I’ll admit, I was a little cocky when I added sourdough to my list of goals for this year. I had successfully raised a wild yeast culture before. I baked with it for a few months. The only reason why I no longer have it was the old “out of sight, out of mind” adage–it was pushed to the back of the fridge during a period when I wasn’t baking as much and I forgot about it. There it languished until some pretty foul stuff happened and I eventually had to toss it. Despite this oversight, clearly I was pro–I could do this again!
Or so I thought. I didn’t start my project until more than halfway through the month, confident in my success. I followed the procedure on Wild Yeast, which wasn’t exactly the same as what I had done before (my method actually having been debunked by Wild Yeast), but it was close enough. I gathered a half gallon plastic container with lid and my ingredients and set to work.
I knew I’d have to compensate for cooler weather. Yeast is far more active in warmer temps than the modest 66 degrees I tend to keep the house at in the cooler months. Recalling that the Keurig tends to retain a bit of heat on top (and keeping in mind that I would need to keep this culture in sight, or I would forget about it entirely–ruling out the top of the refrigerator), I placed it there and set to work with my twice daily feedings. I’ll admit, they weren’t always exactly 12 hours apart. But there were signs of life–some bubbling in the blob, signaling a yeast had taken up residence and was making itself comfortable.
A week after I started the culture, I decided to bake. It wasn’t as bubbly as Wild Yeast’s, but it had been doubling in size and picked up a sour aroma, so I figured I’d be just fine. I boosted it for a feeding to ensure there would be enough starter available to take when I was ready to bake. Wild Yeast’s recipe for Norwich Sourdough seemed like my best option, so I selected that–halving it, of course, since I do not have enough room to proof or bake 4 loaves at a time (plus I feared my containers and mixing bowl would not have been large enough).
I turned up the heat in preparation and step by step I went, adhering (mostly) strictly to the recipe. I should have known better–I have baked bread before, albeit from commercial yeast–but when it came to time to bake, the loaves did not look right at all. They were still quite flat and gooey. After setting aside the bulk of a day to this project, however, I threw caution to the wind and tried to bake up the loaves anyway.
It was a disaster. It took twice as long as the baking time indicated, and the crust still never browned, except on the bottom. The loaves didn’t rise either. It was the flattest bread I’ve ever made–at least, the flattest bread that shouldn’t have been flat. Curious, I cut a loaf open and almost broke the knife on the tough exterior. Inside, there were some pockets–there had been some life in the dough. But it never reached its full potential before baking. These loaves were hopeless.
With only 2 days left until the post was due to go up, I knew I didn’t have time to start all over again. So I did the next best thing: I adjusted my starter to a stiffer batch and decided to try again 1 day later. One more day of maturity. A bit more food for the yeast, in hopes that it would perform better with attempt #2.
I decided from the start of round 2 that I would let the dough rise longer. I added 50 minutes to the initial 2.5 hours of rising (including adding one fold at 150 minutes) and an hour and a half to the proofing stage. I also put the dough into a warmed-up-but-off oven, just to be sure the temperature wasn’t an issue either. My “patience” didn’t seem to pay off, however. The loaves still looked pretty flat when it was time to bake. Stiffer than the dough from the prior day, but no more likely to produce those gorgeous loaves of sourdough that would bring a crowd to the door at the bakery where I worked when I was 21. I popped them in the oven anyway.
At the 12-minute mark, I opened the oven to remove the water tray for the steam bath and noticed some rise. Some. Not what I intended, but a definite improvement over the day prior, indeed. There was hope!
Sadly, even with an extra 10 minutes in the oven, the crust never browned beautifully, and the loaves remained only about half-risen. They were more edible than the loaves of the prior day (which I tried to eat anyway), but still not quite right. A bit sour and there was clear evidence of activity in the dough, with all the holes inside the finished loaves. We’re on to something here, but not yet.
I suspect my culture needs another few days to a week to mature enough to produce proper loaves. Allowing for longer rises and proofing helps, but, much like a 16-year-old claims he is an adult and then falls flat with the first big moment of responsibility, my culture is not yet ready to be put under pressure. Soon enough.
Kate at Food Babbles had some issues, too, though for very different, very good reasons. She informed me that her final attempt would be with a sponge instead. I probably should have prepared for a sponge, but I was so sure that I could make this work that I didn’t have a back-up plan. I’ve made countless loaves of 5-minute Artisan Bread. How could I fail at this? Ha! Clearly, I am not yet a bread baker. In due time.
You can read about the method I used for raising a 100% hydration wild yeast starter at Wild Yeast, as well as their recipe for Norwich Sourdough. The only adaptation I did with the Norwich Sourdough is that I do not have couches or bannetons. I just rolled up a towel, placed it in the middle of a cookie sheet, draped a piece of parchment paper over that, and use that contraption for proofing my batards (covered, of course). Necessity is the mother of invention, right?
If you attempt sourdough, let me know how it goes! Once you have a viable culture going, there are so many things you can bake with it–not just bread! If nothing else, willing this little creature to live can summon the inner child who loved carrying out science experiments in the family bathroom. You get to be a little bit of a mad scientist in the process.