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Sourdough first steps

Using Wild Yeast as both Bible and tantalising inspiration, I am learning how to make sourdough.

I don’t believe that I would be blowing my own horn too much to say that I’m a pretty good cook.  I can follow a recipe to perfection, but I can also make things up as I go and I generally have a pretty good feel for how to make something look or taste the way I want it to (we will not speak of the 2007 Christmas Pavlova Incident).  Breadmaking was something I came to relatively late: M did a lot of experimenting and figuring out and then I followed his established guidelines for a few things, which gave me the experience to start trying new stuff, like pull-apart bread and bagels and baos.  But now sourdough…well, it’s a whole new ball game.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with sourdough starters here’s a quick version: over the course of a week or two, you keep a mix of water and flour warm, refreshing it twice a day with fresh water and flour (that’s the mysterious feeding you hear mentioned).  The wild yeast, dormant in flour, wakes up and begins to eat and breed, producing gas and a low degree of fermentation (which is what ultimately gives sourdough its titular characteristic).  A mature starter is one where the yeast is roaring along and the mix doubles in volume every 12 hours.  Mine (which I’ve affectionately named Pongo) doesn’t do that yet.

For a start, we have a chilly house.  We have great heaters, but they’re only on when we’re home and only in whatever room we want heated.  There is bupkiss insulation in the house, so when we’re out, it gets damned cold there.  I know this because I’ve stayed home during the day and forgot to put the heating on.  And overnight, the house becomes positively frigid—especially the kitchen, which has no heating at all.  I may be attempting to cultivate a sourdough starter in what could be the worst environment possible, apart from underwater.  So the starter is sluggish and snoozy and when I tried to start a sponge (the next step in breadmaking: this is the aggressive fermentation of a sample of starter, with the intention of introducing it as a raising agent to a dough), it just kind of blooped at me.  I tried everything: warmed its bowl with heated wheatbags, sat the bowl in a sink of hot water, but it cooled so quickly that I had trouble keeping up with it.  With a strange degree of teeth-gritted optimism and pig-headedness, I mixed it into a batch of bread dough, and was unsurprised when it absolutely failed to rise.

The problem with learning anything new is that you’re coming from a place of competence: you’ve forgotten what it’s like to be incompetent at something, especially if it’s similar to what you’re already doing.  I have a feeling this is why people choose to learn less and less as they get older.  They’re increasingly out of habit of feeling incompetent at something. And I don’t want that. So I will cherish this learing curve, persevere with Pongo and, in time, I will have sourdough.

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