Thursday, April 28, 2011
For those new to sourdough, maybe we should start at the beginning.
What is sourdough?
Sourdough usually refers to the baking of bread or other baked goods with wild yeast, sometimes called natural leaven. The term sourdough may be slightly misleading but here in the US, it is the most familiar term for wild or natural yeast.
Yeast spores are all around us, including in flour, and with a little encouragement, yeast can be encouraged to grow in a mixture of flour and water. This mixture of flour and water with growing yeast is called a "sourdough starter". The starter is added to other ingredients to make bread or other baked goods like pancakes or biscuits.
Commercial yeast is yeast spores that have been carefully gathered, grown, and dried. Companies have made it simple to make a quick yeast rising bread by selecting specific strands of yeast with the same standard qualities to make it very reliable.
Sourdough, on the other hand, varies widely from the area the wild yeast is captured, the season of the year, what it is fed and how often it is fed. The variables of sourdough can make it more difficult to standardize a recipe but add to the artistic feel of baking bread.
If you have never baked bread, I'd recommend starting with standard commercial yeast bread. You can learn the basics of bread mixing, shaping and baking before stepping into sourdough baking. Sourdough baking is not difficult, but the experience of baking yeast bread will benefit your sourdough baking.
Is sourdough really sour?
A sour dough starter also contains bacteria called lactobacillus which add flavor to the bread. Sourdough bread may have a characteristic "sour" tang or be very mild. In some cultures, the sour flavor is thought to be unappealing and to be avoided. Here in the US, many bakers search for ways to bring out the maximal flavor in the dough.
I have found to minimize the "sour" flavor, especially when using whole wheat flour, a little honey can sweeten the flavor without resorting to a bland bread. I also discovered, in recipes such as waffles where baking soda is used, the result is a less "sour" sourdough.
As in describing hot sauces, one person taste for "sour" will be another person's "mild". I tend to prefer a robust bread for panini or serving with soup but a milder flavored dough for something like cinnamon rolls.
But why go to the trouble of making sourdough bread, when commercial yeast bread is available? We'll answer that question next!