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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Do I feed my mother enough?

Reader Dianne tells me she’s concerned about my mother. She tells me that based on my recent posts, it sounds like I don’t feed it very much, or very consistently. Dianne, that’s true, though I assure you it isn’t a cruelty. The system I use is a little different than most. I keep a very small, somewhat meagerly fed, mother starter. Most of the time I have little more than a cup in the fridge. That’s on purpose, as I like to grow new starters as I need them, not keep bigger ones that require lots of food and attention. Given that the amount of starter you can grow from even a small amount of mother starter is theoretically infinite, I need very little on-hand.

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One Mother, Many Starters

A little-discussed aspect of starters is the degree to which they can be — indeed probably should be — customized according to the type of bread you’re planning to bake. For example, my go-to outdoor oven bread is a pugliese. It’s got a lot of semolina flour in it, which means that in order to get the rise I want from the dough, I need to add a high-gluten (high-protein) flour to the mix.

So far so good. However one key factor is the starter. The starter makes up about 1/3 of the total volume of the dough. My recipe calls for a standard white flour starter. However if I use a white flour starter that I’ve built up (“fed”) using regular all-purpose flour (not a stronger, high gluten flour) then in the end I’ll get a lower-volume loaf, because a significant portion of my flour — the flour that’s in the starter — will be of the lower-gluten all-purpose variety.

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Life with Mother

A number of questions have come in about barm (sourdough) starters the last few days. Though some of the specifics have varied, the main theme seems to be: how do I keep and use a starter on a long-term basis? Looking over in my section on barm starters, it appears that I never really covered that subject in detail. What an oversight! Well, better late than never I guess.

Keeping a starter is a very easy thing to do once you’re in the habit. I keep mine in a 2-quart container in the back of the fridge. It’s been there for years. Every time I set out to do a little starter-based baking I take a little of it out, then feed that bit, slowly building it up into the quantity I need. The main starter that stays in the fridge is what’s known, in baking parlance, as a “mother”.

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How to Make Rye Starter

A rye starter is basically the same thing as a white or whole wheat starter: a fermented mass of wet flour, only with rye flour as a base instead of some other type. Rye flours are quick to ferment for reasons that will be discussed later this week, meaning you can make one in a bout half the time of a white wheat starter: about three days. All you need to do is mix maybe an ounce of rye flour with an ounce of water, stir it and let it sit out overnight. The next day add two ounces of rye flour and two ounces of water and again let it sit out overnight. The next day add four ounces of rye flour and four ounces of water…and you should have a ready starter about four hours later. Bingo.

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How to Make a Poolish Sponge

This makes enough for my baguette recipe, but of course it can be increased if need be for some other application. The amount of yeast employed in a poolish is tiny relative to the flour and water. So tiny, in fact, that for a poolish sponge this small, we’ll need to dissolve some instant yeast […]

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A word about water

Growing your own starter is an elementary project than can become complicated if your water is compromised in any way. If you’re connected to a municipal water supply that’s heavy on chlorine, for example, or if you have a water softener. On the other extreme a relatively “dirty” water supply can introduce organisms that will […]

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