Harvesting Wild Yeast

Baking my first loaf of sourdough bread

By Rob Breeding

It seems some rites of passage have been universally shared during our coronavirus quarantine.

For instance, binging television programs. I’ve watched all eight seasons of Game of Thrones since lockdown. What a disappointing ending.

I also took one of my daughters out shooting for the first time. She enjoyed it, though it also left her a bit shaken. That look in her eye the first time she perforated a beer can with my 20 gauge — excitement tinged with awe — was a reminder that when we hunt or shoot often, we can’t let our familiarity invite complacency. But seeing a first-time shooter’s reaction, especially that of a loved one, reaffirms the message that firearms demand caution and respect.

And finally, this week, I baked my first loaf of sourdough bread. With that I think I’ve completed my pandemic-survival badge requirements.

If you were to step into my kitchen these days you’d be greeted by the slightly cheesy aroma of sourdough starter. I’ve been nurturing a volatile slurry of flour and water for a couple of weeks now, and this matrix supports an ecosystem of wild yeasts and bacteria that give sourdough bread its lift and distinctive tang.

My starter rises and falls throughout the day, belching carbon dioxide so long as I keep feeding it fresh flour. Unfortunately, CO2 is a greenhouse gas, but my new contribution to climate change has been easily offset by the collapse of economic activity across the globe.

I started with one part all-purpose flour, one part rye flour and two parts water. Once each day most of the old starter is discarded and replaced with another batch of fresh flour and water. After a few days the starter comes alive and mine soon burbled out of the beer mug I grew it in. It takes about a week to convert the slurry into a leaven.

A couple of notes about starter. I used filtered water as the stuff out of the tap is treated with chlorine. That’s a good thing as it kills water-borne organisms that could make you sick, but the residual chlorine might have the same effect on the bugs growing in your starter. For the same reason you need to use unbleached flour. You can make it out of unbleached AP alone, but whole wheat flour or rye bring extra biota to the party.

Those wild yeasts already exist on the flour itself. You’re nurturing those organisms rather than harvesting bugs on the wind.

Sourdough is certainly slow food, even in the world of bread baking, a notoriously long process to begin with. For sourdough, budget a day for the lengthy steps of preparing a loaf, followed by a final rise overnight in the refrigerator. You’ll knead, but sourdough is wetter and requires a gentler approach. I use a stand mixer to knead yeast breads and pizza dough, but sourdough needs to be worked by hand.

I baked my sourdough in a Dutch oven. The heavy pot evens the radiant heat blasting the bread, and holds steam around the loaf, allowing it to rise longer before it sets. About half way through the bake you remove the lid and take the loaf to a color quite a bit darker than you would French bread. That deep caramelization adds flavor and chew to the crust.

I’ve posted links to starter and bread recipes on my website.

Any home-baked bread is a revelation — the smell, anticipation and toasty goodness — but sourdough is all that on another order. It’s funky and tangy and acidic. That lactic tang adds flavor and is also a natural preservative, not that a fresh loaf is going to hang around long.

Set it on a cutting board with a bread knife and some butter and you’ll witness another miracle of sourdough bread.

It disappears.

Rob Breeding is the editor of www.mthookandbullet.com.