Adventures with sourdough culture

If 2020 has shown us anything so far, it’s that microbes are having a moment.

I don't mean coronavirus (too soon?); I mean all those crusty, creatively slashed sourdough loaves populating my Instagram stories, the bannetons suddenly popping up in fancy kitchenware stores, and the runaway success of Brad Leone's fermentation station.

But it was Michael Pollan’s Cooked that did it for me.

Have you seen it?

Exploring traditional food preparation methods, the documentary zones in on the complex and often invisible processes that 'transform' basic ingredients into digestible and nutritious foods. The episode called 'Air' — there are four, each named after a particular element — investigates conventional bread-making techniques compared with factory-prepared loaves, and the commentary is quite enlightening, especially if you struggle to digest grainy things despite being ostensibly allergy-free.

Gluten, Pollan suggests, is not the pernicious protein it's frequently made out to be. Unless you have coeliac disease, gluten-y foods are safe and even nourishing to eat if they have been prepared correctly. The tradition of fermenting dough with culture is what breaks down the peptides that tend to give people trouble.

Enter sourdough, stage right.

Sourdough, as every second person on the Internet now knows, is a stable culture made from flour, water... and AIR. When you mix milled flour with water and leave it exposed to air, wild yeasts and other good bacteria (lactobacilli) form a colony that thrives on the flour's starches and produces both carbon dioxide and lactic acid. The CO2 and lactic acid not only transform what would otherwise be a flat, dense dough into a light, fluffy loaf of bread, but the complex, sour taste they help develop is also a sign that some of those troublesome starches have been pre-digested, making them easier on the human gut to process and absorb.

I've tried to make sourdough culture (aka starter) at least once before, but at that stage, many years ago, there wasn't much comprehensive information around, and I produced a jar of rotten, oozing flour-goo that I scraped down the sink and tried, with generosity, to forget.

Now — as a result of subliminal peer pressure and a tumble down the digital rabbit hole — I have two happy jars of starter in my fridge: Horatia, the mummy starter, and Horace, a propagated kiddo starter that I'm feeding a different diet just to see how they perform in different baked goods.

Here's what I've learnt about sourdough culture so far:

1. It's so, so satisfying when your culture comes alive! I will continue to laugh at jokes about sourdough culture being the millennial's tamagotchi, but deep down, it's legitimately thrilling when you get a good rise and can observe that beautiful spongey texture through the walls of your glass jar.

2. Following a set of detailed instructions or being systematic at first is probably important for getting a starter going, particularly if you're a n00b like me. I used these instructions to establish my original culture and also watched Joshua Weissman's YouTube guide about half a dozen times.

3. Once established, however, a happy, healthy starter is remarkably robust and can tolerate a variety of feeding regimes. The important thing is to watch how your baby sourdough culture responds to the particular ingredients you use and the conditions you impose. A culture can be sluggish for so many reasons: just keep feeding it and letting time pass. It will get there eventually.

4. Flours behave differently, and the type/s you choose will naturally produce different textures, aromas, and results. Rye and wholemeal flours, for example, will often establish a responsive culture more quickly and produce a thicker, spongier mixture that develops large holes. White or more finely milled flours, on the other hand, will typically develop more slowly, have a thinner texture, and produce smaller, 'fizzier' bubbles. A rye/wholemeal starter will likely smell more earthy and beer-like; white flour starters will smell milder and cleaner — a bit like yoghurt. I made Horatia using an even mixture of wholemeal and rye flours, and she was established and ready for use within about 10 days when the weather was colder. When I propagated Horace, he needed some time to acclimatise to a diet of organic white flour, even though spring had arrived in force. When the two cultures ferment side by side, Horatia still rises and falls more quickly, but eventually they might achieve a similar rise pattern, once Horace gets stronger. (I'm feeding them weekly. I never use bleached or highly processed flour.)

5. Sourdough cultures are living organisms that behave in idiosyncratic ways depending on a series of variables—the grain/s you use, how they've been processed, what's in your air and water, the ambient temperature, what's going on with the weather, and so on. Even a different batch of the same brand of flour can produce an unpredictable result. I'm learning to 'read' the starter more sensitively and match its little tantrums and positive responses to the variables that have changed. And I'm also learning not to panic. I haven't had to throw anything away because it's gone 'bad'; when something weird happens, a bit of googling usually unearths enough relevant info that I can guess what's going on and adjust accordingly (feed more/less, allow more time).

6. Sourdough baking comes with a barrage of specialised terminology: activation, hydration, levain, hooch, autolyse. It all makes sense once you get going (but the names of some French bakeries around Brisbane seem simultaneously less clever and exotic).

7. You can spend a lot of money on equipment. Weck jars are lovely! A digital scale really helps! But sourdough culture has been around for a lot longer than Wheel & Barrow, and I think there's a lot to be said for making do and learning to eyeball what you can. I've watched what feels like a hundred tutorials. Some bakers swear by getting everything exactly so, right down to the milligram, and using bannetons, cutters, and expensive Dutch ovens, while others are happy to aim for a reliably decent texture, smell or result. I'm opting for somewhere in the middle.

Now for the big questions:

1. Why Horatia?

Horatia was the lead character in the first Georgette Heyer novel I ever read (A Convenient Marriage), and it was the first name that occurred to me. I'm the only lady in this household, and I wanted a friend.

2. Have I been baking with my culture?

Yes! I have!

But I've yet to make a serious foray into proper bread-baking. (I let one tentative batch go for too long, and it over-fermented to the point of no return.) I'm obsessed with crumpets at the moment, so I've been experimenting with various recipes and techniques and am close to cracking it...

I'd love to know if anyone else has caught the bug, so to speak (no apologies for puns around here), and how you've been using your culture.

If there's a fungus among us, I want to talk about it.

You know where to find me.