Can you really make pancakes out of starter alone?
Yes you can…with a little egg and fat of course. I know, it sounds weird given that starters can be stinky, slimy things, but the fundamentals are there for a wholesome breakfast. Despite the fact that yeasts have been working all night, there’s still plenty of starch left for the rest of us. And as I alluded to below, all the acid created by the bacteria makes an ideal reactant for the teaspoon of baking soda. It’s kind of genius, really. Whoever first thought of adding baking soda to sourdough starter deserves a posthumous James Beard Award.
But Joe, what about the texture of old starter, it’s so…yucky. That doesn’t mean it’s not good for you son, now eat it! Actually the texture of the starter doesn’t carry over in the slightest to the finished product, which as I said is very light and fluffy. The texture of the starter is due to enzymes that go to work on the proteins (gluten) as it sits, breaking down the stiff mix, first into a semi-stretchy goo, and ultimately into something resembling a thick potato soup (which is what you want).
But Joe, haven’t you always said that enzymes break down starches in a bread dough? Yes, it’s true that most of the enzymatic action in bread dough or starter has to do with enzymes like amylase breaking down long starch molecules like amylose into simpler sugars. But proteins are food too. Up to 14% of the endosperm of a wheat berry is composed of protein (gluten), which the germinating seed also uses to grow. The big difference is of course that where starches are made of individual sugar molecules, proteins are made of amino acids. Thus flour contains, in addition to starch-disassembling enzymes, protein-disassembling enzymes that “turn on” when they get wet. Know an enzyme by its tell-tale -ase ending that’s usually added onto the name of the thing it breaks down. The sugar amylose, for example, is broken down by the enzyme amylase. Any idea what a protein-disassembling enzyme might be called? Anyone? Anyone? Yes, you with the Weezer records. That’s right: protease (pronounced pro-tee-ase), a very interesting substance that will come up more and more in bread-making posts. For now suffice to say that it’s the presence of proteases in sourdough starter that keeps sourdough pancakes from being chewy. For gluten, as you may recall, forms not only when flour is kneaded, but when it’s moistened. Starters being very wet things, the proteins in them would have ample opportunity to bond to one another into a stretchy mesh if it weren’t for protease enzymes slicing them up. This is why so many types of bread — especially sourdough breads — call for high-gluten flour. Not because bakers want them to be chewy per se, but the higher proportion of protein ensures that there’ll be at least some left in the final dough after the proteases do their work. Make sense? Though not. Dang, another twenty minutes wasted.
One last thing that I find interesting about sourdough pancakes is that Mrs. Pastry claims that they’re more filling than regular buttermilk pancakes despite the fact that they’re lighter. This jibes with recent scientific findings that fermented foods are inherently more satisfying that other types of foods. Food scientists call this property “satiety” (pronounced suh-TIE-eh-tee), and its much sought-after by makers of things like diet foods and energy bars. Fermented foods have thus become hot stuff in the high-tech food industry…a great irony since nothing is older or more low-tech than fermentation.