- Published on Wednesday, 15 April 2009 04:52
- Written by Monica Sircar - Special to the Town Crier
Few Bay Area foods are as iconic as San Francisco sourdough. So popular was this style of bread during the California Gold Rush that veteran miners were dubbed “sourdoughs,” embodied by the San Francisco 49ers’ mascot, “Sourdough Sam.”
Although sourdough continues to hold a privileged place in the Bay Area, the advent of pure domesticated yeasts has mostly displaced wild yeast in home and commercial baking. However, with simple ingredients and a dash of patience, any home baker can start cultivating this distinctive local flavor.
All yeast breads harness the leavening power of the tiny fermenting fungus. The character of sourdough is due not to special ingredients, but to a greater variety of microbial baking partners.
The sour, fruity and complex flavors of wild yeast bread are the byproducts of a symbiotic relationship between the yeast and several strains of (human-friendly) bacteria. Naturally occurring yeast starters are never pure like their supermarket kin – each culture contains multiple strains of yeast as well as other microorganisms that contribute to the wild yeast bread’s complex flavor.
Geographic regions often have unique strains of bacteria that are incorporated in local breads – one especially tangy variety betrays its Bay Area roots: Lactobacillus sanfranciscensis.
To cultivate your own menagerie of microorganisms, you need little more than plain flour, water and a warm location – and a couple days of lead time. In a glass bowl, combine 1/2 cup water (preferably distilled) with 3/4 cup all-purpose white flour and stir well. Cover the bowl loosely with a towel and leave undisturbed in a warm (approximately 80 F) location for 24 hours. When you return, you may see a few bubbles and a slight rise to your mixture. If not, leave your culture in a warm spot for another 12 hours.
After your culture shows signs of life, you are ready for the first feeding. Remove 2/3 of your culture and discard. To the remaining 1/3, add 1/3 cup water and 1/2 cup flour. Stir, scraping the sides of the bowl with a spoon, and cover loosely before returning the starter to the warm spot for another 12 hours. Continue pouring off, feeding and resting the starter until it is able to double itself during the 12 hour intervals (approximately three to five days). Continue feeding the starter at room temperature each day or store a small container in the refrigerator to be fed once a week. Simply bring the starter to room temperature for one feeding cycle to reawaken the culture before use.
Once the starter is ready, the time is ripe to experiment. Sourdough starters are good for more than a mere clam chowder bread bowl. Sourdough starter can be incorporated in many baked goods, from basic soured breads to yeasty pancakes, waffles, doughnuts and bagels.
Some adventurous home bakers find inspiration among niche online baking communities and personal baking blogs. Baking enthusiast Susan Tenney of Sunnyvale started a food blog on wild yeast breads after taking a bread-baking course at the San Francisco Baking Institute.
Her Web site (wildyeastblog.com) lists favorite recipes, techniques for maintaining a starter and links to several baking Web sites. For nonbloggers looking for baking feedback, Tenney recommended the resource The Fresh Loaf (thefreshloaf.com), where novice bakers can get encouragement and where seasoned bakers trade tips and recipes.