A Little Sourdough History

Reader Ali wants to know the history behind sourdough bread. At first it seemed like an impossible question to answer, but then I though…maybe not so much.

Bread starters date back to when the first cro-magnon put down his bowl of einkorn gruel to go join the bison hunt, then forgot about it. That was about 10,000 years ago, and I’m still grateful to whoever-it-was. But really, natural starters in general aren’t what we’re talking about here. Rather, the question has to do with the specific type of starter that North Americans call “sourdough”. For indeed, “sourdough” is a term that originated in the States and in Canada, and as come to be a sort of generic term for a starter. What we call a “sourdough” a Brit might call a “barm” a Frenchman a “levain”, a Belgian a “desem”, an Italian a “lievito” and so on.

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Can I make real, sour, sourdough bread if I don’t live in San Francisco?

So asks reader Dean (and Liz, and Darren, and Susan). The answer is a definitive “maybe”. There’s no question that bakers in the Bay Area have the edge when it comes to creating very sour breads. However truly sour, naturally-leavened loaves are possible in other regions of the country (or world), provided you can manipulate your starter’s moisture level, temperature, and rising/proofing times in the right way.

Allow me to explain. All bread starters are tag teams of yeasts and bacteria, with yeasts being primarily responsible for the rise, and bacteria for the flavor. The lion’s share of that flavor comes from acid, which is produced by different types of bacteria in varying amounts. As you might expect, the starter bacteria the thrive in the Bay Area,  L. sanfranciscensis and L. pontis, are world champs in realm of acid production. L. sanfranciscensis produces unusually high levels of lactic acid, while L. pontis makes mostly acetic acid, which is the stuff that gives vinegar its sharp flavor.

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Making “Basic” Florentines

If there’s a better complement to a scoop of vanilla ice cream than a well-made florentine, I don’t know what it is. Crisp and nutty, but also a little caramelly, with a sophisticated citrus tang….these really make you feel like a person who understands what’s good in life.

The secret to knocking these out of the proverbial park is home made candied orange peels. Yes it’s an extra step, but who doesn’t want to be able to tell the world that they candy their own orange peels? Begin by assembling your ingredients and placing the nuts and orange peel in the bowl of a food processor.

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What is Dough Stretching?

Reader Jane happened to mention dough stretching in the comment fields of the below post on sourdough starters. The comment elicited several follow-up questions about dough stretching and yeast in general, which I thought I’d answer here on the main page instead of in the comment fields.

So let’s get down to business: what is dough stretching? It’s pretty much as it sounds — a process by which you gently tug bread dough into an elongated shape as it rises, and then fold it or roll it back up into a lump and let it rise some more. You generally start the stretching at about the mid-point of the initial rise (after mixing your bread dough, but before you shape the loaf).

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Getting Higher Rising Sourdough Breads

Several questions from readers over the past week, asking for tips on getting higher rises from their starter-based breads. Seems there are a lot of low, dense sourdough loaves out there, and that’s a common problem when a starter is a bread’s sole raising agent. It’s part of the reason that a lot of natural bakers, back in the 80’s, started “spiking” their doughs with a bit of commercial yeast in the final mixing step. It added a little more oomph to the rise. The purist breadheads went bananas. But that’s another story.

One of the main reasons starter-based doughs don’t rise as high as they could is because many aspiring sourdough bakers don’t manage their starters as well as they could. That is, they let them sit and ripen too long. In the same way a loaf of bread can over-proof, or be left to rise too long before baking (giving the unbaked dough the slack, lifeless feel of a dead fish) starters can be left to work for too long, causing them to use up all their mojo. The yeast in the starter consume too much of the available starch. Even the protein (gluten) in the flour starts to break down. When that happens the loaf is denied the building material it needs to stay aloft, making it impossible for the bread to attain (and then retain) much height.

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Coating (Compound) Chocolate vs. Couverture

A few questions on this point came in overnight. Aren’t they both used to cover stuff? In which case…are they the same thing?

They are not. But the principle is the same. Both of these kinds of chocolate are quite low in cocoa solids and quite high in fat. That allows them to melt readily, go on thinly, and create nice, even coatings.

However where “couverture” contains cocoa butter, coating chocolate contains other fats like palm or vegetable oil. This is the primary difference between them. The non-cocoa fats make coating chocolate at once less expensive and easier to work with as it doesn’t require tempering. The trade-off is that coating chocolate doesn’t provide the same nice, brittle snap of a (properly tempered) couverture. It also doesn’t have couverture’s gloss, and it tends to melt a little faster on the fingers.

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Florentines Recipe 2

The main difference between this recipe and the previous one is the tart crust base. It’s an idea I’d never seen before young Joan found it in Thomas Keller’s Bouchon Bakery cookbook. What I like about Keller’s combo is that it provides something of a balance between riches and sweetness…and also makes the florentines a little less melty on the fingers. This recipe makes a half sheet pan of florentines (which is a lot). The recipe can be cut in half and made in a 1/4 sheet. Or doubled to make a full sheet. Depends on how hungry you are. It goes like this:

1 lb. 9 ounces tart crust (one and a half recipes) pâte sucrée
4 ounces milk
5 ounces sugar
3 ounces glucose syrup
3 ounces honey
7 ounces butter
1/8 teaspoon Kosher salt
11 ounces sliced blanched almonds
3 ounces shelled raw pistachios
3 ounces finely diced candied orange peel
About 14 ounces coating chocolate

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In know, I know…

“International” flour types extend well beyond France and Italy. All I can say is that I spent the lion’s share of last week (including many of my so-called “work” hours) on those posts, to say nothing of updating (read: rewriting) almost all the flour-related pieces in the ingredients section. My brain is a little burned […]

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So what does this mean?

Several readers have asked: given the fundamental character differences between the gluten found in North American wheat and the gluten found in European wheat, are alternative formulations possible? Is there any way to compensate for the differences between the two using readily available ingredients? I’ve been mulling over that very thing. Certainly the functional differences […]

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Italian Flour

The Italians throw us something of a curve ball when it comes to flour classification. Whereas just about everyone else on the Continent thinks about flour in terms of ash content, Italians think in terms of grind. Their naming system reflects that, with Type 00 being the finest grind and Type 2 being the coarsest. But just as with the ash content system, the Italian numbering system tells you more about the flour than you might think. It gives you important clues about about the flour’s composition.

The lower the flour’s number on the grind scale, the lower the flour’s extraction rate. Meaning that a Type 00 flour is made from the starchier, softer inner wheat endosperm, and a Type 2 flour is going to be made with that, plus a high proportion of the very outer, harder, bran-containing endosperm. Granted, the number system doesn’t explicitly say that, but whereas an American would hear “low extraction” and think “wow, that must be a pretty fine grind”, an Italian would hear “fine grind” and think, “wow, that must be a pretty low extraction rate”. So it’s the same thing, but where we state the extraction and infer the grind, Italians state the grind and infer the extraction. I trust that makes at least a little sense to everyone, yes?

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