Starting on Sourdough

I was looking for a challenge and I didn’t even know it.

Not to be Captain Obvious, but I love making bread. The ingredients are consistently simple – flour, salt, water and love, of course. Stirring the ingredients together, gently hydrating the dough, folding it, lifting the towel to see how much it’s risen, the color and smell of a beautiful baguette. I’m excited every time I open the oven. I will be as proud of my 60th epi baguette as I was of the first.

That said, I was looking for something different. I made a no-knead bread that sang beautifully as it cooled. The crackling concerto of resting bread is something not to be missed. While the recipe was basic enough, the texture and taste just wasn’t what I look for in bread.

Then I was introduced to Malin.

A friend had sent me a message, asking if I had read an article in the latest edition of Food & Wine magazine about a Bread Exchange. Maybe I could do something like this? Meet Ms. Malin Elmlid.

photo from elmlid.com

She works for Levi’s Vintage, lives in Berlin (but is from Sweden, and we all know how much I love Sweden) and loves to bake sourdough bread. But wait, there’s more! Malin came up with the great idea to start a Bread Exchange, trading her beautiful sourdough creations for almost anything, just not money. The idea is, not everything can be bought and not everything is for sale. So she exchanges her sourdoughs for things like pesto made from wild garlic, foreign flours and salts, homemade jams, guitar lessons, a book… the list goes on. And lest you think this is some sort of hoakey idea, Malin has had 1000 traders so far. Take that, skepticism. I really recommend you check out Malin’s blog, the posts are short but sweet. If there was ever a chance to meet, I would love the opportunity for a coffee, exchange and perhaps even some baking tips. Malin is a girl who likes her breakfast, and I can get along very well with anyone who is a fan of breakfast.

The idea of the Bread Exchange was exciting, but even more was the idea of sourdough bread. Firstly, sourdough purists don’t use any commercial yeast. I know, I know, but how will it rise? It’s about to get a bit deep here, so hold my hand. The first thing required when baking sourdough is a seed culture, a basis of fermented flour that will capture the wild yeast your sourdough will be so eagerly craving. That’s right, wild yeast, it’s in the air (climbing in your windows, so hide yo kids, hide yo wife… sorry).Once the seed culture is sufficiently grown, it is used to create a mother starter. A mother starter is what will go into all of your sourdoughs, so long as it shall live (and they are usually very resilient, if you promise to feed them). Once you use it, you feed it and more comes back! It’s amazing, really, its very own ecosystem. Okay, so it’s just some flour and water in the seed culture – how hard could that possibly be?

Five tries. It took me almost an entire month and five different jars/Pyrex measuring glasses/coffee pots to get finally get it right once. In the end, this adventure was an exercise in patience, dedication and, you guessed it, love. If you search the internet for sourdough recipes, everyone has their own ideas on how to make a sourdough starter. I was completely overwhelmed and decided to walk away from the computer and straight to Peter Reinhart’s loving arms. Well, more like his book Artisan Breads Every Day, but you get the point. Aside from the basic seed culture ingredients, Reinhart also instructs bakers to stir aerate (we’re pros here) three times a day and don’t forget to keep it at room temperature. Easy, you say? Try doing it during the coldest days of fall, when the power goes out at home and it’s a constant 56F throughout the house. Well, everywhere in the house, except in my room, which is where my seed culture lived during the great power outage of October 2011.

Isn’t it beautiful? Crazy, yes, I know…but just wait til you see what I’ve done with this bad boy!

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One Response to Starting on Sourdough

  1. Malin says:

    Oh, I never saw this! So sweet! Thank you!
    I am struggling with a cold flat in SF right now. Supposed to get to borrow the oven at Tartine tomorrow – if my dough gets a kick to grow that is…

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