Friday 17 April 2015

Ten Stars for Starter

For the last thirty years I've been making the bread at home. That's pretty much all the bread: occasionally someone will lash out and buy a french-stick from the supermarket which is about as close to a French baguette as my croissants are to the real thing made in a patisserie in Lyon or Bordeaux.  The other day, I was shopping in T€$co late in the evening and bought a tiger-loaf that was at its sell-by date and going for 38c. Over Easter someone popped it in the oven to liven it up and it cooled down in a puddle of pap - it was repellent! Won't do that again.  Recently I've been making sourdough: maintaining a sustainable culture in a plastic tub in the fridge and bringing it out every tuthree days.  I split the slobber into two parts - put one part into a mixing bowl for "today's loaf today" and adding a scant handful of wheat flour and some water to the remainder.  Over the months I've been running this protocol, my 'starter' has changed from what I was given by a friend last year.  It consists of at least two species, indeed two kingdoms, which prop each other up in a mutualistic relationship that neither would be able to support on its own.  One is some sort of yeast, a uni-celled fungus, which is closely related to Saccharomyces cerevisiae that bakers and brewers use to make the products that give us so much simple pleasure.  The other is a Lactic Acid Bacteria LAB probably Lactobacillus casei but possibly L. sanfranciscensis. It's certainly possible that several species of LAB are part of the community in my tub.

I have to remember to leave the starter brew out on the counter for a while after feeding it, so that it has some time at its optimal growing temperature - which is not a fridgy 4oC - but not so long that it will get out-competed by the rogue microbial flora that hangs out in our kitchen.  It is called sourdough because it is slightly tangy from the incomplete fermentation of the glucose that is supplied by the flour. LABs produce acetic and lactic acids in varying amounts depending on which species is working, the temperature, and whether or not there is oxygen present.  It tends not to rise as dramatically as regular white bread, but I'm working through several bags of Matthews Cotswold Crunch Flour which was on special in Aldi a few weeks ago so it's been good for my teeth and I daresay my bowels. Occasionally I'll cheat and add a teaspoon of dried yeast to the mix for extra loft. There is something quietly satisfying about making your own bread - the working time is very little - maybe 15-20 minutes - although the elapsed time is nearer that in hours.  I like the idea of using the residual heat in an airing cupboard or beside the wood-burning stove to such good purpose as causing the dough to rise.

Fermentation processes usually make a more interesting product than their chemical equivalents. The Irish have a long tradition of making bread by substituting baking soda / sodium bicarbonate and acid instead of yeast to make the bubbles that give bread its lift.  I do this as well, especially when instant gratification is called for, but other stuff happens when you have a biological fermentation - more complex breakdown of proteins and sugars. Bicarbonate may also damage thiamine / vitamin B1, so there is a certain irony in Irish people making wholemeal soda-bread for its nutritional benefits and then destroying one of the key beneficial ingredients in the cooking. You should be a bit leery of using a lot of baking soda if you have blood-pressure issues because it is one quarter sodium by weight.

In a world increasingly samey, home-made bread has this virtue - every loaf is different but every loaf is good.

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