(a letter from Ruth Wiechmann in response to Sourdough, Laundry, and Tea…)
We have had a few days of spring weather here in south-western South Dakota, and yesterday I heard the first robins singing in the cottonwoods by the creek. It’s a Sunday morning, and I suppose we should be in Church, but–guess what? I am a “farm girl” too, and my husband is busy being “midwife” to a large herd of Angus cows. My two boys just went out with him to do a few chores, so we will do our own “church” later, and I have a few quiet minutes to write to you about Sourdough and other things… I’m sitting here at the computer with a cup of tea, trying to gather my thoughts. (Yes, it is a real tea cup, not a mug. It’s not a perfect match to the saucer, but they look pretty together anyway.)
I am no expert on sourdough, or any other cooking topic, for that matter, unless you want to know how not to do something. My mother experimented with various sourdoughs over my childhood years, and I ate her successes and threw out her failures. I have used a couple of starters since my marriage, but I seem to lose them when I move. That is the extent of my experience!
I expect you have heard all of the “basics:” use glass or plastic containers, not metal, stir it with a wooden spoon, etc. I do use a stainless steel bowl to mix up my bread dough in, as I don’t have anything else big enough, but I think the main caution against metal refers to aluminum, or any other metal that the sourdough could “eat. Mom had a friend who was a potter, and she made Mom a two- or three-quart crock with a special lid that had holes in it so that the sourdough could “breathe.” We always put a coffee filter on under the lid, too, to keep out unwanted objects and insects.
I am sure you know this, too, but I will remind you anyway: sourdough is a living organism. Like any creature, it responds differently in different environments, and it may or may not “like” different foods. Sourdough is basically “wild” yeast. Each kitchen has varying amounts of this in the air, and probably varying strains. For this reason, some starters may work well for some people, and not at all for others. It may take a lot of experimentation to find one that works for you, or you may have gorgeous bread right away. If something doesn’t seem to be working, try something different, but if it is working for you, don’t change what you’re doing. Oh, and by the way, if something works, write down what you did so that you can repeat the process accurately. This is my husband’s best advice to his haphazard cook of a wife!
Sourdough, like most other creatures, needs warmth and food. Caroline Ingalls set her starter on the shelf behind her wood cookstove in the winter. Those of us with modern kitchens can usually just set the starter on the counter, but if it seems slow, try setting it in the oven (if you have a propane stove) with just the pilot light for warmth.
Sourdough, like other yeast, eats starch and sugar. White flour is a simple starch, and probably the “ideal” sourdough food for this reason. Some people have had success with whole wheat or whole rye flour sourdoughs, but I would hate to have anyone see the ones Mom made when I was growing up. They smelled bad enough to make my brother gag, and they grew spectacular mold formations. Mom’s conclusion was that the bran in the whole grain flours fermented without being digested by the sourdough, and that caused it to go bad. I suppose it all depends on the environment in your kitchen and your particular starter, though, as my sister-in-law had a wonderful sourdough going for awhile, and all she fed it was rye flour. I also read on the Ladies Against Feminism site recently about a lady who started a sourdough using all whole wheat flour.
If your sourdough is used to eating white flour, I probably would advise against changing its diet. If you want to experiment, divide it into two parts; feed one part as usual, and feed the other part whole wheat. That way, if you kill it, you will still have your starter!
My Grandma had a starter for years that she fed water, sugar, and potato flakes. She made lovely bread with it, but always used quite a bit of white flour in her dough. I got some from her a couple of years ago, and my bread was never quite as nice as hers, but I used mostly whole wheat flour.
I would advise against feeding a sourdough milk, especially if you only have pasteurized milk. Milk contains other proteins that will be difficult for the little beasties to digest, and pasteurized milk will not ferment naturally, as raw milk will, but will rot instead. You can certainly add milk to your bread dough, just don’t use milk when you feed the starter.
Mom’s best starter was one she bought at “Jedidiah’s House of Sourdough” in West Yellowstone, when we went to Yellowstone in 1991. It was supposedly a descendant of Jedidiah Smith’s sourdough. We made the world’s best sourdough cornbread with that starter, as well as pancakes and other bread. Mom’s loaves never were very high, but we always used mostly whole wheat flour, and I think that was probably why. When I used it after Ben and I got married, I added a tiny bit of yeast (1 tsp. or so for four loaves) to my dough, along with baking soda and vinegar (two other things I had heard would help it rise better). I had beautiful bread until I killed the starter when Ben and I moved. I found a telephone number for “Jedidiah’s Original House of Sourdough” in Jackson, WY. (307-733-5671) They will sell sourdough starter.
For more information about why sourdough is good for you, I recommend Sally Fallon’s cookbook, Nourishing Traditions. You may think she’s crazy at first, like I did, but keep reading until you get the big picture. I don’t do everything exactly the way she advises, but I have applied her principles to my cooking in many areas. She recommends using yeast rarely or never, but I haven’t gone that far. I think it depends a lot on your health (some people are very sensitive to candida infections and can’t handle yeast), and it also depends on your husband’s preferences. (My husband doesn’t really like heavy, sour-tasting bread.) My sisters are currently using a “cool rise” starter that they purchased on recommendation from Sally Fallon’s book. They have made some pretty nice bread with 100% whole wheat flour with that starter.
I recently started a new sourdough using some yeast from the freezer, white flour, and water. My main purpose with this one is to stretch out my yeast supply until my mother-in-law orders from the food co-op again in June. I have made two batches of bread with it, and we’ll see how long it lasts. It is not very “sour”, and it has risen nicely for me. (A couple of weeks ago, Ben came in from his two a.m. heifer check, and informed me that my latest batch was about to take over the kitchen. It had pushed the cover off my biggest plastic bowl, and was heading over the edge.)
How to Multiply Yeast
from the Nitty Gritty Food Book
1) Dissolve yeast in water.
(The cookbook did not give proportions—I would use 1-2 Tablespoons yeast and 4 cups water.)
2) stir in 4 cups flour.
Put one cup aside for starter, let it rise awhile and then refrigerate.
Use the balance for that day’s baking.
Next baking, mix the reserved starter with water in place of the yeast.
Mom’s Sourdough Cornbread
1 ½ c. sourdough starter
1/3 cup oil
1/4 c. buttermilk
1/2 cup flour
1 1/4 c. cornmeal
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. Baking powder
½ tsp soda
Stir dry ingredients into liquid, allow to stand in the bowl for 20 minutes before baking. This is best if you preheat a heavy pan for about five minutes (a 9×13 glass pan or a 12 inch cast iron skillet) in your oven while the oven is heating (to 400 degreees). When the pan is hot, drop a couple of tablespoons of butter in and spread it around as it melts. If you like, you can also sprinkle some sesame seeds in the bottom of the pan. Pour in the batter, and bake for 20-30 minutes.