One of my new quests this year has been to try to achieve success at making sourdough bread. It's been a long road of trial and mostly error, and then giving up for a while.
For those of you that think "Bread, what's the big deal? Just add some yeast to some flour and voila!" Not so! In fact, there is no yeast in true sourdough bread.
So what makes it rise? Natural yeasts and lactobacilli (good bacteria) from the sourdough starter. You can buy a starter or you can make your own, which is what I did. I actually made it in 2007, I believe! I made it according to "Nourishing Traditions", where you mix one cup of water to one cup of rye flour in a bowl, and let it sit out in a warm place with a towel covering it. You keep feeding it that same ratio of flour and water every day until you get significant foaming/bubbling action on the surface, and then you know you've caught some wild yeast. Then you're ready to make bread! Well, the first time I tried it I got some dense bricks, which I ate anyway, but wasn't pleased with my attempt. I've tried several times since then with varying degrees of failure. Then I'd freeze the starter for a while until I felt brave enough to try again.
Fast forward to a couple weeks ago, when I thought I'd try it again. This time, I checked out a book specifically about sourdough bread making called "Classic Sourdoughs: A Home Baker's Handbook" by Ed Wood, which I recommend. But even Ed says that you just have to practice until you get the hang of it.
Here's a picture of my most recent success:
It tastes good and has a texture I like. I could even make sandwiches if I wanted to, the bread holds together that well. Most bread I make just crumbles apart. The good texture is probably due to all the white flour I used, I'm embarassed to admit. But I told myself that if this was going to be a flop, I might as well use up the white flour I had in my pantry. I also justified the white flour saying that the 4-hour leavening time with the sourdough culture would help to break it down to help make it a little more nutritious. There's about a cup and a half of whole wheat and the starter is with rye, so there's a little more healthiness involved, too. So, I want to try making bread that includes less white flour and more wheat. I may possibly try making a new sourdough starter with wheat, instead of rye. We'll see where that goes...
I've also made sourdough pancakes, waffles, and hamburger buns, all of which I've been quite pleased with. It's very fun to see how much the dough ferments and rises overnight. That's one thing this hobby requires, though: advance planning!
So, if you're up for a challenge, try making homemade sourdough bread!