Monday, 16 December 2013

Me and my Starter

A friend recently asked me what I do with my sourdough starter, apart from daily bread. The answer, sadly, is not very much!

What is a starter? A starter is a yeast culture that is kept in active or semi-active form, and used in baking instead of commercially available yeasts. Because the yeast culture in a starter is usually wild, harvested from the flour itself, or yeast spores in the air, it tends to be less aggressive than commercial yeasts, so you are not likely to get thrush infections from handling it all the time. There are different ways of creating and caring for a starter, and you can make one fresh for a single bake, or keep one alive for years.

Our starter lives in an ice cream tub with holes stabbed in the lid, in the fridge. It's called Honore, after the patron saint of bread, and because I am the daughter of a great anthropomorphist. Some things take a while to wear off...Ours is an old starter, handed down by my Mother in Law, and full of tasty sourdough flavour. Due to the living nature of the culture, it bakes differently according to the weather, especially temperature, and its flavour has changed over time. If it spends a bit longer in the fridge between feedings the sourdough flavour tends to get stronger. I love it! The living, changing nature of baking in this way really appeals to me.

I spend about a day making our daily bread (I refer to it as daily bread, but what I really mean is everyday bread. We don't eat a loaf a day unless we have company), but it's not a time consuming process; just a slow one. I start the night before, taking Honore out of the fridge and mixing him in a large bowl with 8oz bottled water and 8oz bread flour. I use bottled water because the culture doesn't like the chlorine in tap water. Overnight the starter is "activated," coming to life and respiring, producing lots of bubbles to show it. In the morning I put half of what's in the mixing bowl back into the cleaned ice cream tub, mixing in 4oz each of bottled water and bread flour. With the half left in the bowl, I mix in sugar, salt, oil, any extras I fancy (such as seeds or herbs), and enough bread flour to make a slightly tacky dough. Then I cover and leave to double in size. Round lunch time I knead the dough, and transfer to my loaf tin to prove for a second time. When I'm using the oven to cook dinner, I stick the bread in for around half an hour, and allow to cool in the tin overnight, ready for lunchboxes the next day.

I now use Honore to provide all of our yeast for baking, and usually this involves simply exchanging the yeast in a recipe for a spoonful of starter in a guessing sort of quantity, but there are a couple of exceptions: Pizza; and hot cross buns.

For pizza, I start out as though I am making my regular bread, but when making the dough I use half semolina to bread flour. This gives a base that cooks through well, and goes crispy underneath while still having soft crusts. I don't like hard crusts!

For hot cross buns I follow this recipe. I don't bother with the crosses (I make them beyond Good Friday!), and I swap the sugar glaze for warmed marmalade. Oh, and I steep the dried fruit in tea overnight. We drink leaf tea from a pot, so there's usually some left over to stand duty for this. The hot cross buns are spongy and light and delicious! And because they are not so cakey, they make a very nice breakfast, in the manner of fruit toast. Mmm...

They go quickly! The only thing I really struggle to make well with the starter is nice rolls for hot dogs. Any suggestions? I hope that has pushed someone to have a go with a starter, or maybe to try using it for something new, and I hope someone can come back to me with something new to do with mine! See you Wednesday for Ginny's Yarn Along!


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