Wendell and I have been baking our bread for years. We never launched ourselves into the sour-dough starter adventure because it is a bit like having a pet, you cannot leave it for a month while having fun in France.
This year, after that the holiday budget had been blown up… well, we thought it was time to commit ourselves to this amazing bubbly live creature.
We got a bit lost amongst the enormous quantity of tutorials, books and how-to you can find everywhere on the subject. We decided to go to what we knew: a good French boulangerie (bakery). And this is personified by Eric Kayser, the French master of bread.
I used to buy my (very expensive) sandwiches in one of his Parisian bakeries avenue de Courcelles years ago. It was truly delicious. So as I am an Indian gift giver, I bought the “Larousse du Pain” for Wendell’s birthday.
His sour-dough starter recipe, called levain in French, is spread over 4 days. You start with 50 gr of rye flour, 50 gr of water mixed with a spoon of honey. First mistake, I put it in a far too big bowl. Despite the wet tea-towel I put on top, it kept on drying. Second mistake, I was expecting a bubbly aspect straight away but it was a very cold winter here in Sydney this year and the temperature inside my kitchen oscillated between 8 and 22°C! The poor little buggers (yeast and bacteria) were shivering in there and not making anything bubble at all, only a dry brown pasty mess.
Anyway, I had to restart the starter 3 times. On my third, I kept it in a smaller Pyrex glass bowl which had a lid. I didn’t push the lid down but just left it on top. It was much cleaner than the wet towel method. Having a smaller container was easier to keep it moist I think.
Later, when it started to work well, I transferred it to the same Pyrex with a lid, only larger.
Also, I stopped using rye flour. It simply didn’t work for me and after 2 levains (starters) in the bin, and all this flour lost, I thought I’d try with organic unbleached baker’s flour which I found HERE. I also stopped the honey and gave it only one tsp of my quince jelly instead. I gave it jelly for the first day only.
What I thought was a good idea was to stick a ‘post-it’ on the side of the bowl with its empty weight. It made things easier to calculate what I had to add to feed this baby.
The rule is pretty simple, you feed your levain or starter with half its weight in a 50-50 mix of water and flour. If your bowl weights 1000g in total, and 500g empty, you have 500g of levain. You need to feed it with half of its weight which is 250g of matter = 125g of flour and 125g of water.
It’s super easy. The only problem for me at the moment is that I make 1 to 2 breads a day and I end up having too much levain. I am still working hard on my recipes which I will talk about in details on the blog and I am currently using much more levain in my bread than the classic recipe. I find the results better.
After about 5 days it started to slightly bubble :) It feels a bit like a miracle! I kept feeding it. It became huge. I had to make breads, and pizzas, petits milk breads, brioches and focaccias. Now I am on a good run. One bread a day with 150 to 200g of levain for 500g of flour uses enough levain to avoid it going overboard.
What I learnt on this intense and still short journey is that it is more a “feeling” approach. You cannot really follow a recipe and expect to get the perfect result. There are too many factors. When you start, you need to look, smell, touch, trial and error and above all experiment. A bad bread happens and it is nearly always edible toasted ;)
A boulanger or bread maker is a guy who has studied at school or as an apprentice for years, working every day to know the right gestures, the right textures, to proper timing according to the kitchen temperature and humidity, according to the flour.
Talking about flour, I am still a complete beginner here too. What I knew was that there is a very easy system in France where the flours are labelled with a number: T45, T55, T65, etc. This says how many grams of mineral ashes are left if you burn 100g of flour. The classic cake baking flour is T45. If you burn 100g of T45 you obtain 0.45g of mineral ashes.
When you want to have a really white bread you use small number usually T55, when you want darker breads you go to the larger numbers, the max being T150 for a completely wholemeal bread. The French “tradition” baguettes which are my favourite are made with T65.
What I didn’t know though is that in Australia, there is no such system. The only way to know the “strength” of a flour from the packet is to check the protein weight per 100g. The higher is the stronger. It is very hard to find a good strong bread flour in the classic retailer’s network in Australia. The supermarket baker’s flours are around 10g/100g , what you want is more between 12-15g/100g. Also, in the bulk stores, or organic/health store, the information is not there, you need to ask them to find the large bag somewhere in their stock and find the protein figure on the side of it.
Another important thing is to diagnose your starter. I cannot do that very well yet. What I have noticed though is that my levain has a tendency of smelling like vinegar. I have read in many places that it is not a problem. Levain does smell a bit vinaigry and alcoholic, it is the action of yeasts and bacteria. When it smells a bit too strong it is hungry. Just feed it a bit more.
If you get too much levain, convert a friend or neighbour. It is a great thing to share.
As a conclusion I think if you have had problems with a sour-dough of if you are thinking of launching yourself into this adventure, admit now that your kitchen is no lab and you will need to be patient, observe and experiment.
Don’t worry if you don’t respect the weight rule to the gram, try and see.
If you have a question and I know about it I will happily help.