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[HowTo] Making sourdough starter from raisin yeast water and baking my first sourdough bread

I consider baking bread at home as a therapeutic activity more so than other cooking tasks. There is something relaxing about going through the process of methodically kneading the dough by hand, patiently letting the dough proof, forming the desired shapes, and finally baking them. It takes a bit of patience and is definitely not for everybody, especially those that tend to seek instant gratification. I did purchase a bread machine in the past to make things easy and convenient but it just wasn't the same. The lengthy and manual process (interspersed with long periods of relative inactivity) gives me time to be introspective and think about stuff, or sometimes I would like to multitask by listening to a good audiobook (for some reason I cannot listen to audiobooks without doing something else — I get so sleepy for some reason), or an interesting podcast.

One of my first attempts in making sourdough bread

As mentioned in a previous post, I have decided to "level up" my bread making by growing my own yeast culture from raisins. This raisin yeast water can be used to "kick-start" your sourdough starter. Of course, you can accomplish the same feat by just letting a mixture of flour and water be exposed to the naturally occurring yeast in the air but it will take more time (but that is the more traditional route of starting a culture that has the distinct microorganism population of your kitchen). You will need a mature sourdough starter to get that distinct sourdough flavor profile though as I found out that a young starter made from raisin yeast water may have the yeast activity but may lack the sour notes brought by the lactic acid and acetic acid bacteria cultures that may take time to develop.

An active sourdough starter

I wanted to stay clear of the boxy loaf finished product produced by the bread maker (but there's nothing wrong with that) so I have opted for a more rustic way of baking (unfortunately my thermostatic gas oven has long been retired and I'm just using an electric oven toaster/broiler) using either a dutch oven or 2 cast iron skillets (one covering the other during the initial part of the baking to trap the steam generated to stop the outer crust from forming too soon to give the bread more volume).

I am just mostly making lean bread (composed simply of flour, yeast, and water) that has a nice crunchy crust (something that I have always wanted to do but has never achieved it using a bread machine). The dough is also noticeably more hydrated than what I am used to which makes it more difficult to handle (it tends to be more sticky when kneaded) but results in a wonderful airy crumb which I tend to favor these days. One simple thing that has helped in gluten development and in handling a relatively wet dough is the addition of an "autolyse" step which I have learned from watching all those sourdough videos on YouTube. This is simply a step of resting the flour and water mixture at the start for around 20 to 30 minutes even before adding the levain (a leavening agent which in this case is the sourdough starter) and salt. This simple step allows the fully hydrated flour mixture to develop gluten structures early on so that the dough will be more elastic and easier to handle. I have also learned to adopt longer bulk fermentation times (sometimes necessary for the less active wild yeast in the sourdough starter compared to commercially produced instant/active dry yeasts), which allows for better flavor development (at least 3 hours at room temperature and an additional 12 hours or overnight inside the refrigerator) before the final shaping.

To make the sourdough starter, you will initially need:
100 grams raisin yeast water
100 grams of flour (all-purpose flour will do)
glass jar with lid (big enough to hold about 500 ml of liquid)

For day 1, thoroughly mix the flour and liquid to fully hydrate the flour. Leave on the counter with the lid loosely tightened (loose enough for any build-up gasses to escape).

At the same time the following day, add the following to maintain or "feed" the starter (mixing thoroughly):
50 grams flour
50 grams water (preferably purified drinking water - avoid chlorinated water from the tap as the residual chlorine may kill off the microorganisms we would like to culture).

Do this daily. There will come a time that the jar you are using will become around 75% full. In that case, measure out 100 grams of the yeast starter mixture first before adding the above. That way, you maintain the 75% level of the jar (leaving some space when the mixture expands during peak yeast activity - the mixture will froth due to the creation of CO2 during fermentation).

After about a week, you will notice some changes in the smell of the starter. There will be definite sour notes in the smell. This is perfectly normal and is probably due to the action of acetobacter naturally found in the air that converts the alcohol byproduct of yeast fermentation into acetic acid (vinegar). Some other bacterial activity will be going on such as lactobacilli creating lactic acid which also contributes to the distinctive flavor of sourdough bread. The exact community of microorganisms will be unique to your environment. The addition of the raisin yeast water at the start ensures that the majority of the yeast is Saccharomyces cerevisiae (or baker's yeast) which is very commonly found in the skin of grapes. This species of yeast is known to have desirable properties for wine and bread making since ancient times.

Note that you will be discarding 100 grams of the starter each day (and consuming 50 grams of AP flour) each and every single day with the above instructions. If you are not a regular home baker, this may seem like a lot of waste. Fortunately, there are things you can do to minimize any wastage. You can place your starter jar in the refrigerator. The yeast activity will drastically slow down in the cold and you can get away with just feeding the starter twice a week, or a day before making bread and leaving the starter jar on the counter to make sure that the yeast is at its maximum active state. You can also make 100 grams worth of sourdough flatbread every morning (opens external website - recipes not mine). :)

Making the sourdough bread:

First of all, let me introduce you to the concept of baker's percentages which I think is a wonderful idea of describing a recipe that is easy to scale depending on how big a batch you want. You can also straightaway see the recipe's hydration level —which is just a fancy way of describing how much water it has (a higher hydration dough will generally have a more open crumb but may be more difficult to handle).

The flour will always be at 100 and all the other ingredients will be expressed in terms of the percentage weight relative to the flour (see the Wikipedia link above for the details of the calculation).

I personally use a baker's percentage of:
100 Flour
75 Water
15 Sourdough starter
2 Salt

For illustration purposes, suppose you are starting with 300 grams of AP flour, you just multiply the rest of the numbers by 3 to get:
225 grams of water
45 grams Sourdough starter
6 grams of salt
Resulting in a final dough weight of 576 grams, just right for a medium-size bread (and just the right size for my small bread maker machine if I decide to use it for baking).

the dough before proofing

After bulk fermentation overnight in the refrigerator

Forming the dough and baking the bread itself is quite straightforward with the key realization on my part is that handling a relatively high hydration dough is not quite the same as kneading pizza dough until it becomes elastic. There are certain techniques you can do to build up the gluten structure and there are a lot of excellent resources you can find online that are actual demonstrations of the technique used so I won't be discussing those here (check out the numerous demonstrations in YouTube, those have been especially helpful for me as a starting sourdough aficionado). I will mention, however, that I do an "autolyse" step at the start (which is just combining the water and flour and letting it stand for 30 minutes) and I use a stand mixer with a dough hook attachment to incorporate the rest of the ingredients until it forms a shaggy looking wet and sticky dough. I then use a pull and fold technique to build up the gluten structure and do my bulk long fermentation in the refrigerator overnight.

After the overnight bulk fermentation in the refrigerator, deflate the dough (which should have increased almost double in size — you can leave it out on the counter if you think it needs more time), and shape the dough for the final proofing in a Banetton proofing basket (if you have it, I personally don't and just use a smaller bowl dusted with flour). I do the final shape by continuously tucking the dough to one side with a flexible bowl scraper effectively forming a tight surface on the other side forming a round dough shape. The smooth and tight side is the "top-side" while the area where you tuck the dough is the "bottom-side". Make sure you place the rounded-off dough with the bottom-side up (I'm not sure if I am describing this clearly, the bowl will later be flipped unto parchment paper so the dough will be top-side up again before baking). Cover with a damp towel and let it proof for another hour or two on the counter.

You can check if the dough has finished final proofing by doing the aptly named "finger poke test". This just means that if you poke the dough, it should not completely spring back and should leave a slight indention on the surface. If the indention remains too deep, then you have probably over-proofed your dough.

If the dough has passed the test, go ahead and preheat the oven at its highest setting with two cast iron skillets covering each other inside for 30 minutes. Invert the final proofed dough into a square of parchment paper and score the top with 2 slashes using a very sharp knife forming an "X". Carefully get the cast iron skillets from the preheating oven and carefully place the parchment paper with the dough inside the skillet and cover it with the second skillet. Place back inside the oven lowering the temperature to 200 degC. At the 15 minutes mark, remove the upper skillet and continue baking uncovered. You will notice that the bread would have risen significantly along the cuts you have made (this sudden initial rise is called the "oven spring" and the scoring of the surface of the dough will greatly influence the final look and shape of the bread. You can play around with other scoring patterns in future batches if you like.

Bake until the bread is well browned. A better indication of a properly baked bread (and also good crumb structure) is tapping the bottom of the bread after baking. It should sound hollow. Let the bread cool in a wire rack on the counter and resist the urge to slice it open.

Here are some of my attempts. I am still trying to improve my technique with the intent of making bread with a more open crumb structure.

I have recently been baking my bread using an airfryer with promising results. The crust turned out nice and crisp with good color.

Airfryer baked sourdough bread. I used a parchment paper lined springform pan hence the shape of the bread.

The crumb isn't as open as I would like it to be but I plan to experiment on varying the final proofing time and using a higher hydration level on the recipe.

Or I use my breadmaker. This one is an enriched dough which has milk and butter (as opposed to a "lean" dough which only has flour, starter, water and salt). This results in a softer bread with a finer crumb structure.

A variation of the recipe (enriched with milk and butter) using a breadmaker.


Unknown said...

Mmm, bread. Was planning to go to Manu-Mano in Banawe to try their artisanal pandesal (their sourdough is too pricey) but then lockdown arrived.

Unknown said...

It's been some months. How's your starter doing?

JEP said...

"Yeasty" is doing well thank you for asking. I haven't been doing a lot of baking lately though so I just rely on sourdough pancakes to keep it going (to avoid unnecessary disposal of starter).