Friday, March 7, 2014
By Anne Mahle
Sometimes I wonder at the leap of faith it must have taken for that first person to discover that while wine left too long became unpalatable, if left even longer, would become palatable again as vinegar.
Or that flour and water, when mixed together then left alone, would take on a life of its own amidst a bubble of bacterial activity. And who was brave enough, discerning enough, or hungry enough to discover that the gooey, sour mess is actually a delight when combined with flour, salt and water, and then baked into bread?
The sourdough starter I’ve used for the past decade or so was given to me by a guest who also happened to be a chef. He claimed that his starter was over 100 years old and had traveled west with the early settlers, then returned back east via his grandmother. With its rich smell and mellow flavor, I have every reason to believe him.
Because it’s so precious to me, I’ve frozen a couple of batches just in case something goes terribly awry and I lose my working starter. It’s more an insurance policy than a likelihood; what’s more likely is that my well-fed starter will take over the schooner galley in its zeal to consume starch.
My journey of discovery into bread-making, and sourdough bread-making in particular, was a combination of science, art and good timing. I received the gift of the sourdough starter around the same time I was experimenting with no-knead baking.
The combination of sourdough starter, my quest for a no-knead bread, the challenges of working in an ultra-small cooking space and my desire for creativity all merged. The result? Not so much a recipe as a template for bread-baking that produces loaf after loaf of creative, delicious breads.
Instead of using sourdough as a leavening, I use it primarily for flavor. While it does add to the leavening of my bread, I don’t depend on the sourdough alone; I also use yeast to insure consistency and to shorten the rising and/or resting time.
This also allows for a higher moisture content, which makes for a terrific crust and a moist interior.
The best part is that I can now incorporate all sorts of leftover grains into my bread with ease and consistency. Brown rice, oatmeal, millet, quinoa and polenta all find a second life in my healthy breads.
So this is how it works:
1. In a large bowl, mix together a ratio of:
5 cups flour (or flours) of your choice
1 tablespoon yeast
1 tablespoon salt
2. Add 1 to 2 cups of cooked grain such as brown rice, oatmeal, millet, quinoa or polenta.
3. Then add 1/2 to 1 cup of flavoring ingredients such as olives, dried fruit, roasted red peppers, etc.
4. Also add any herbs or spices – around 2 teaspoons of dried or 1/4 cup freshly chopped herbs.
5. Add 1 cup sourdough starter; begin to mix everything together with your hands.
6. Add water and continue to mix, adding water, until the dough just barely forms a ball and there are no little dry bits hanging out in the bowl. Depending on how moist the cooked grain is, the amount of water can vary from 1/2 cup to 2 cups.
7. Cover the bowl with a layer of plastic wrap; and let the dough rise at room temperature for 1 to 2 hours, until the surface of the dough has risen and is flat, not rounded. For those who have worked with traditional kneaded dough, this will look like a disaster. Just wait, it will be fine.
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