Seeking more traditional bread-making methods
Bringing the bakery home: Starters are an old-fashioned approach to breads. (Chicago Tribune photo)
My mostly love sometimes-hate relationship with bread baking began at age 14 with a loaf of the best-tasting cheese bread I ever made, though maddeningly, I could never duplicate the results. Maybe it was beginner's luck, or maybe I was just thrilled to get bread and not a giant cheddar pancake.
Nonetheless, I got hooked on bread baking and have kept at it. It brings a sense of great accomplishment and an adrenaline rush to unearth a quintessential and/or never-fail recipe. Sometimes I turn to bread baking for what Alison Furbish, web media coordinator for King Arthur Flour, calls a "comforting activity with an emotional component." I call it nesting.
This past winter's back-to-back blizzards strongly triggered that nesting instinct — and not just in me, judging by grocery stores' quickly picked-clean baking supply aisles, followed by a deluge of blog posts detailing all the resulting domestic bliss.
Many shut-ins were no doubt doing the no-knead thing, a technique pioneered by Jim Lahey of New York's Sullivan Street Bakery and glowingly reported in 2006 by Mark Bittman in his New York Times column as not only the greatest thing since, well, you know, but a revolution in home baking. But multitudes of us home bakers were up to our elbows in more traditional, hands-on methods.
While no-knead breads feature quickly stirred together doughs that are left to rise for almost an entire day, a good amount of time in more traditionally crafted breads can be spent up front, making and fermenting different types of pre-doughs known as levain, mother dough, pate fermentee, sponge, soaker, barm, biga, and poolish, which are then added to a second dough for a second rise.
Starters, such as sourdough, are another type of leavening. A great starter is like gold; many a serious baker's refrigerator bubbles with treasures created from sources as varied as fermented grapes, pineapple juice and wild yeast cultures captured in her own kitchen or elsewhere.
Stan Ginsberg, proprietor of San Diego-based e-tailer the New York Bakers, which offers hard-to-source flours and equipment, gives away a variety of free starters ("what starts out free ought to be freely shared"), including strains captured in Southern California, "the West " in 1847 or earlier, San Francisco, and Denver.
Starters usually need to be maintained, or fed, in baker's parlance; no doubt devotees plan their days, even vacations, around their care and feeding. Whether no-knead or not, using yeast or starter or pre-ferment, a long rise at one end or the other of the bread making procedure promotes intense flavor development.
This past winter, I raised dough all sorts of ways. A two-month baking, book-buying and bagel-baking binge ensued, my usual recipe chucked in pursuit of any method yielding the taste always just beyond my results, until my ever-tightening wardrobe called a halt to the whole thing. For a short while, that is, until I got hyper-focused on forming a decidedly non-traditional square fougasse, after which somehow I fought off the urge to order sourdough starters from Ginsberg, my go-to guy whose "breadmaking essentials for home bakers" also includes generously-dispensed advice and encouragement.
Best to avoid all that encouragement, as the dark side of all this baking is, well, more baking. I suppose it's no different than any other hobby, but there are times I worry about caring too much, getting too involved and possibly obsessed, and becoming one of those people who babysits her starter at work, mires in the minutia of barm vs. biga, and posts her every mis-adventure/tale of woe/anxious wondering on baking blogs such as The Fresh Loaf (thefreshloaf.com).
But then two spring trips to Vermont provided perfect excuses to visit King Arthur Flour (Mecca to some bakers) and its Baking Education Center in Norwich, the second time for a two-day baking class with Roland Park native Dan Wing, where we baked insanely scrumptious loaves of bread and slabs of focaccia using his own two decade-old strain of sourdough starter.
Knowing I couldn't exactly duplicate the taste at home without that particular starter, I tossed the parting gift of a one-ounce jar of King Arthur sourdough starter, described on their website as "descended from a starter that's been lovingly nurtured here in New England since the 1700s," into my backpack — and promptly forgot all about it for days, maybe on purpose in an attempt to tamp down curiosity about how close I actually could get to crafting Dan's breads. Somewhat to my chagrin, the starter re-activated all too easily following the directions on King Arthur Flour's sourdough-starter tip page.
Maintaining a starter can also perpetuate it. The process involves dividing the batch, feeding just a portion and then discarding, or better, gifting the unfed balance — kind of like a baking chain letter. Ever-thrifty, I found it impossible to throw any away and refocused my attention on who among my friends I could foist some of this stuff.
Then I noticed King Arthur's assertion that "When you feed it, it quickly becomes your own, adapting itself to your region and climate." which got me wondering about the collision of Baltimore's notorious humidity with the starter, but judging it way too over my head, I thought at least I must find friends who not only want some starter, but would be willing to bake the same sourdough bread on the same day.
Which bread, though? After consulting with Furbish to ascertain the best test recipe, I settled on King Arthur Flour's simple and quick (not, of course, what you'd necessarily want) Rustic Sourdough Bread. Turns out it's touted on the page selling the starter ("Bake your best sourdough bread ever ... you'll bake great sourdough bread first time, every time"), with a link to the recipe page, in turn linking to a blog dedicated just to that recipe. Voluminous comments on all three pages feature a mix of raves, variations, advice, and questions, with few outright negative posts.
Hmmm, if it sounds too good to be true ...
I buttonholed two buddies who like to bake, Baltimore Sun writer Laura Vozzella, and fellow carb-quester Lissa Potter (with whom I last sprinted to Montreal for bagels), provided all the links, and distributed progeny of my sourdough starter. The three of us baked the bread on a thankfully only middling hot and humid day in our respective un-air conditioned kitchens. We all used King Arthur All Purpose Unbleached Flour, and although our kneading techniques and shaping methods varied, we shared the same mixed-bag results.
While we got bread that looked like bread with a pleasant enough crust (obtained only by baking longer than was specified), the loaves lacked a tender crumb and any perceivable sourdough tang or homemade taste, or to be real, any compelling reason to consume it. One of Laura's loaves attained its highest and best use as French toast.