My family are all cooks – well, except for my Dad. My Mom was raised in a family of loggers in Oregon, and her mother cooked for large groups of workers during the early 1900’s, and Mom said that her mother made everything with a handful of this, and half a handful of that. When she married Dad, she had to corner her mother and say “Let me measure what you have in your hand so I can write it down in a recipe”. Mom was pretty adventurous with cooking, and we were eating Mexican food a decade or more before it was considered normal American food. But, she also did a lot of baking, and though we still predominately bought store-bought white bread, she did quite regularly bake bread for us – Fleishman’s yeast based though it was. Some of my favorite memories from the 1960’s are of learning to knead bread for Mom – I don’t know if she was trying to interest me in baking, or just trying to fend off carpal tunnel, but I enjoyed it none the less.
It wasn’t until the early 1980’s when I had a home of my own that the desire came once again to bake bread. Also around this time, the organic movement was just starting and on all fronts we were looking for some of the older methods of growing, producing and cooking our food. We had great neighbors – Gerard and Esther Rush – who really got us started on most of these endeavors. And in more ways than one in fact, as Gerard even sold us an 8 acre cornfield which became our home with a couple of acres of fruit and nut trees, an acre trout pond and large garden. Gerard was a butcher and an ex-dairy farmer, and Esther worked right along side him, plus with 10 kids, she was an incredible cook. Also, she didn’t just cook, she knew a lot of the older methods of food cooking and storage – and this included making a sourdough starter.
Once I attempted successfully to make a starter (I still use that same starter), I found that at that time there were no readily available pure sourdough recipes – or techniques. As far as recipes and books related to the subject went, they always also added baker’s yeast to their recipes – and in many books that persists today. I was able to make some nice tasting loaves with various grains by taking existing recipes and adapting them to sourdough – the only problem was that they were universally flat, hard loaves that were far from what I would consider “edible”, at least on a daily basis.
Fortunately, around this time, I also decided I wanted to make sourdough pizza. I developed a recipe that ironically I would look back later and think “You dummy, why didn’t you use the same proportions of starter to flour as the pizza recipe, and you would have been making good bread years ago!” With standard baker’s yeast formulas, the yeast colonize rapidly into the billions of cells, so that you have way more rise than you need – hence necessitating that you “punch down” the dough so as to avoid an “I Love Lucy” moment. With sourdough, there are way fewer yeast cells, so the ratio of starter per loaf is quite important. Anyway, the pizza recipe worked fine (quite by accident), with enough of a rise to make a great crust that wasn’t anywhere near the density of my still flat loaves.
When I finally found the answers I was looking for, it came from my youngest brother – a trained French chef – who, when he found out my predicament, did some searching on his own, and found out about Ed Wood. At the time – late 1990’s – Ed came out with a book “World Sourdoughs From Antiquity”, which spent portions of the book dealing with how bread was baked millennia ago (Ed was hired by National Geographic then to rebuild from Egyptian pictographs an ancient bakery near the pyramids of Giza, and actually bake bread there from local grains). The most important information I gleaned was about how to use elevated temperatures and moisture to help the dough rise prior to baking, and to improve the texture of the crust. That, coupled with his large sections on recipes (which had similar proportions of starter and flour to my pizza recipe) gave me what I needed to start making great bread. Ed also has a slew of different cultures from all over the world which feature different characteristics, some rise extremely fast, some (like the San Francisco variety that I grew up tasting at least once a year as a child) have world renown flavor, and yet others work best with different grains – spelt, kamut, rye or certain whole grains. Much as famous wineries use their own naturally occurring yeast that is a certain strain among thousands found only locally and imparting certain flavors to their wines, so sourdough cultures vary from place to place, and even more so than wine yeasts. The reason for this is that sourdough cultures are a complete relationship between not only the yeast in the culture, but also one or more strains of lactobacilli – which vary from place to place – that form a symbiotic relationship (sort of an “I’ll scratch your back if you’ll scratch mine” situation), where the yeast develop food for the lactobacilli, and the bacteria are a form of antibiotic to fend off “bad” bugs from spoiling the culture. These lactobacilli are the same types of bacteria that make yoghurt, sauerkraut and natural pickles, imparting that sour lactic acid flavor to those foods. Personally, for now, I’ve decided to stay with my own strain of culture and just work on trying new techniques and recipes from time to time. The idea of keeping a dozen cultures fed and active to use each for differing purposes is a little too busy for my lifestyle – I don’t seem to have enough time right now as it is.