Bread has been around for a long time and yeast has ever been an important part of bread making. Time was, if a baker wanted to buy yeast then he had to get it from the local brewer as it is only quite recently that yeast has become available commercially. Most makers of bread chose instead to capture their own wild yeast, a practice that is less common today. So it is in the spirit of tradition and adventure that I intend to embark on a grand safari to go forth and capture wild yeast and its companion bacteria lactobacillus to make my own sourdough starter.
Today I set out. My list of supplies is small. My yeast trap consists of a simple plastic container and the bait is 250 grams of Bread Flour with 250 grams of room temperature Water. There are some that advise using special flours and purified water, but I’ve never had a problem with basic Bread Flour and Tap Water. You can also seed your sourdough starter with a little pinch of commercial instant yeast, but purists prefer to go for omitting this and truthfully it doesn’t seem to help the process any. I set the trap my mixing my flour and water in the container and partially covering.
My trap has been waiting for about a day now and I’m already seeing some signs of success. Tiny bubbles have formed in the trap, indicating the first of the yeast colony formation. I refresh the trap with 125 grams each of flour and water as I will every day until I find success in this venture.
Many more bubbles have formed in the trap and I can detect a faint sour aroma, showing the first definite signs of success. Again I refresh the trap and leave it to do its magic.
A layer of liquid has formed on the trap. This alcohol, though undesirable, is expected and not damaging to the sourdough. Today even after pouring off the liquid, the mixture was wet enough that I omitted the water portion and the consistency remained the same as previous days.
Today the sour looks smoother and almost silky. On day five, it is probably usable, but I choose to continue the cycle of refreshing the trap until a full week has elapsed. The way to test is to check the smell, taste and see if a tiny portion will float in water. Your starter should smell and taste something like sourdough bread. If it is unpleasant or develops a pink appearance, discard and try again. Around day six, my trap container was getting over full so I had to discard some of the starter. Some recommend actually discarding up to 80% of the trap every day, but my sourdough trap has never been damaged by not doing so. On day seven I feel my expedition is complete. I have captured enough wild yeast to maintain a healthy colony of my own. This is our Sourdough Starter.
Having returned from my yeast safari, it is of course time to bake some bread. This is the final and best test of success. So thus we begin with a country style loaf.
400g Bread Flour
100g Whole Wheat Flour
300g Sourdough Starter
Mix and knead the dough until the gluten is fully developed, then cover and allow for first rise. Because the wild yeast is less active than commercial yeast, this first bulk fermentation will take about three hours at room temperature. Next shape the dough. Because this is a very slack dough, we’re going to do something special. Thickly coat the bottom of two mixing bowls with flour and put your dough in them to rise. This final rise will take a long time, as much as eight hours. When the final rise is done, tip over the bowl, slash the top and bake at 450° for about half an hour with a pan of water in the oven for steam. If you’re in a rush (never recommended for bread) you can add about 5 grams instant yeast to the dough to accelerate the rising.
Keep your sourdough starter in the fridge. This will slow down the yeast and means you only have to feed it once a week. I’ve read that you can freeze it as well, and I’m planning on attempting it, so we’ll see how it works out. Something interesting about sourdough is that it will have different flavour depending on where it is made. This is because the bacteria that grows along with the yeast is of a slightly different strain. There are some bakeries in France that claim to have been using the same sourdough starter for centuries. Whether or not this makes for a better bread is up for debate, but it’s pretty cool, nevertheless.