Monday, February 16, 2009

A Meditation

On The Pernicious Effects of Using Bread Starter
for Leavening
on Quantitative Baking Process Skills

I baked my first loaf of bread when I was sixteen years old. But disallowing for the occasional loaves of brioche, rolls and baguettes that I made over my years of working in restaurants and banquet/catering establishments, I did not begin to bake in earnest until 1999, when my then allergic-to-wheat-gluten son's condition (Happily,he has outgrown the problem.) compelled me to flip a bird at the baking industry and take matters into my own hands.

Verily, it's been about 10 years that I've been making bread on a regular basis. I bake twice a week (not including the occasional loaf I make at the farm) for the family: one 3-4 pound hearth bread, made from starter without added yeast, and a 2lb "sandwich" loaf leavened with pure (SAF) yeast that I use for the kid's lunches.

Until about a year ago, my approach to baking was very different from how I approached other forms of cooking, save charcuterie. I recorded all of my recipes in notebooks or spreadsheets. Everything was weighed, percentages of each ingredient noted and when I baked, I followed the recipes as carefully as someone of my limited interest in following directions could muster.

I still follow my recipe for sandwich bread verbatim. But the process for hearth bread has become much less formal. It's more intuitive and has come to more closely resemble the way I prepare most things. I measure less, sniff and poke more and depend on "instinct" to know how much of each ingredient to add in proportion to the others.

On one hand this ad hoc approach is cool because it draws on internalized apprehensions about how to construct the dough and frees up my exiguous quantitative mind to do more important things like attempting to reorganize the lyrics for "Free Bird" or measure the timing for the "Three Stooges" routine that I'm planning to spring on the the family at dinner. However, it's also a big pain in the neck because if I continue to not pay attention to how I measure ingredients, I know there are going to be big problems down the road when I have to make more than one loaf at a time.

The degeneration of my quantitative baking process skills started almost as soon as I began to culture my own yeast and bacteria to leaven my hearth bread. (Why I chose to use starter for hearth bread, but not other types of bread has to be a topic of another post.)

As most of you know, the process of making bread starter requires that you add a quantity of flour to a quantity of water and let it sit until you see evidence that the naturally occurring yeast and bacteria are propagating. Unless you have a scanning electron microscope in your kitchen, the evidence you look for is coincidental to the growth of these microbes and can only be evinced by the presence of their waste products: carbon dioxide bubbles (which you can see), acid (which you can taste) and the smell of fragrant alcohol(s). Once your flour and water mixture shows signs of fungal and bacterial growth (Typically within 12 hours if you use organic flour.) you have to feed the bitch (Bourdain) more flour and water each day for about a week until the starter is bubbling vigorously and, f you want sour dough, the acidity increases to a desired degree of tartness (less than pH4).

Now here is what knocked me off-balance and turned me from a precision loving Johannes Vermeer kind of baker, to the gluten drooling Jackson Pollack I am today.

When you feed the starter, you are supposed to delete the same amount of flour and water that you add in as new food. Otherwise, if you keep adding and you don't subtract from the initial mixture, you end up with too much starter. Also, you need to keep track of how much flour and water you have in the starter at any moment because when you make the final dough, you need to know how much of each there is.

This is especially true of the water because as little as 10% too little or too much water can mean the difference between dough that is tough and won't spring well in the oven and dough that is so slack that it spreads out all over the oven floor. like gluten vomit.

After months of doing the math and making sure that I knew exactly how much water I had in my starter, I reverted to type and decided to wing it. Soon I was building starter by dumping in whatever: grapes, wheat berries, wine, various seeds, toothpicks (kidding!) and letting what happened happen.

To my fortune, I've only had a one or two loaves that have spread all over the oven because there was too much water. But most have come out just fine. However, I expect that my luck is a due the small scale of production and that the day that I have to make dozens of loaves is going to be the day that I have to pay for for the pleasure of my degagé approach to a process that should be precise.

(I think I'm doomed.)


fiat lux said...

"gluten vomit"

What a lovely turn of phrase. NOT :)

Rich said...

I never get the proportions right with starter when I measure. I mean I try to cull/feed in equal amounts except when I am growing more starter to make lots of bread. I only got it right when I was making a couple loaves a week and got the feel for it. I kinda used correct ratios to get close then winged it. I didn't always hit the mark, but but I got more accurate with more loaves.

Rich said...


I'm looking to start experimenting with cheese making. Can you suggest a good online rennet source?

Kevin Stadmeyer said...


I don't suppose you could share your sandwhich bread recipe? I have been looking for a good one for a while, and sadly am very bad at baking and I can use all the help I can get.


The Bad Yogi said...

Doomed? Maybe so.

But I can't wait to read about it.

Does that make me a bad person?

Bob del Grosso said...


Graham Flour 112g
AP Flour 448g
sugar 42g
butter 42g
eggs 100g (2 each)
SAF yeast 10g
salt 10g
Milk 336g (12oz)

Very sticky dough, I suggest you use a mixer fitted with a paddle.

Combine dry ingredients, cut in butter.
Add eggs, when combined add milk.

Paddle 4-5 minutes. Scrap down and let proof in bowl at least twice. Don't punch it down, fold it over on itself with a spatula. When done proofing, roll out onto floured surface, gently pat it out into a thick rectangle roughly the size of your bread pan, and fold it so that it fits in the pan.
Dust the top with flour (or not).

Proof and bake in the usual way.

Do not knead it at any step. You don't want a lot of gluten development for this. All the kneading it needs is done in the mixer.

Kevin said...

I'm still precise when it comes to feeding my starter, but not so much when it comes to making the bread preferring, like you, to rely on my sense of sight, smell, taste, and touch to judge when the dough is right.

In other words, I may not plan where I'm going, but I always know where I started.

redman said...

great post, love the part about adding anything to starter

Bob said...

Now THIS is what blogging is all about.

It's not often that you see "Free Bird," "The Three Stooges," and the word "exiguous" in the same paragraph.

Gluten vomit still beats a gluten pu pu platter.

The "Adam Last Name Unknown" chapter of "Kitchen Confidential" (feed the bitch chapter) is the one that made me buy the book and got me rolling down the
slippery Bourdain slope.

Ever since my daughter saw Tony say "eat it bitches" to his camera crew in the Montreal "No Reservations," she just says "Bitches is on" when she sees him on TV.

blondee47 said...

Oh Bob, this is a post for the ages...and yes this is why i read food what do u charge for shipping ???

Jennie/Tikka said...

We did plenty of starter-making in school but I have yet to do it outside of there. Some of them - grape starter in particular - was so detailed and took soooo many steps it just turned off all but a few diehard bread makers in class.

justo said...

Same here, I've had a starter going since August 2007 and I lost track of how much water and flour I was adding a long time ago. The proportions are generally the same, so I suppose I could arrive at a number by working backward from the total weight.

I'm fortunate in that I've never had a loaf spread. Ick.

maurarose said...

I don't think anything has caused me more anxiety in the kitchen than a bread starter. I followed Nancy Silverton's technique, and I thought I would lose my mind. I think I started over four times in a six month period before I finally gave up.

I'll stick to my "not really no-knead bread". If a good technique if you take the time to actually knead the bread.