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Since gold mining days, sourdough has been a Western staple, delighting generations with its tangy flavor in breads, pancakes, and other baked foods.

Sourdough has been a standby at Sunset, too, from the first recipes published in 1933 to a longer discussion in 1961. A breakthrough story in 1973 gave directions for creating a dependable starter-- the mixture of flour, liquid, and beneficial bacteria that put the tang in sourdough baking; ours was based on yogurt.

Two years ago, we asked you to write us about your sourdough experiences, especially with the yogurt-based starter. We received hundreds of responses--as well as many questions. To answer these and our own questions, we embarked on sourdough experiments. (Some most-asked questions are discussed on page 140.) In brief, we found that starters are much more forgiving of neglect and variations in feeding than we had thought. You can change your technique to encourage more or less sour flavor, and you can use the starter in quick or more involved ways.

Readers also sent many recipes; favorites are pictured at left and on page 141.

Yeasts and beasts--how a starter works

No sourdough starter is exactly like another: each is a living organism with a different bacteria and yeast make-up. All starters ferment flour and liquid (usually milk or water): bacteria break down sugars in the flour and milk and produce acids, primarily lactic acid and some acetic acid (vinegar); these give sourdough its tang. Fermentation also produces some carbon dioxide bubbles.

Our 1973 recipe relies on bacteria in the yogurt to culture the starter. These bacteria may be different from ones in commercial starters, or in homemade ones that capture bacteria more haphazardly.

While bacteria create sourness, yeasts break down sugars in flour to form more carbon dioxide, which leavens the bread.

Yogurt-based starters typically don't have any yeast, although you may have the good fortune to capture some from flour (yeasts are not airborne, as lore suggests).

Because starters vary so much in their leavening ability, our recipes contain another leavener as well. We don't think commercial yeast detracts from the sourdough taste; it just adds another flavor. And bread made with yeast rises faster than with starter alone--about 1 1/2 hours versus 6 to 8 hours.

Care and feeding of your pet starter

To keep bacteria and yeasts healthy, a starter must be fed flour and liquid occasionally, then stand. (Chill between uses.) For food choices, see box on page 140.

Environment. When creating a starter, incubate it between 80| and 90|: higher, and bacteria may die; lower, the starter may develop mold. Place stop your water heater--or in an oven with the light on or warmed with pans of boiling water.

An established starter is stronger; after feeding, it can stand at room temperature if a warm spot isn't handy. If you feed the starter milk, as we suggest, you'll know it's ready to use or chill when a clear liquid forms on top. This shows that the acid level has risen and is starting to break down milk protein. High acid means sour flavor.

Bacteria in starters grow best without oxygen, so store your starter in a tightly closed container. Air fosters mold, too.

Neglect or care? In our 1973 story, we suggested feeding the starter every two weeks. Some readers who ignored this wrote with revival tales worthy of Southern evangelists: after starters had nearly died from international travel, natural disasters, and lack of food for up to two years, they revived. (Other readers guilty of such cavalier tactics lost their starters.)

For more on ignoring starters, see the question box on page 140.

A happy medium between neglect and slavish attention is to feed the starter at least once a month. If it has sat in the refrigerator longer, try reviving it.

Resuscitate or give up the ghost?

An "old" smell, no bubbles at room temperature, a top layer of dark brown liquid, and slight mold growth indicate your starter isn't feeling its best. First spoon off and discard any mold, then stir the starter. Feed it 1 cup each of flour and milk and let stand as directed in the recipe. After 24 hours, discard half the starter and repeat feeding and standing. Repeat a third time, if needed, until starter bubbles, has a "fresh" sour smell.

You can't bring a starter back from the dead. If, after repeated feedings, your starter still smells "off" and won't bubble, discard it. Also, if mold growth is heavy, begin a new starter.

Getting the most flavor, best texture

Increasing the tang in your sourdough baked foods and getting chewy, light texture require surprisingly few acrobatics.

Sourness. The greatest trick for more sour flavor is patience: the longer dough stands in the "sponge" stage, the more sourness you'll get--up to a point. A sponge is a mixture of starter and part of the liquid and flour called for in a recipe. You let it stand 12 to 24 hours before adding other ingredients; as it stands, bacteria multiply and produce acidity, or sourness. After about 24 hours, the sponge won't get much more sour. Our recipes give you the option of a long sponge stage for flavor or a short one for speed.

Some readers reported their starters didn't get very sour until they were about a year old; with a long sponge stage, even our new starters produced good flavor.

A few readers wrote about starters that are too sour. To mellow, skip the sponge stage in our recipes, and after feeding the starter, let it stand only a few hours.

Texture. Discussions with professional bakers, and experiments in our test kitchens, point to the success of bread flour in achieving traditional chewy sourdough texture. Compared to all-purpose flour, bread flour is higher in the components that form gluten--the protein structure that develops when you knead dough; the dough is stronger and springier. For pancakes, muffins, and other breads that aren't kneaded and are softer in texture, all-purpose flour is a better choice.

For kneaded doughs, the correct amount of flour varies with weather and other factors. As you gain experience, you'll know when the kneaded dough feels right--it will still be tacky, but not sticky (not enough flour) or dry (too much).

Sufficient kneading is also important for good bread texture--dough should feel smooth and springy and have tiny bubbles just beneath the surface; underkneaded dough will be heavy when baked.

Yeast-leavened doughs generally rise twice, punched between risings; this divides up air cells and makes lighter bread. For the first rise, dough should double in volume; poke a finger into dough--the impression should stay if dough has risen enough. After shaping, the dough rises again. When it's ready to bake, it will look puffy (but not yet be double), and will hold a slight impression when pressed.

Crust. Professional bakers of sourdough French bread use ovens with jets of steam to make the crust crisp. At home, you can spray bread with a mister during baking. We tried baking bread in terra cotta baking domes and on stones, which are meant to make bread crisp, but water spraying worked best.

And a time-saving tip

Sourdough bacteria multiply fastest between 80| and 90|, so recipes call for starter at room temperature. If skipping sponge stage, you can use the starter cold.

1988 Sourdough French Bread

3/4 cup warm water (90|)

1 cup sourdough starter, at room temperature

3 to 3 1/2 cups bread flour

1 package active dry yeast

1 teaspoon each salt and sugar


In a large bowl, stir 1/2 cup water, starter, and 1 cup flour until smooth. For sourest flavor, cover and let stand in a warm place until bubbly and sour smelling, 12 to 24 hours. To speed, omit standing; proceed.

Soften yeast in remaining water; stir into sourdough mixture with salt and sugar.

According to 1 of the following ways, mix in remaining flour and knead.

By hand. Stir in enough flour to form a kneadable dough, about 2 cups. Turn dough out onto a lightly floured board and knead until smooth and elastic, 12 to 15 minutes; add as little flour as possible to keep dough from sticking. Place dough in a greased bowl; turn over.

With a dough hook. Mix in enough flour to form a somewhat stiff dough, about 2 cups. Beat on high speed until dough pulls cleanly from side of bowl, about 8 minutes. If dough still sticks or feels sticky, add flour 1 tablespoon at a time until dough pulls free and isn't sticky. Leave in bowl.

In a food processor. Place 2 1/4 cups flour in container (at least 8-cup capacity) with plastic or metal blade. With motor running, pour starter mixture into feed tube. Whirl until dough forms a ball and pulls from container, then whirl 45 seconds more. If sough feels sticky, add 1 more tablespoon flour at a time and mix in short bursts. Leave in bowl.

When kneaded, cover bowl with plastic wrap and let rise in a warm place until double, 1 to 2 hours. Gently punch down dough. Turn out onto a lightly floured board and knead gently just until smooth. Roll with hands into a 3 1/2- by 12-inch log. Generously sprinkle a piece of stiff cardboard with cornmeal; set dough on cornmeal. Cover lightly with plastic wrap and let rise in a warm place until puffy, 10 to 30 minutes.

About 10 minutes before dough is ready, place a 12- by 15-inch baking sheet on lowest oven rack, then heat oven to 400|.

With a flour-dusted razor blade or sharp knife, cut several 3/4-inch-deep diagonal slashes on loaf's top. Slip loaf off cardboard onto hot baking sheet, keeping slashed side up. Spray bread all over with water.

Bake for 5 minutes, then spray again with water. Repeat after 5 more minutes, then bake until deep golden, 25 to 30 minutes more. Let cool completely on rack. Makes 1 loaf, about 1 1/2 pounds.

Per ounce: 74 cal.; 3 g protein; 15 g carbo.; .2 g fat; .3 mg chol.; 89 mg sodium.

Photo: Great crust, chewy interior, and sour flavor are a sourdough baker's reward. Next to container of starter is classic French bread. Italian flour-dusted loaf in foreground is made with parmesan and pepper. Recipes begin on pages 139 and 220

Photo: Sourdough selection includes (from back left, clockwise): whole-grain bread, sesame loaf, double dill braid, oat-corn and blueberrybran muffins, fennel biscuits, apricot bread, oat-wheat waffles, chocolate-cherry cake. Recipes begin on page 220
COPYRIGHT 1988 Sunset Publishing Corp.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1988 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Title Annotation:recipes; includes related articles on making sourdough
Date:May 1, 1988
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