Root Simple Video Podcast Episode 1: How To Make a Sourdough Starter

Here’s the first in a series of Root Simple how-to videos. Look for them on the blog and, soon, on your mobile thingies. I started with a little edit on how to make a sourdough starter. And I take requests–if there’s a topic for a video you’d like to see just leave a comment. 

Making a sourdough starter is as simple as mixing flour and water. There’s no need for all the crazy things I’ve heard suggested: adding potatoes, grapes, yogurt and certainly not commercial yeast. And the yeast that makes sourdough happen is on the flour itself in far greater quantities than in the air.

After following the simple steps I demonstrate in this video you’ll end up with a small amount of starter that you use to “inoculate” a larger batch of starter to use in a bread recipe. Keep your starter at room temperature and feed every day. Alternately, you can put it in the fridge if you don’t want to feed it all the time. When you want to wake it up, take it out of the fridge and feed for a day or two before you bake with it.

You’ll never go back to commercial yeast once you get used to the taste of bread made with a sourdough starter.

You can download a copy of this video here.

Want to Make Bread? Get a Scale

Liquid measuring cup on left, dry on right. Get a scale for baking.

The current issue of Cooks Illustrated Magazine has an interesting test of the accuracy of liquid versus dry measuring cups. When measuring flour, the dry measuring cup was up to 13% off when compared to a scale. The liquid measuring cup was even worse–26% off.  When baking bread, even 13% could be the difference between a decent loaf and a hockey puck.

Surprisingly, measuring water wasn’t much better, even with the liquid cup, which was 10% off. The dry measuring cup was 23% off when measuring water. I’ve always felt a bit silly scaling water, but now I can see its importance.

For bread baking, I’ve been using an electronic scale for many years now and have had reasonably consistent results. Scaling helps me be consistent. Now if only our kitchen didn’t swing between broiling hot and drafty…
 

Three Days of Earth Oven Building Compressed Into a Short Video

We just finished a three day earth oven workshop taught by Kurt Gardella and Ben Loescher. Many thanks to all who participated: Laurie, Brian, Leslie, Jenny and Connie.We’ve got to let the oven dry for a few weeks before we put on the final coat. But it’s basically finished. The base is made with traditional adobe bricks and the dome is cob.

Don’t worry, we’ll explain the process in future blog posts. Right now we’re too exhausted to write about it. In the meantime, please enjoy our highly compressed video version of the past three days.

Rules for Eating Wheat

Antebellum-Style Graham Wheat Flour from the Anson Mills website

Much of the bad press surrounding wheat in recent years is well deserved. Wheat and grain allergies may be some of the most common allergies known to medicine. I strongly suspect that the cause for these allergies may be in the types of wheat we’re growing.

Let’s start with some history. Humans have eaten and tinkered with grain genetics for at least 30,000 years, well before the development of what we now call “agriculture”.  But with each change in wheat genetics came new, unexpected outcomes. Those changes greatly accelerated in the last one hundred and fifty years.

  • In the 19th century farmers moved away from growing soft wheat varieties and shifted to hard wheat, which performs better in mechanized roller mills. 
  • In the mid 20th century Norman Borlaug launched the green revolution by developing new wheat varieties.
  • And now, Monsanto and Bill Gates are anxious to bring us genetically modified wheat. 

The problem? When you make radical changes to a complex system such as wheat genetics you risk unforeseen consequences, what Nassim Nicholas Taleb calls “black swans”. The unforeseen consequences may be the large percentage of the population with wheat allergies. I’ll admit that this is a hunch of mine not based on any peer reviewed study. But scientists have identified at least 27 potential allergens in modern wheat and researchers are looking at simpler forms of ancient wheat such as Einkorn to see if they have fewer allergens.

So what can we do to prevent wheat based black swans? I think we need a wheat equivalent of Michael Pollan’s food rules, so here it goes:

  • Acknowledge our ignorance in the face of the great complexity of nature. Thus, we should be conservative when it comes to plant breeding. Saving seed and developing local varieties are a good thing. Genetic modification is probably a huge risk. 
  • Breed wheat for flavor and disease resistance not shipability and ease of mechanical harvesting.
  • Our markets should have at least as many flour varieties as flavors of soda.
  • We should be willing to pay a little more for a higher quality flour.
    • Eat whole grains rather than refined grains whenever possible. The nutrients and substances we remove from whole grains to make refined white flour may contain substances that prevent allergic reactions.
    • Support local farmers who are growing older forms of grain (soft wheat such as Sonora and ancient wheat such as Einkorn). If you can’t find something local, mail order your flour. 
    • Consider growing grain at home as part of a rotational strategy in your garden. See Lawns to Loaves for inspiration.

    One source for interesting flour by mail order:

    Anson Mills

    If any of you know of other sources for heritage flours (either brick and mortar or mail order) please leave a comment.

    Is Modern Wheat Killing Us?

    Wheat field, Froid, Montana, 1941. (Library of Congress image)

    It’s been a bad decade for grains. Between publicity about grain allergies and fads such as the Atkins and paleo diets, a lot of people are shunning wheat, rye and barley. At a panel discussion this weekend sponsored by Common Grains I heard Monica Spiller of the Whole Grain Connection and Glenn Roberts of Anson Mills make some compelling arguments that will forever change the way I see grain. It was, no exaggeration here, a paradigm shifting discussion. Some of the questions Spiller and Roberts raised:

    • Could modern hard wheat varieties, bred for the convenience of industrial agriculture, have the unintended consequence of increasing allergic reactions? Are older varieties healthier for us?
    • What have we lost in terms of flavor when we decreased the diversity of grain varieties?
    • Is sourdough bread a pro-biotic food? Could some of the allergy problems associated with bread be related to commercial yeast strains and the way commercial yeast processes sugar?

    I’ll spend the rest of this week taking a deeper look at these issues, including some practical suggestions about what we can do in our kitchens and gardens to bring back heritage grains.

    A Sonora and Kamut Wheat Field in Los Angeles County!

    Sonora wheat

    The Los Angeles Bread Bakers, of which I’m a co-founder along with Teresa Sitz and Mark Stambler, have teamed with farmer Andrea Crawford, of Kenter Canyon Farms, to plant what I think may be the first wheat field in Los Angeles County in many years.

    Wheat used to be widely grown here, especially Sonora wheat, a drought tolerant variety originally bought to the Southwest by the Spanish. Along with Sonora, we planted an ancient wheat variety called Khorasan, better known under the trade name Kamut. An American airman obtained Kamut from a street vendor in Cairo in 1949. Researchers are studying ancient wheats like Kamut to see if people with wheat allergies can tolerate them better. We purchased both varieties (certified organic) from the Sustainable Seed Company.

    Discing the field

    The field was prepared by discing it with a tractor. We sowed the wheat by hand and then covered it temporarily with shade cloth to keep the birds out until the seeds germinate. The seeds were watered in with an overhead sprinkler, but the plan is to pray for rain. If it turns out to be a dry year, monthly waterings will be necessary.

    Mark, Andrea and Nathan sowing.

    Andrea plans on sowing in some red poppies to help keep the weeds down. If all goes well, a harvest party (get ready to thresh and winnow!) will take place when the grains mature. Sign up for the LA Bread Bakers Meetup (free to join) to find out when the harvest fest will take place.

    The wheat field covered with shade cloth.

    Speaking for the Los Angeles Bread Bakers, we’re really excited to be a part of this agricultural experiment. A big thanks goes out to Andrea and her son Nathan who have made this possible. We’ll post some updates on the blog as the field progresses.

    Note: A quick clarification because we’ve had some questions. The poppies that Andrea plans to plant are not Somniferum poppies (that’s a different kind of cash crop!). They are red poppies, also called Flanders poppies, Papaver rhoeas.

    Roundin’ up the Summer Urban Homesteading Disasters

    Everyday loaf on the left, “charity” loaf on the right.

    As we’ve noted in our books, part of the deal with this lifestyle is persevering through the inevitable disasters. Which means it’s time for a regular blog feature, the disaster roundup.  

    Loafing Around
    I agreed to bake a few baguettes for a charity function this evening. Problem #1 is that I can’t do baguettes in my small oven so I decided to do a shorter batard. Problem #2: for some reason, despite the fact that I measure my ingredients carefully with a digital scale, my dough turned out extra moist. Anticipating that the batards would stick to the peel as I put them in the oven, I decided to make round loaves in proofing baskets instead. Problem #3: the dough stuck to the proofing baskets and I ended up with edible, but aesthetically unappealing, loaves.

    Moral: the more important the event the more likely disaster will strike.

    Squashed
    I’ve blogged about it before, but my attempt to grow winter squash (Marina di Chioggia) ended in disaster. The squash vines took up the majority of one of my few vegetable beds. I got only two squash, one that was consumed by racoons and the other that never fully matured before the vine crapped out. The immature squash was still edible, but bland.

    Moral: winter squash just ain’t space efficient. Next year I’ll tuck it around other plants and trees rather than have it hog up space in my intensively planted veggie beds.

    Luscious compost tomatoes.

    Unintentional Gardening
    I built a cold frame this spring so that I could get a head start on propagating my tomato seedlings. So guess which tomatoes did better: the ones I carefully propagated from seed and transplanted to richly amended vegetable beds, or the ones that sprouted randomly in compacted soil? You guessed it, the ones that grew on their own.

    Moral: nature knows best when to start seeds and where to plant them than us homo sapiens. Maybe there is something to that permaculture thing . . . 

    Our Hameau de la Reine
    This summer the garden generally looked like hell. It thrives during our mild winter and spring then gets baked by the merciless Southern California sun at just about the time I start slacking off on my planting duties. Then the New York Times shows up and wants to do a photo spread about a month after stuff has quit blooming. This is when I usually come running in the house to complain to Mrs. Homegrown that the garden, “does not look like Versailles.”

    Moral: take a class from someone who knows what they are doing, which is exactly what I’m up to starting next month. I vow that the garden will look like Marie Antoinette’s fake peasant village (the Hameau de la Reine) by next year. Then again, I say that every summer.

    Garden Follies
    Thinking the garden needed some ornamentation and not wanting to go the garden gnome route, I thought it would be a good idea to cast some Platonic solids in concrete–don’t ask me why–these things, “just come to me.” Mrs. Homegrown (using her Master of Fine Art superpowers) viewed this project with considerable skepticism. I successfully cast a tetrahedron and dodecahedron and stained them with iron sulfate and proudly placed them in the garden. They kinda worked but I have to agree with Mrs. Homegrown’s assessment that the scale is off–they look like the miniature Stonehenge in Spinal Tap.

    Moral: trust the MFA in your household even if that MFA was in conceptual art. 

    I could go on, but I’ve failed to document all of the disasters. Next, we’ll review what worked.

    99¢ Store Proofing Basket

    For years I’ve used a special wooden basket called a banneton to proof my round loaves of bread in. I’m teaching a bread baking class this weekend and needed a bunch of proofing baskets for the class. Bannetons are nice but expensive so I decided to try using a canvas lined proofing basket as a more economical alternative.

    I got some metal bowls from my local 99¢ store. Wicker baskets or a plastic colander would also have worked, but the 8 inch metal bowls were the perfect size for the kind of bread I make. The canvas came from an art supply store, but a fabric store might also work. I’ve tried to use dish towels in the past, but I’ve found that canvas works better. Just make sure to flour the CRAP out of the canvas and never wash it, or your loaf will stick.

    I sized the canvas so that I can fold it over the whole bowl to keep the dough from getting oxidized. New kitten “helped” with the fabric cutting.

    When you’re ready to bake you just invert the bowl and dump the loaf out of the basket. I like the look of bread proofed in a canvas lined basket.

    Stay tuned for my levain-based bread recipe in an upcoming issue of Urban Farm Magazine.

    Help Us Choose a Grain Mill

    At the Huasna Valley wheat farm I blogged about yesterday, they have a grain mill made by a company called All Grain Mills out of Utah. What the farmer liked about this company is that the mills they make have stone wheels instead of steel. Steel burrs can heat up and destroy the enzymes in the wheat. Furthermore these All Grain mills are considerably less expensive than other ones I’ve seen. I’d like to know if any of you readers have one of these All Grain Mills? If so, please leave a comment. I’m also interested in recommendations for other mills.

    And I can’t help but comment on the aesthetics of the All Grain Mills. The company’s website is so bare-bones it’s almost hip (promising in my opinion when you’re looking for pre-interweb technology). And that fake wood paneling reminds me of my childhood:

    Sonora Wheat at the Huasna Valley Farm

    Ron Skinner

    I had the great privilege this week of visiting the Huasna Valley Farm in California’s central coast run by Ron and Jenn Skinner whose visible joy is infectious. The Skinners grow Sonora wheat, an heirloom variety brought to the Southwest by the Spanish.

    Sonora wheat is well suited to dry desert and Mediterranean climates. It produces a cream colored flour that was historically used for tortillas and posole. The Skinners served us some Sonora whole wheat biscuits that tasted as light as white flour but with a rich and complex flavor.

    Jenn Skinner

    To fight weeds (the big bugaboo of wheat farming) the Skinners plan on introducing Black Medic (Medicago lupulina) a leguminous plant that will fix nitrogen and out-compete unwanted weeds. The tall stalks of Sonora wheat will allow the medic to grow far below the seed heads. This is in contrast to conventional wheat farming with its short varieties and heavy reliance on herbicides. Norman Borlaug, the father of the “green revolution” used Sonora wheat to create Sonora 64, an early green revolution wheat. Ironically, as we face an uncertain energy future, we may have to go back to the original Sonora wheat as it performs better in organic circumstances and needs less water than modern wheat varieties.

    Ron shows off the combine.

    One of the challenges the Skinners faced in farming just a few acres of wheat was figuring out how to harvest it. Large industrial farms use enormous and very expensive combines. Small and medium sized combines simply aren’t manufactured anymore. Luckily the Skinners found a vintage Allis-Chalmers combine across the road which Ron and his son disassembled and rebuilt.

    I bought twenty pounds of Sonora wheat flour and a few pounds of wheat berries and am really looking forward to baking with it. I might even grow my own mini-Sonora wheat field this winter (you plant it here in Southern California in January for harvest around the 4th of July.

    For more information on Sonora wheat see:

    The Huasna Valley Farm website, particularly their informative newsletters.

    Sustainablegrains.org has a Sonora Wheat tortilla recipe.

    Slow Food USA has a page on the history of Sonora wheat.

    If you’re in the Los Angeles area, join the Los Angeles Bread Bakers to participate in farm visits, baking classes and oven building sessions.

    And a special thanks to LABB member Joseph Shuldiner for arranging this trip!