Copyright © Sheryl Williams - Yardfanatic 2016. All rights reserved.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Counter Culture

The problem with me is that I have too many hobbies. I like to tell myself that I am a "Renaissance" woman, meaning that I am pretty good at a lot of things, but the truth is that I have the attention span of a gnat.

Being able to jump around and multi-task has served me well, but I'm not widely known for my patience. I'm okay with long term goals as long as there is some action along the way that keeps me interested.

I have friends who make their own wine and I've flirted with the idea of giving it a try. But winemaking is really boring. All that aging. Beer is a lot more fun and I actually had a kit at one time. But a neighbor's experience of having his batch blow up in the house always gave me pause. The chief reason being that I know I would get bored, walk away, and not monitor things as warranted.

But hope springs eternal and lately I've been hankering to get back into bread baking. It was brought on by watching Michael Pollan's "Cooked" series on Netflix. I love to cook and the "air" episode was all about making bread. One of the people profiled was Richard Bourdon, a baker from Massachusettes and a proponent of making bread via fermentation versus regular yeast+flour methods. He made a good argument about digestibility and the current gluten intolerance wave everyone is talking about.  He believes there wouldn't be any intolerance if we ate some form of fermented bread like sourdough.

This argument has of course generated controversy amongst the celiac crowd and other people who believe they are experts in nutrition. I have no way to refute or endorse any of it because I am completely uneducated on the subject. However, I do have my own gut. In my twenties I was besieged with digestive issues, ranging from a pre-ulcer to what was finally coined "irritable bowel syndrome" by one of the many doctors I went through for help. Unfortunately, I learned that IBS is a catch-all for undiagnosed intestinal issues. But, once I had the term I researched possible causes and ran across gluten intolerance. I stopped eating bread and voila! Issue gone. Since then I've begun taking probiotics and I can eat small portions of bread without incident.

Am I gluten intolerant?  I have no idea. I don't seem impacted by gluten as an additive in many of the foods I eat (including commercially produced ice cream) so it could very well be another ingredient that sets me off. Give me a piece of toast and within 15 minutes I have a painful acid stomach, give me cake for dessert and I get an IBS attack unless I pop a probiotic at the same time. I'm always suspicious of claims about carbs, gluten, vitamins, etc. because like most things they seem like fads and the "experts" are just in it to promote a book (or get a series on Netflix.) I'm a Michael Pollan fan because the boy can write beautifully, and he, like me, approaches things based upon curiosity and discovery. I forgive him from profiting from it.

So I'm doing my own sourdough starter. Is sourdough a cure for me? Absolutely not and certainly not more than the organic apple cider vinegar with the Mother, greek yogurt, and sauerkraut that I eat. Any sourdough loaves I've eaten in the past gave me the same reaction as any other bread, which makes me sad because I love a good sourdough cannon ball filled with hot soup.  But the program got me curious. What if I grew my OWN sourdough starter from the environment that I live and grow food in. Will I be able to tolerate it? And really, sourdough is the same process as composting and sauerkraut, two other things I like to do. Plus I like the idea of it. Being able to bring food to the table that I grew and prepared gives me a huge dose of satisfaction. If you've eaten at my house, it's because I hold you in high esteem and serve you with an ardor that not even Shakespeare could not describe. Ok, that's a little over the top, but you get the idea.

I googled some recipes and read about sourdough baking. (What did we do before the internet? Oh, yeah, I'd ask my grandma - the source of all home cooking knowledge and whose culinary magic I still aspire to.) The real pinnacle of using sourdough is to not use yeast at all when you prepare loaves for baking. If you do a good job with your starter, those loaves should rise, and while it may not be as fluffy, it's not the equivalent of a manhole cover either.

The premise behind sourdough is that you are harvesting "wild" yeast in the flour and from the air. Lord knows the heavy air here in Austin carries all sorts of things, but I've never heard of an artisan sourdough baker coming out of Texas. And as a resident of the west coast you are raised with the mantra that San Francisco is the capital of sourdough because of their wild yeast. (I know a good marketing campaign when I hear it.) Still, it's so totally Texan to harvest something wild, domesticate it, then exploit the heck out of it. Yee haw!

The basis of my starter is the one from King Arthur Flour. They have a really nice step by step guide with some photos of what the starter should look like throughout the process.  In general, you should be able to grow a batch of starter in about a week.  I went through the FAQ's and questions from bakers and then stumbled upon my achilles heel. "You must be patient."

Yeah, right. And true to form I've been goosing my starter. It started out okay and got to bubbling - I even got a full rise on day 4, but since then it has not progressed fast enough. So I got to thinking about the environment and what I could do to hurry things along. I do the same thing to my compost - and is why I collect and add coffee grounds and grass clippings. Cook damn you, cook! For my sourdough I've been adding more whole wheat flour in order to get the yeast population up. It seems to be working because I'm getting a little more action. With the recent rains we've had came another idea - I'll use rainwater! It's stormed enough to wash out most of the pollution and the resulting water should be teaming with yeasty Texas microbes. Another ultimate compliment - if you get rainwater at my house, that means you're important. Otherwise you have to suffer with the alkaline, chloramined municipal water. I filter the water in the house, but it's only my vegetable garden that gets rainwater in the yard. That's right, not even the roses and they complain constantly with their yellowish foliage. Oh, go eat some seaweed and here's a little chelated iron.

Interestingly enough, fermentation does not occur faster if you watch it. I caught myself checking on it throughout the day on Saturday with more attention than I was paying to the homemade spaghetti sauce that I was making at the same time. The sauce got a little scorched but what a joy to see the gas bubbles pop in the starter. I think I'm on to something and I am hoping that I will have mature starter in the next week or so.

Stay tuned to see if I can discover some hidden vault of patience, make bread without yeast, and consume it without bloating up like a dead whale.

But my attention wanders and now I'm off to do something else.  Squirrel!


  1. Sooooo....did patience pay off?!! (My no-knead seed bread was gifted to the neighbors, and they LOVED it. But granted, they're chickens, soooo....) :D

    1. It did! I finally got it to double on September 1, right before I left to visit my folks for a week! Lucky for me I gave it a good feed and put it in the refrigerator. Today when I got home it was still doing fine and happy to see me (well, happy to get new flour.) Next weekend I'm going to attempt sourdough bread without yeast!

    2. That's awesome! How did it go? I bought a sourdough rosemary loaf on a whim this week, and now I'm obsessed with toasting slices and then adding butter and honey. It's the perfect balance of sweet and crunchy with a bit of bite. I also made challah this weekend that didn't totally suck (straight to French toast due to dryness, but the flavor was amazing & the loaves looked Pinterest-worthy). Working my way up to sourdough & seed breads with whole wheat.

    3. I made my first loaf this weekend - but messed up the recipe so it didn't rise very much. It's a lovely sour flavor though and I'm encouraged to try it again! Got a couple of good tips from my friend Jess who makes it all the time. Grabbed a bunch of rainwater this weekend so will keep feeding it! As soon as I can get a decent loaf I will post again!!