Capturing Wild Yeast
I mixed together flour and water in a mason jar and set it in the kitchen. After three days I opened a window and set the concoction on the sill. “I’m socializing it,” I joked to the few people who asked why I had a jar of mush on my window sill.
On the fourth day, I was sure my starter was getting ready to take off. After all, the instructions said that on the fourth day all of the “bad” bacteria died and the “good” bacteria became the victors in their flour-water world. It had to be. Plus there were, like, two bubbles, so it was definitely working.
On the fifth day, my “starter” smelled like something had crawled inside and died. “Sniff this,” I said as I held the jar beneath unsuspecting friends’ noses. The reaction was a unanimous sad face.
What was supposed to be turning into a sourdough starter was maintaining a frightening aroma until day ten – when I got the idea. Previously my dad’s wife had brought over a scented wax warmer. As I talked about in my post last month, Keeping A Sustainability Mindset, my husband and I recently moved and majorly downsized – so, I hadn’t found a place yet to utilize the wax warmer.
And here comes the idea: I plugged in the warmer in the kitchen and placed a loaf pan over it to give some separation between the fowl mush-containing jar and the heated surface (I wasn’t trying to bake it … yet). It was a Christmas miracle. Overnight my mush transformed from a lifeless blob into a bubble-making, yeasty-smelling, sourdough-baking machine.
Here are the instructions I used to create my starter.
Beginner’s Loaf from The Perfect Loaf
Maurizio at The Perfect Loaf describes my wild-yeast-capturing mistake perfectly. I skipped a vital ingredient in the sourdough equation, an ingredient that has to be considered and included in every step of sourdough caretaking, from the starter to the baking, and that ingredient is temperature.
One of the best things you can learn as a sourdough baker is how to account for temperature at every stage of the process. Temperature slows, accelerates or kills your bacteria at any step in the journey.
At The Perfect Loaf Maurizio discusses this and more. The first time I took care of a starter I utilized his math, schedule, and recipes every step of the way. And for my first project during my two months of sourdough, I went directly back to his site to guide me through baking the first loaf of sourdough in my new kitchen.
In his article Beginner’s Sourdough Bread he breaks down not only how to bake the loaf itself, but how to read the lingo and jargon of the baking and sourdough world. This article is absolutely indispensable to anyone wanting to bake sourdough. Period. Yes, it gets all math-y, but you don’t need to memorize (or even understand any of it) to follow.
Bagels + Croissants
I spent the first week of Sourdough: Month 1 (also known as March) capturing wild yeast. My project for the second week was the beginner’s loaf from The Perfect Loaf. So that left two more weeks for me to bake two more items and stay on goal. Apparently, I decided those two weeks were perfect for attempting two things that absolutely terrified me and that I was certain I couldn’t pull off: bagels and croissants.
For years now I had ogled every croissant recipe I came across on Pinterest. “Hmm, this one says it’s easy,” was typically how I convinced myself it was even worth reading through. The rolling, the cooling, the measuring (IN GRAMS!?), the several rises, and the rolling (yes, again … and again) – well, it all left me feeling pretty convinced I wasn’t up to the task. So when I began my preparation for my sourdough months and I came across a sourdough croissant recipe I was dead set that this would finally be the year.
The recipe I used for the bagels can be found here, and the croissants here. I made the bagels first but learned something invaluable from making the croissants that would have helped me make the bagels more successfully. When you create something thick with sourdough, or, more importantly, if what you create ends up being thicker than the recipe calls for, or if your kitchen is colder than 70 – 75 degrees F, then you need to add more proofing (also known as rising) time.
When I made my bagels I noticed that my creations were larger than what the recipe author showed: theirs looked like minis and mine were full-sized. I struggled with the bagel dough through the entire process. I didn’t feel like it was rising as much as it should be, despite my paying careful attention to the kitchen temperature. I left them out for the recommended amounts of time, refrigerated them for the recommended amount of time, boiled then cooked them. They turned out good, but not great. They were a bit dense and tacky. They kept for about 4 days, and then they turned into bricks. I had absolutely no qualms about eating them, but definitely knew I could do better (but … how?).
Next up I undertook the croissants. The recipe really spells it all out and has pictures and drawings of the process. I read through the whole thing a couple of times before I started. But, I did something very lucky before I got to the proofing stages. I read through the comments. Someone had asked about baking them longer because the middles were still a little uncooked. The author replied with something that blew my mind and completely changed every aspect of my entire life: the croissants didn’t need to be baked longer, they need to rise longer.
I know what you’re thinking. My mind was blown too. The author went on to describe that basically when the middle of the dough hasn’t risen (and the rising process is longer with sourdough so you really have to be conscientious about it), there is no space for heat to enter because there are no air bubbles formed in the middle, making it more difficult for that dough to cook.
Here is how I changed my approach to proving the croissants. Again, my behemoth rolls looked like they would dwarf the ones pictured by the author. The recipe called for 4 or 5 hours of proof before refrigeration overnight and then baking in the morning. I instead let my croissants sit out on the stove all night long. And they were perfect.
Plans for April Baking
Coming off of a victory high from my croissant perfection, I decided it was time to get serious. Over Easter weekend I took on the challenge of finding my dutch oven in our storage room. Lifting that pan out of the box, well, it felt like coming home. Just kidding. It was super heavy. It felt like a workout.
For April, here are my planned sourdough projects and [probably] the recipes I will be using to make them:
For the week of April 2, I will make baguettes using this recipe from Shipton Mills. Anxieties: this is a 75% hydration recipe (meaning the amount of water used is 75% of the amount of flour used) … from when I’ve read, anything over 70% gets difficult to work with.
For the week of April 9, I will make pretzels using this recipe from A Chick and Her Garden. Anxieties: achieving evenness and well-shaped pretzels that don’t un-pretzel.
For the week of April 16, I will make pizza dough using this recipe from Cultures For Health. Anxieties: doubling the recipe so it can be shared … I hate doubling. Something always goes array.
For the week of April 23, I will make blackberry scones using this recipe from Feasting At Home. Anxieties: none. Gonna make a cuppa and stuff my face to celebrate the past two months.