While mixing my dough this morning, I thought about all of the ritualistic practices I’ve developed while studying sourdough bread baking, and while practicing the art myself. Some of the practices have a scientific basis, and some are simply handed down from baker to baker. In the Internet Age, much of that arcane collective wisdom actually makes its way into common lore via cooking blogs, recipe collection sites, YouTube channels, etc. And hence, the lore makes its way into hobbyist kitchens like mine.
So here is a run down of some of the lore-based superstitions and rituals I practice on baking day:
- Never bring the sourdough culture in contact with metal. I take this a little further than some – plastic is also on my do-not-touch list. I store the mother dough in a glass canister in the refrigerator and mix the levain in a glass bowl with a wooden spoon. I carry the no-metal injunction over to the bread dough itself, mixing the dough in a large glass bowl using a wooden spoon and a (gasp) plastic scraper to work the dough. From a science perspective, reactive materials like aluminum are a bad idea in bread baking, but the complete injunction against metal utensils is not fact-based. I choose to believe the yeast and lactobacillus are Fey, and cannot abide cold iron. This carries over as much as possible into even the final step of baking in the oven. For the most part, I bake bread either on a bread stone or in a clay baker. For the few breads I bake on metal today, I’m investigating other options.
My clay baker. It’s basically the same concept as a Romertopf, but was made by a company called Gourmet Topf in the 1970s or ’80s. This company no longer exists, but you can still pick up the occasional Gourmet Topf on eBay, etc. I found this one at a thrift shop. It was exactly what I hoped to find, though I expected to come up empty and have to buy a similarly shaped casserole dish. Surely the Fey had a hand in this!
I’m currently struggling with the idea of attempting bread in a cast iron cocotte or dutch oven. If the clay baker didn’t work so incredibly well, I’d be more tempted to try baking bread in cast iron. For now, the injunction against metal touching dough stands uncontested.
- Do not mix sourdough and commercial yeast. This isn’t a universal superstition. Some bakers use the sourdough levain for the rich tangy flavor it adds to a bread, but use commercial dry yeast in the final dough to speed up the rise and fermentation process. Some bakers even add commercial dry yeast to the levain. The reasons I don’t use dry yeast with sourdough have a scientific basis. The wild yeasts in a traditional sourdough come from the natural environment. They grow on the wheat in the fields, and they live in the flour you buy. Kitchens and bakeries swarm with yeast spores after years of bread baking. The predominant yeast in sourdough is Saccharomyces exiguus. Unlike commercial yeasts, Saccharomyces exiguus is unable to digest maltose, a sugar that occurs naturally in wheat. This is the property of sourdough yeast that results in the magic of tangy, rich tasting classic sourdough bread. The yeast leaves some room at the table for lactobacillus, particularly some strains of this bacteria that are prevalent in the San Francisco Bay Area, collectively and aptly named Lactobacillus sanfrancisco. This is the bacteria to whom we owe San Francisco style sourdough bread. The yeast and bacteria live symbiotically in sourdough starter that isn’t tainted by commercial yeast. One of the byproducts of the lactobacillus munching merrily on maltose is alcohol. As the sourdough goes through its life cycle, the breakdown of maltose into alcohol signals that the dinner table is nearly cleared for your sourdough culture, and it’s time to feed it with more flour and water.
- This byproduct, commonly called “hootch” in the baking community, leads to my penultimate sourdough superstition for this article. Do not discard the hootch. Substitute it for part of the liquid in your bread recipe, and enjoy the resulting unique sourdough tang. The alcohol will cook off in the baking process, just like wine or sherry does, leaving the concentrated flavor behind. Caution: it’s not a one for one substitution. If your recipe calls for a cup of water, and you have a half cup of hootch floating on top of your starter, add the half cup of hootch and 2/3 to 3/4 cups of water. The hootch will evaporate more thoroughly than water in the baking process.
- My final superstition is also somewhat controversial. Learn to read your dough, rather than depending on precisely measured recipes. In my opinion, precise measurements are a good place to start because they give you a measuring stick for what to change when you evaluate the final product with your senses of sight, taste and smell. Bread baking is a science, but most bakers don’t have control of all the variables – room temperature, humidity, the age and moisture content of the flour, etc. Baking with sourdough yeast adds the variable of the yeast culture itself. The relative proportions of yeast and lactobacillus in the newly awakened starter, and their relative hunger or satiety all impact how active the sourdough levain will be on a given day. Once you are satisfied with your levain’s activity and with your dough during the kneading process, you still have the question mark of when it will rise “enough” to be ready to shape into loaves, and how long the final rise will need before you are ready to bake.
After revealing the depths of my sourdough superstitions, it should come as no surprise that my two starters, wheat based and rye based, are named Galadriel and Arwen.