Confessions of a Foodie Extremist: Bread Starter from Scratch
I've alluded a few times in this blog to the sourdough bread culture that lives in my fridge. I've given some up for adoption to friends who now make pizza with it. It's become dry bread which in turn gets turned into Greek tatamasalata. Now I'll tell you the whole bewildering truth.
Many years ago, I subscribed to a cookbook of the month club. One of the tomes I got in the mail was Nancy Silverton's "Breads from the La Brea Bakery". Having judged this book only by its cover, I thought it would give me new techniques on making bread with powdered yeast. Normal. Instead, this book is all about becoming a slave to your kitchen. I read the first recipe, a 14-day explanation of how to turn flour, water and organic grapes into a San Francisco sourdough bread starter that can live as long as you will if you take care of it right. I thought, this lady's a nut! Martha Stewart in her wildest dreams could never aspire to these heights of foodie extremist kitchen drudgery. After all, once you finished with the 14-day gloop-making process, then you had to sign on for feeding this beast 3 times a day every day forever. No kidding. Imagine getting a bread culture-sitter for this when you go on vacation. Needless to say, I chucked the book on the highest shelf and left it there for a few years before I went off the deep end.
Graduate school puts you in a strange position. You develop all sorts of high-level taste but you earn near starvation wages. You can't afford anything your newly acquired sophistication demands. Spending $4.00 on a loaf of bread was not only unaffordable to me, it was insulting. This is flour and water, after all. In Paris, every baguette costs 80 centimes because bread is basic, not some floofy luxury good. Yet, I was unable to make really great loaves with powdered yeast no matter what I tried so finally, while writing my doctoral dissertation, I pulled out "Breads from the La Brea Bakery". You see, when you're trying to achieve such a seemingly monumental task, you feel the need for short term accomplishments to cut the sense of anxiety and loathing your disseetation project inspires.
Here's what I did:
Day 1: I mixed 4 cups of 78F water with 4 cups of regular white flour in a 1 gallon glass bowl until everything was pretty smooth. Then I took 1 lb of unwashed organic white grapes (the book suggests red or black, but I ignored it), closed them up in a length of cheesecloth, tied it then squooshed the grapes so that the juice ran into the bowl of flour and water. Then I immersed the cheesecloth and grapes into the paste. Now I had flour, water, natural sugar from the grape juice and the natural yeast from the grape skins, which would feast on the sugar and flour over the next 2 weeks. I covered the bowl with a dinner plate (the book warned that a tight cover might pop off with the different gasses the yeast would produce.
Days 2&3: I just watched for changes in the mixture. On day 2 there were some bubbles in the paste, but the cheesecloth bag never inflated as Silverton said it might. I smelled the bag and it smelled like grape juice (Silverton predicts that or a yeast smell). So far, so good and a fun distraction to my dilemma of whether to add an analysis of Gramsci's Notebooks to my treatise on Nuyorican poetry. Answer: Nah!
Day 4: Silverton predicts the mixture will "seethe with large bubbles" and will smell distinctly like alcohol. Mine indeed smelled like wine. "And will taste sharp and acidic". I didn't go there. This means that bacteria was growing and I needed to feed the yeast to get it to dominate instead. As per instructions, I fed the mixture with 1 cup 78F water and 1 cup flour, lifted up the grape bag, mixed everything pretty well and swooshed the bag around again. Replaced the plate on top and read a bunch of Nestor Garcia Canclini until the next day.
Days 5-9: These are watching days. I checked each day to see how things were changing. The book describes possible developments of a separation of the mixture and the formation of "a yellowish liquid top layer". This happened and was not supposed to be a problem. She said mold might appear. It did and I removed it as instructed, then fed the mixture with 1 cup flour and 1 cup water. The mold was a sign that the bacteria was winning the war. Things went well after that and my culture began to smell like yeast as Silverton said it would. I had time to listen to, transcribe and analyze the lyrics of numerous Ruben Blades releases in the meantime. That was probably the most fun I had doing my dissertation.
Day 10-15: This is the start of what Nancy Silverton calls "the permanent feeding schedule". How ominous. Get how she instills a sense of urgency to this: "After this 5 days-and for the rest of your baking life-you will continue the feeding schedule...It's critical that you watch over your started as a parent watches over a newborn. Don't miss a feeding!" Like watching a newborn?! Have you ever heard Martha talk like that? I followed her instructions to the letter just so that the bread culture would be healthy but I hated every minute of it. Dumping good bread starter down the drain just because none of my friends were as crazy as I and refused the offer of free bread starter. The morning of day 10, I took out the bag of grapes and dumped it in the garbage. It had filled the flour, water, grape juice mixture with the necessary yeast to turn it into a living culture. Then, as instructed, I poured most of the culture down the drain leaving about 2 cups in the bowl. To that, I added 1 cup 78F water and 1 cup flour, mixed and wrote my dissertation for 4-6 hours until it was time to repeat. Another cup of 78F water and another cup of flour more, mixed, cover back on and went and worried about my dissertation some more. Next day the same routine. Dump almost everything down the sink and feed, feed, feed.
But, on day 15, I made bread. And it was GOOD!
***Note. Nancy Silverton's bread culture extremism is due mainly to the fact she's a professional baker who adapted her bread culture idea from Los Angeles artisinal bakery to home kitchen. She has the time to feed her culture 3x a day because that's part of her job. After the 14-day bread starter creation period I started rebelling a lot and the results are still excellent. For example my culture gets fed about 3x per week and in order to survive, it lives in my fridge where it multiplies and feeds very slowly. I make bread once a week, so that works just fine. Well, except for vacations. Anybody want to baby-sit my bread culture this August?