mix the dough […] feed the starter with 200 grams of warm (78oF) water and 200 grams of the 50/50 flour blend. Cover with a kitchen towel and let the starter rise overnight at a cool room temperature (65oF). This is your leaven.
    […] The most reliable indication that your leaven is ready is if it floats in water, a result of the carbon dioxide gas produced by wild yeast activity. To test the readiness of your leaven, drop a spoonful of it into a bowl of moderate room-temperature water. If it sinks, it is not ready to use and needs more time to ferment and ripen.
    Your leaven should smell sweet in an overripe-fruit sort of way. […] If your leaven does smell vinegary in the morning, you have two options. You can mix the dough using this leaven, but with the expectation that our bread will taste more sour. Or you can [feed] the leaven. […] Let the new mixture ferment until it passes the float test
-Chad Robertson, Tartine Bread, p45-47

I was also really interested to read Ken Forkish’s comments about adding fruit to a levain:

The addition of grapes, apples, or other such ingredients to the starter provides sugars for fermentation and short-term aromatics. Malt would do the same thing […] Grape yeasts live on grapes because that’s the environment that suits them. Grape yeasts don’t flourish in a flour environment. Again, it isn’t how a levain is started that determines its performance and flavor profile; what’s crucial is how it’s maintained. Natural selection will rule in the flour environment. The addition of grapes, apples, or other such ingredients to the starter provides sugars for fermentation and short-term aromatics. […] [O]nly those [microorganisms] that thrive in the environment that is developed and maintained will survive. […] Having said that, I have nothing against tossing some quality fruit into a mature levain culture for immediate use
-Ken Forkish, Flour Water Salt Yeast, p124

. . . . .

Sourdough September

Real Bread Campaign The ninth month is when the Real Bread Campaign helps you to discover that: Life’s sweeter with sourdough!
-Real Bread Campaign | Sourdough September
Bread Magazine BREAD is an independent magazine for bread lovers, made by bread lovers. At the crossroads of home baking and professional artisanal baking, BREAD is an entertaining and inspiring journey that invites you to build meaning and deeper connections through bread. [H]ere are nine ideas to make your September full of sourdough, bread… and fun!

  1. Support your sourdough baker […] check(ish)
    (I gave some of our starter to two of my colleagues. One of them has never worked with wild yeast before!)
  2. Create a sourdough starter […] check
    (even though my rye starter was not exactly a wild success (no pun intended) and is already down the drain, my wheat starter is doing brilliant work)
  3. Bake some sourdough bread: Bake, bake, bake. check
  4. Throw a sourdough party: […] check(ish)
    (we didn’t throw the party but we think that the Cousins’ Day party counts)
  5. Volunteer to teach a bread making class […] check
    (My sister’s first try at making wild bread went fabulously. She can’t wait to bake more.)
  6. Surprise your neighbors: Ring someone’s door bell and bring your neighbor some fresh sourdough bread. […] check
  7. Invite people to your bakery: […]
    N/A (hahahahahahahahahaha …it’s not going to happen)
  8. Try something new: […] [P]ick a new recipe, and give it a try. […] check
    Now that we’ve settled (we think) on 25% sifted whole wheat for Tartine Bread, I think it’s time to try the walnut or olive bread in Robertson’s book….
  9. Write about Sourdough September: I’d love to see all of the internet buzzing about Sourdough September […] Write a blog post about Sourdough September. […] check

– Jarkko Laine, Sourdough September Ideas


2 responses to “Wild Bread Notes (or… KISS)

  1. Karen

    This is awesome! Love this post! It’s not that complicated! I, at one time, kept starters at various hydration levels, but then realized, when I feed my starter, I could just feed it to achieve the hydration level needed. (although there are those that swear by lievito madres).

    1. Elizabeth Post author

      Thank you, Karen!

      Exactly. It’s not that complicated at all. If it were, bread wouldn’t be the household item it is. There’s no way that people would have bothered to make bread every day if it was as hard as some writers make it out to be.

      Good idea to change the hydration levels when you feed the starter. (I’m still in the mode of ALWAYS using a 100% hydration starter. Baby steps. I’m taking baby steps. I can’t stand the idea of failure.)


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