Thursday, August 02, 2007

sourdough death

About a month ago my sourdough starter started taking went from rising almost as quickly as baker's yeast to taking a dozen hours or even a couple days to rise enough.

Because I'd come to depend upon Fancy Cashews and Coma for pizza crusts, bagels and homemade bread, to say nothing of the occasional batch of sourdough pancakes or strombolis, this was, to put it mildly, frustrating. I was feeding the starter, keeping it in my fridge, and using it in the same amounts I had been doing all along. The sudden loss of yeast activity was devastating. Twice we had pizza with crust that didn't seem to have risen at all, and several times Evangeline refused to eat breakfast because she she wouldn't eat anything besides a bagel.

I had no idea how it had happened, but it looked as though our sourdough pets had died. I think the truth is probably a little more tragic: We ate them.

Over the course of the last few months, familiarity and custom have made me a little too casual with the starter. When you're plannig to make something new with sourdough, one of the things you're supposed to do is to mix in as much flour and water as the recipe calls for starter, and let it set overnight. The time gives the yeast to work its way through the batter, making a fresh dough, so that you can measure out the starter you need and put the rest back into your jar, to keep for later. Instead, I'd been pouring the starter straight from the jar into the mixing bowl, and adding fresh flour and water into the jar. I'd still wash the jar once a week or so, but that essentially is what I was doing.

As a result of this lazier approach, there probably came a time when I poured out the active part of the starter into the mixing bowl, and what was left behind had no living sourdough culture to keep the process going. Instead of getting a layer of alcohol atop the flour, all I was getting was floury water as the flour settled to the bottom of the jar.

This is all hindsight, naturally. Last week, sick of the problems I was having, I bought a yeast packet at the supermarket and mixed it in with the bread dough. It lacked the sourdough flavor that I've come to cherish, but the bread rose in record time and served our purposes admirably. I deduced what had gone wrong, and I've been careful this past week to prepare fresh starter the night before whenever I need to make a bread product, stirring everything thoroughly before I measure the starter for the recipe du jour. So far, it's been working well.

Except for one thing: We're still not getting that sourdough taste. I used my sourdough recipe for pizza crust for dinner last night, and it tasted all right and everything, but the crust was just light and fluffy. It lacked the tang that sold me on the recipe the first time I tried it.

We have a loaf of bread right now, and I don't expect to need to make anything else from it for a while, so theoretically the yeast culture will have a few days to ferment and start producing the ethanol that gives sourdough its distinctive taste. The time also should give any wild yeasts in the flour or the air to start growing too; from what I've read, all yeast cultures in the same house become indistinguishable from one another for this reason after about eight days, so I'm hopeful.

I just have to remember not to get lazy again.

Copyright © 2007 by David Learn. Used with permission.

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