Participate in the Science of Sourdough Project

If you missed the short sourdough lecture I linked to last week, you can watch it above. To summarize, researchers at North Carolina State’s Department of Applied Ecology are attempting to figure out the biodiversity of sourdough cultures from around the world. One of the questions they’d like to answer is how the type of flour you feed a starter influences its taste and viability. This is where you can help through their Science of Sourdough Project. Using the simple instructions on that site, you create a new starter with whatever flour you have on hand, record the results and send that data back to the researchers. If you’re a teacher or a parent this would be an easy science project for our days in quarantine. I’m going to participate and share the results on this blog.

Quarantine Meals From Jennie Cook

Jennie Cook, our dear neighbor (and podcast guest), is a caterer. Covid erased all of the events and weddings that she depended on for income. So she pivoted back to what she used to do: cook home meals for pickup and delivery.

Her food is delicious and the portions are generous. If you live in the Los Angeles area consider ordering some food from her. It will support Jennie and her employees and you’ll get a break from cooking.

On Saturday Jennie sent over a package with an Easter ham dinner. While I’ve enjoyed cooking from scratch for the past four weeks it was nice to have a special meal for a change. Jennie’s delicious dinner really lifted my spirits.

If you’re not in Los Angeles, Jennie has some great recipes on her blog.

Fermentology: Mini Seminars About Cultured Food

Many thanks to Carol Bornstein of the Natural History Museum for this tip on a series of short fermentation talks coming soon. The 20 minute talks will cover sourdough, cheese, beer, history, biology and even something called “zombie medicine.”

Join us for a series of short talks (20 minutes on average, some shorter, some a little longer) for anyone hungry to engage in food, culture, history and science–but in the context of what you have at home.

This project is sponsored by the Department of Applied Ecology at NC State University, the NC State University Libraries and the Center for Evolutionary Hologenomics at the University of Copenhagen.

All talks are Thursday at 4 pm EST, unless otherwise specified. All talks are virtual and will be recorded and available afterwards on the Applied Ecology Youtube page.

Registration here!  Follow us on twitter or facebook for updates.

A closing note: I’m fortunate to be able to stay at home, with plenty of food, and watch fermentation seminars. Many are not so lucky. I have a friend and neighbor who runs several farmers’ markets through a non-profit called SEE-LA. They are soliciting donations to support families sheltering in place in South LA. Your donation will help both those families and the farmers impacted by this crisis. The donation form is here. Please join me in chipping in!

Timing Sourdough Feeding

A recent “quarantine” loaf.

There are many paths up the holy mountain of sourdough bread baking. Wildly different methods will yield acceptable and edible results. But, no matter the method, I think one factor is important if you want to get a decent sourdough bread: the amount of time between feeding your starter and making your dough.

I keep a small amount of starter on hand since I bake, at most, twice a week under normal circumstances (Under quarantine I’m baking a lot more but the reasons for that would be the subject of another blog post). Just before I go to bed, the night before I’m going to make bread, I take a tablespoon of starer and add it to 50 grams of whole wheat flour and 60 grams of water. The next morning I have a little over 110 grams of starter with which to make my dough.

Starter float test.

Here’s the critical issue of timing: while I’m sleeping the sourdough culture is growing exponentially in the flour/water mixture. I need to make my dough within 8 to 12 hours of that feeding. If I wait too long the sourdough starter will lose its vigor. How do I know the starter is ready to use? I do a float test. If you gently spoon the culture into some water it should float, an indication that it’s active and full of CO2 bubbles. One of the most common mistakes with beginning sourdough bakers is not feeding the starter enough (you should feed at least once a day or put it in the refrigerator if you’re not going to use it) and trying to make a loaf with sourdough that’s been sitting too long after its last feeding.

To review my process:

  • The night before I make bread I mix one tablespoon of starter with 50 grams of whole wheat flour and 60 grams of water.
  • The next day I make up a dough and let it rise for approximate four hours at room temperature (this first rise is also called a bulk fermentation).
  • After the four hour bulk fermentation, I shape the dough, put it in the refrigerator and bake the next day. This second period of fermentation is called “proofing”). I’ve found that putting the dough in the refrigerator to proof has a few advantages: it develops a richer flavor, the dough is easier to handle, it’s less likely to stick to the bread form, and you have flexibility in terms of when to bake the next day.
  • When it’s time to bake I pull the dough out of the refrigerator and put it straight into a 475º F (246º C) oven.

So, in total, my bread baking process takes 2 days. You have to think ahead but there actually isn’t much work involved since I’m using a no-knead method. Again, it’s not the only way to make sourdough bread but I’ve found this method works well for me. For exact recipes and techniques I highly recommend the book Josey Baker Bread (library link). What I like about Josey’s book is that it’s kind of like a class in bread baking. He starts you out with simple loaves and then gets into more advanced techniques. There’s plenty of illustrations on top of the fact that Josey is a really nice dude (I’ve had the pleasure of meeting him).

If you’re interested in the details of my starter method I did a video about it.

Stay safe and happy baking! As Josey Baker says, “Make Awesome Bread – Share the Loaves!”