Saturday, February 17, 2007

Cheap Bread with a Sourdough Starter

While reading the fabulous Tightwad Gazette, I came across an excellent recommendation for acquiring new skills. Each month, pick one frugal skill that's new to you, and try it out. This seemed like such a sensible idea that I immediately decided to learn about baking, and in particular about yeasted breads. Good bread is something my husband and I came to expect as our birthright while living in the San Francisco bay area. Since relocating to Pennsylvania, the bread pickings have been decidedly fewer, poorer and more expensive. I reasoned that I could probably learn to produce bread at least as good as that being sold for $4 per loaf at the local grocery stores.

Background reading
I've long been proficient at cooking. But baking with yeast seemed so complex and so other to me that I knew I would need the full month or more to feel comfortable with it. Once again, I turned to books and the public library for help. I found the Baker's Companion, by the King Arthur Flour company to be an excellent reference for all around baking, including a section on yeasted breads and sourdough. But I wanted something to help me really get my head around yeasted breads. The book that helped me do this was The Bread Baker's Apprentice, by Peter Reinhart. I highly recommend both of these books to anyone new to baking.

Do-it-yourself sourdough starter
As a thrifty person, I decided that I would begin a sourdough starter and leaven all my breads from it rather than have to buy overpriced packets of yeast in the stores. To get my sourdough starter up and running, I simply saved a small piece of raw dough from a pack of Trader Joe's pizza dough. This was far from a precise exercise, as I had only a general sense of what needed to be done. I put the dough into a clean plastic pitcher, added some warm water and a few teaspoons of sugar, stirred, and put the lid on the pitcher. I let that sit at room temperature for about 3 hours. Then I added a little bit of flour and stirred that around. The contents were still quite liquid. That mixture sat out at room temperature for another three hours. I put it in the fridge when I went to bed. For the next two days, I took the pitcher out of the refrigerator in the morning, added 1/3 cup of water and 1/3 cup of flour, stirred well, covered and let it sit out all day. By the fourth day, it was pretty clear from the bubbles and the yeasty smell that I had a starter going.

There's another option for frugal folk who want their own sourdough starter. Carl's friends will send you a free dried sourdough starter in the mail, no strings attached. Your only cost would be two stamps, one for your self addressed stamped envelope, and the other to get the envelope to Carl's friends. Since starting my own starter, I've sent off for Carl's starter and received it. I'm saving the dried starter in case my own should die off or turn funky. Visit the link above to get the mailing address for your own dried starter sample, as well as detailed instructions on how to get it going when it arrives.

The only caution I would extend to those creating or maintaining their own starter at home is that chlorinated water should not be used, as this will deter the yeast and their companion friendly bacteria. It's fine to use well water, but if you're on a city hook up, it might be advisable to buy mineral or distilled water.

Keeping your sourdough starter happy
You do need to pay some attention to your starter. A starter is not a fussy thing, but it can't be starved. It needs to be fed on a weekly basis, at least. I feed mine just 2/3 cup of flour and 2/3 cup of water each Tuesday and again if I'm making multiple batches of bread in a week. There are certainly advantages to having a sourdough starter. Among these is the tangy taste that all the bread produced from it has. Another is that a sourdough starter will prompt you to keep baking. Otherwise, you end up with an enormous amount of starter.

Sometimes the starter will have a darkish liquid on top of it when I take it out to feed it. There's nothing wrong with this, but it does contain a tiny bit of alcohol along with the other waste products from the yeast. You can simply stir this back into the starter, or you can pour it off. I always pour it off, to spare the little yeasties from stewing in their own waste. Alcohol is yeast piss, after all. When I pour the liquid off, I gauge it roughly and try to add that amount of liquid back into the starter, in addition to the flour and water I'm feeding it.

Baking supplies
There are also times when baking with active dry yeast is preferable or necessary. For one thing, there are far more bread recipes out there that start from dried yeast than those that work with a starter. If you wish to bake bread from dried yeast, I urge you to buy your yeast in bulk at a health food store or dried goods store. You will find the prices for bulk yeast to be vastly cheaper than for the individual packets.

If you get serious about baking bread you should absolutely check out all convenient sources of different flours. Bread baking uses up flour like nobody's business! I've never gone through bags of flour so fast in my life. Shop around and get the best prices, because you'll really start to go through it if you supply your own bread.

There are a few pieces of equipment recommended for bread bakers, but I've been fortunate in that I've successfully avoided paying for any of them. There are online companies which will be happy to sell you expensive bannetons or proofing baskets. And by all means, if you're looking for something to spend money on, have at it. I found that an old rectangular basket for serving bread worked very well when lined with a square of linen cut from a worn out article of clothing. I was also lucky enough to be given a baking stone by a relative who had two. I won't say that either of these articles are necessary for baking good bread. But they did make a difference for the better in the loaves I produce. There's another fancy gadget called a lame for slashing the top of the loaf before baking it. Needless to say, I haven't shelled out for this. I can hold a razor blade carefully enough in my hand for the one or two moments each week that I need to use it. In my opinion, this gadget might make sense in a professional bakery making thousands of loaves each day, but not for the home baker.

The breads!
For the last six weeks or so, I've been cranking out double-sized loaves of bread about once a week. I've been splitting these with my father, as my husband is often away on business travel and I don't want the bread to go to waste. The bread has gotten rave reviews, and I'm happy to see a steady improvement in the texture of the bread. I've also started making English muffins from sourdough starter and these get even better reviews from friends and family. English muffins cost out to about 10-12 cents each, and my monster-sized loaves of bread start at around 85 cents in ingredients costs, depending on what I put into them. Olive oil and fresh herbs can easily double or triple the ingredients costs. And that's why I'll be growing sage and rosemary in pots pretty soon.

So try your own homemade breads! Don't be shy or nervous. It's a very rare loaf of freshly baked homemade bread that doesn't get a lot of appreciation around the house.

Here's a flickr link showing some of the yeasted breads and other items that I've prepared recently.

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