Sunday, August 24, 2014

Starting from Scratch: Fresh Bread from a Wild Yeast Starter

You know those parenting classes they used to give in high school? Those ones where you have to carry around a fake baby and pretend to feed it and nurse it when it cries and try to maintain a normal sleep schedule?

Well I have a better idea. Forget carrying around fake plastic babies--make students carry wild yeast starters.

My baby.
A starter is, unlike a synthetic infant, a living create--er--culture. It is the natural, non-packaged precursor to the dry pellets that most of us nowadays to leaven our bread. That's right: inside this soupy mush of bread flour and water is a horde of tiny microorganisms that hold the key to making a fresh and extremely delicious loaf of bread.

Before you give me a weird look, consider that this is the way people have been making bread for centuries. A true wild yeast culture is what imparts to bread it's subtle, fermented taste. (In fact, sourdough bread's classic aroma comes from the particular variety of starter used to make it.) On the other hand, packaged yeast has its own distinctive and sometimes distracting taste. Also, interestingly, starters tend to take on a different taste depending on where they are located, as they adopt some of the yeast cultures floating in the air (San Francisco sourdough, anyone?). The point is, that using a starter permits you to make delicious, authentic, rich, and unique loaves of bread.

A starter rises in much the same way bread does. The starter took up about half this volume when I fed it that morning. You can even see the air pockets against the edge of the jar.
Quite similarly to a baby, a starter needs care and attention to grow. From the inception to the project to the point where you can even attempt a baked good takes about two weeks. Your actual yeast comes from the skin of a batch of unwashed organic grapes, which you swaddle in a cheesecloth and let marinate in a mixture of flour and water for a few days to let the yeast inoculate*. Also like a baby, a starter needs to eat. Once you remove the grapes, you have to nurse your nascent culture to strength by feeding it as much as three times a day--presumably doubling its bulk with every feeding. Quickly do that calculation and you'll realize how much extra starter--and how much flour!--was involved in that process!**

I found this picture from when I made my starter about a year ago. You can see the grape-stained cheesecloth inside the jar. It actually did vaguely resemble a diaper. Yup, that was an interesting thing to have sitting around the kitchen.
And just as a baby, a starter cannot afford to be neglected. I know, because I almost killed my starter the other day

I was being lazy and hadn't fed it for a few days. At that point I happened to look over at it and noticed its decidedly unpropitious condition. It had a dark gray layer of coagulation on top and a decidedly orange rim around the edges. It smelled absolutely rancid. Plugging my nose, I fished out the grey skin with a wooden spoon and poured out as much off the top as I could spare. I removed the rest of the starter from its normal habitat in its glass jar to a large bowl and fed it immediately and regularly for the next few days. It took a couple days, but eventually it started showing signs of life--bubbling, faint fermented scent--and the bacteria didn't come back. Lesson learned!

Let this project be the final confirmation that my starter has returned to robust health! Yet another reason parenting a starter is more akin to parenting children than is looking after a doll: the fruit of your labor might grow up to make you delicious bread! (Well, if you're my parents, anyway ;) )

*Sound dubious? I thought so too, but when I made this starter about a year ago this process worked amazingly. Just by following directions I had a visibly animate, wine-scented culture within a week. Who would have thought? I followed the instructions outlined in Nancy Silverton's Breads from the La Brea Bakery, but a quick Google search shows that there are a wealth of tutorials online.
**After your starter is going strong, I find that it is sufficient to only feed it once a day. If you're not going to use it for a while, you can put it in the refrigerator. The cold temperature makes the yeast go dormant so you don't have to feed it. When you're ready to use it again, pull it out, feed it, and give it 24 hours to wake back up again.

Olive Oil Bread
This is my go-to from-starter bread recipe--though it can be made with packaged/frozen yeast as well (I've included both methods in the recipe). It's delicious plain and simple, or with savory additions (kalamata olives and rosemary--yum, yum, yum!). With a delicate crumb and a crust exterior, it's great in sandwiches, slathered in butter, or hot out of the oven.

3 cups bread flour (plus 1/2 cups more if you're using a starter)
2 1/2 tsp yeast OR 1 cup wild yeast starter
1 1/4 cups water
1/2 tbsp salt
1/2 tbsp sugar
2 tbsp fruity olive oil
1/2 cup chopped kalamata olives (optional)
1/4 cup chopped fresh rosemary (optional) 


  1. YOU CAN SKIP THIS STEP IF YOU'RE USING A STARTER. Combine half the flour, the yeast, and half the water in a bread machine and run it through the dough setting. Let it sit for 8-24 hours. Then continue, adding the rest of the ingredients to the makeshift starter. 
  2. Add all the ingredients to the bread machine and process on the dough setting. As it's kneading, check the consistency of the dough. It should be pretty firm and not too sticky; if you poke it, it should rebound without clinging all over your finger. Add spoons of flour/tbsps of water as needed to get the right consistency. Add the olives/rosemary near the end of the kneading cycle.
  3. Sprinkle a peel with cornmeal. Remove the dough from the bread machine. Shape it as desired (this recipe can make anywhere from 2 to 8 loaves depending on how big you want them). Let rise on the peel for 1 hour if you used dry yeast. A starter may take longer to rise--I let mine sit overnight. The dough should double in bulk.
  4. Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Let a pizza stone preheat in the oven for half an hour (or you could use a Dutch oven). Just before you start baking, spritz the loaves with water. When ready, slide the bread onto the pizza stone.
  5. Bake at 425 degrees for 12 minutes, spritzing the oven with water every 2-3 minutes, then reduce the temperature to 375 degrees and bake for 40 minutes more, until the loaves are golden brown. 
  6. Good luck trying to wait until it's cool ;)
This is kind of blurry, but you can see the consistency of the starter. It almost looks like thick white cake batter.

Here's what your dough should look like in the bread machine (before extra ingredients are added)
My plain loves, before rising
My olive loaves, before rising

I underestimated how much the loaves would spread...always leave ample space for rising!

Look at that crumb!

Questions, comments, (or even) concerns about starters? Comment below!

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