A baking journey: from flour-and-water to REAL bread, in 2 weeks
|January 31, 2015||Posted by ameliaps under bread, breads|
A baking journey: from flour-and-water to REAL bread, in 2
A little more than two weeks ago I began a very interesting journey: making my own bread from start to finish. That means creating my own living bread starter from scratch -which took two weeks – and then finally kneading it into dough to make bread. The only ingredients: flour, water…and lots of patience!
In Italy, we call the bread starter “pasta madre” (or also “lievito naturale”), which –much appropriately – translates into mother dough (natural yeast). The French call it levain. In America it is commonly referred to as sourdough (although it is not always “sour”). The actual “sour” starter in Italy goes by “pasta acida”.
Throughout the whole process I almost felt pregnant with a new baby… I would watch this creature change and mature right by my eyes, the bubbles forming, the gasses starting to develop, the yeasts feeding on the sugars, as in a primordial soup. I learned so much: about bread making, about the chemistry of fermentation, yeasts and bacteria… and also a little more about myself. I enjoyed every moment of it: it was incredibly fascinating to see the stages of creation happen before me. I also developed a fulfilling daily ritual and routine that has something very Zen to it, almost a kitchen meditation. Every day you end up developing a “relationship” with this alive creature, you learn to discern the changes in smells (acid, alcoholic and vinegary before refreshes, then warm, yeasty but sweet after refreshes) and you learn its “habits” (quick, hungry, rapid growth and bubbling after feeds then slow, adjusted pace between feeds).
There is an interesting bonding that happens too: I never forget to finish and roll into a ball by gently massaging with my hands: because my hand bacteria will eventually become part of it too. This thing really does take on its own persona. Naming the starter is actually quite a common thing to do with bakers. I have named mine Totò, who was a popular Italian comedian, from Naples, known as “il principe della risata” (the prince of laughter), in hopes that it will bring me daily smiles.
The whole process is a reminder of the humble simplicity of life, it connects us to our ancestry (bread baking is one of our atavic and primitive tasks) and shows us biology in action. It is daily magic! For me, it is an unusual and unexpected little happiness.
The schedule for starting your “pasta madre” (bread starter)
There are as many ways to make a bread starter are there are people. This is what worked for me, and built up a nice complex result, although I understand it is a bit longer than other recipes you will find.
Also, a BIG CAVEAT: I am a total novice… albeit a very passionate learner.
- Day 1: Start with 200 grams of best quality organic bread flour and 100 grams of lukewarm water (preferably filtered). Weighing is essential. We are after a 50% hydration. Italians like adding a small touch of sweetener to “feed” the yeasts with sugar (I use 1 tablespoon of honey, but some use a few grapes or raisins, a blended apple, plain sugar or even a little natural yogurt). Knead all of it into a smooth ball, cut a cross over it and poke it with a toothpick a few times. Place in a tall jar covered in plastic wrap poked a few times with a toothpick to let air out. Let rest 48 hours.
- Day 2: do NOTHING. Let it be…
- Day 3: You should start seeing a few tiny bubbles forming which mean the yeasts have started eating the sugars in the flour and releasing carbon dioxide and alcohol. The texture might look porous and fiber-y. Proceed to the first “feed” (in Italian, it is called “rinfresco”, which means refresh, as in rejuvenation). This is how it works: first remove the top crust of the dough (you can discard that) and then weigh 200 grams of the bottom part. Next, mix this with 100 grams lukewarm water until “melted” or well mixed in. I use a whisk to incorporate more air. Finally add 200 grams fresh bread flour and knead well until a new dough is formed. Mark it with a cross (cut an X on top with a knife), poke a few times with a toothpick, and leave for 48 more hours in a tall jar, covered with plastic wrap poked with a toothpick, to let air. Place it in a dark, warm place -like a pantry-, away from drafts.
- Day 4: do NOTHING. Let it be…
- Day 5: You should start seeing a good growth and a certain mildly sweet and yeasty aroma starting to develop. “Feed” it again (as per day 3). This is the last time it will sit for 48 hours, then daily refreshes will start.
- Day 6: do NOTHING. Let it be…
- Day 7: Refresh, as per usual ratio: 200 grams starter, 100 grams lukewarm water, 200 grams bread flour, place in tall jar, cover with plastic wrap, poke holes in it with a toothpick
- Day 8: refresh, same as above
- Day 9: refresh, same as above
- Day 10: refresh, same as above
- Day 11: refresh, same as above.
- Day 12: refresh, same as above
- Day 13: refresh, same as above. Things should start getting “bubbly” by now…
- Day 14: do the FLOAT TEST to see if your starter is finally “mature” and ready for bread making: drop a spoonful of it into lukewarm water. If it floats that indicates it has lots of CO2 and is ready to use! Congrats on your patience.
Beyond day 15: MAINTAIN the starter
- If you keep it on the counter and plan to use it daily, you will now need to refresh daily: every 12 hours (morning and evening) if it is warm weather (or you keep your house warm) OR every 24 hours if it is cold (mornings or evenings).
- For daily use, you can cut back on the amounts. For example, I am now on a halved amount (100 grams starter, 50-80 grams lukewarm water, 100 grams flour) but might cut back even more (I don’t need that much and it can become expensive)
- If that is inconvenient, and/or you don’t plan on using it more than once or twice a week, then you can refrigerate it, in a container with a tight-fitting lid. This requires planning ahead for use though, since you will need to refresh it 1 to 3 times (every 12 hours) before use, once you pull it out of the fridge (which means about 2 days before use). When you do this process, from refrigerated starter, at the end of the third refresh, add some of the extra fresh starter back to your master starter in the fridge, which actually feeds the sourdough starter for the week.
- You can also freeze the starter for up to 2 months to “hibernate” it. Then, you will need to defrost in the fridge before using again (and proceed as per refrigeration instruction above)
- It is also possible to “dry” the starter: smear it on a silicon mat and let it dry. Once completely dry, scrape it and break it into crumbs and store it in an airtight container. Dried sourdough can be stored for months. To re-start it, dissolve 25 grams of the starter crumbs in 100 grams of water, and stir in 100 grams of flour. Continue feeding until active again.
- I use an electric scale because I can tare it to zero every time I add each ingredient AND it allows me to use any container.
- The starter is rather sticky so remember to soak your vessels, when you are done mixing and weighing… or it will become glue and hard to wash! I learned this the hard way (pun intended!)
- Use a tall (but not too tall), wide-mouth jar (preferably glass or heavy, non-reactive plastic), so the starter does not overflow. The square restaurant storage ones are great because they fit well in the fridge and are easier to clean.
- Consider marking your jar with the time and date of the last refresh (it will help you remember!)
- Try to feed the starter always around the same time (early morning worked for me). After day 15, mornings and evening (when you switch to twice-a-day feeds)
- Sometimes you have too much starter: you can give it to a friend and teach them how to use and maintan it. Or you can use it as compost.
- Always keep a back-up starter in the fridge or freezer (in case the other one fails)!
Starter Questions & Answers:
It took me a while to find all the answers, so I am being kind and putting them all here for you. You might have more. I know I still do!!!
- What kind of water to use? For the first 15 days, try to use bottled water if your tap water has lots of chlorine which can kill the bacteria as it start to mature. But after day 15 feel free to use tap.
- What flour to use? Stone ground is best. But mostly, try to use organic and unbleached. Whole wheat and rye have more nutrients (although rye can be expensive)
- What is the best place to store the starter and at what temperature? A place away from drafts, dark, warm, such as a pantry, the unused oven, or the top of the refrigerator. Ideal temperature is70°F to 75°F.
- What happens if a dark liquid has formed on top? Discard the dark liquid (and maybe also a portion of the starter as). Mix in the new water and flour, as per usual ratio. Whisk very well, to incorporate lots of air.
- How much time to allow for rising when using starter? Live starter requires longer rise times than baker’s yeast, typically 4 to 12 hours. If you are pressed for time you can “cheat” and a smidgen (ok a pinch) of instant baker’s yeast.
- What do recipes mean when they call for “fresh sourdough starter”? It means recently fed, active sourdough starter
- What happens if you forget a feed? Just feed it: chances are it will revive.
- If you want to keep the starter refrigerated, do you feed it before refrigerating? Yes. The to revive, take the starter out and feed it at least three times every 12 hours before using.
- What does hydration mean? 100% hydration means that the weight of flour and water in the starter are equal (e.g. 50 grams starter + 50 grams water + 50 grams flour). Lower hydrated starters (50-70%) are more firm while higher hydrated starters (100-125%) are more liquid and rise faster (but also might need more frequent “feeds”). I keep mine at 50% hydration, which means adding flour and water to the starter in the ratio of 2:1, or 2 parts by weight flour to 1 part by weight water (e.g. 100 grams starter, 100 grams flour, 50 grams water).
- How to substitute starter for 1 package of yeast? Use about 1 cup of 100% hydration starter. Since 1 cup of starter equals 1/2 cup flour and 1/2 cup liquid, use 1 cup of starter and subtract 1/2 cup flour (or a little more) and 1/2 cup liquid. Also, remember, rising will take much longer!
- How to convert a liquid starter to a stiff starter (low hydration)? Start with 10 gr of liquid starter and feed it with 20 gr of flour and 10 gr of water. Repeat a few times.
- How to convert a stiff starter to a liquid starter (high hydration)? Start with 10 gr of liquid starter and feed it with 20 gr of flour and 20 gr of water. Repeat a few times.
A few (quick) handy recipe ratios for the use of live starter
- Pizza dough: 150 gr starter, 500 gr bread flour, 180-200 gr water (or as needed), 2 Tbsp salt, 1-2 Tbsps olive oil. Optional: a pinch of sugar. It has to rise twice (4-5 hours each): once in a big ball, then small balls
- Pancakes: 2 cups starter (room temp), 2 Tbsp sugar, 1 egg, 4 Tbsp fat (oil, melted butter), pinch of salt, 1 tsp baking soda, 1 Tbsp warm liquid (milk, water, almond milk)
And now, for the bread making: the most satisfying use of the starter.
“Pane cafone” (Neapolitan peasant bread)
I chose this bread because just the smell of it, when freshly baked (sweet and floury) launches me miles away and years away, to when I was a child growing up in Sorrento.
“Pane cafone” is a Neapolitan peasant’s bread. It has a crunchy-crisp crumb and a chewy-airy-light crumb. I grew up on it… I miss it! It has both flour and semolina in it, which gives it a rustic touch and crunchy bite. The trick is multiple rises, which develops layers of flavor and “personality”
200 grams “pasta madre” (aka levain, aka sourdough starter), refreshed 4-6 hours before starting (weight as measured after refresh)
420 grams water (lukewarm to warm)
1 tablespoon honey
400 grams bread flour
200 grams semolina
15 gr salt
“Melt” the starter in water with the honey stirred in, by stirring it well and incorporating some air.
Pour this in your stand mixer fitted with a bread paddle. Add the flour. Stir well. Add the salt. Stir again for a while, until it detaches from the side (15-20 minutes)
Let rest for 30 minutes. Then knead it again by hand, into folds (similar to what you do with puff pastry). Let rest 30 more minutes. Roll into a ball, place it in semolina dusted basket (a banneton, if you have one) and let rest for 8-10 hours in a warm place away from drafts, covered.
Preheat your Dutch over (or unglazed ceramic baking dome, if you have one, wetted with water) at 500F in the oven for about 20-30 minutes.
Gently flip the risen dough onto a parchment paper square, “score” it (which means to do some slashes for some of the air to come out while baking and give the nice crispy edges), then transfer to the bottom of the Dutch oven (or baking dome), cover and let bake at 450F for 40 minutes. Then, remove the lid and bake for 15-20 more minutes.
Finally, pull out from the oven and let rest on a rack until cooled (before being tempted to slice!!!).
If it has risen and baked properly, the crust will actually “sing” (crackling sounds) for a while.
Finally: consider using leftover bread to make “Croutons”: cut the bread in cubes (roughly). It is best to use bread that is a few days old. Let cubes sit out to dry a little while you heat the oven at 350F. Lay them on a baking sheet covered in parchment paper. Drizzle in good olive oil, salt, pepper. Toss well. Bake about 10-15 minutes (maybe stir once) or to your desired level of gold crispiness. Delicious on salad or soup.
And now… it’s your turn to start baking!!! please share back your tips, since I am always learning new things.
VIVA IL PANE VERO (hurray for real bread)!!!