Guinness Sourdough (Part Two)

Guinness stout has a very distinctive flavour. You either like it or you don’t. I do. My wife could go the rest of her days without another pint and not miss it.

This past Saturday I tried to borrow some of that distinctive flavour for a loaf of sourdough. How? Simply by replacing the tap water in my base sourdough recipe with the contents of a can of Guinness stout.

The first note of that process was simply that the dough was a lot stiffer than my regular recipe. As a bit of lucky timing, I was also short on breakfast bread, and not knowing for sure how if the taste of Guinness sourdough would accompany my morning peanut butter I simultaneously started a batch of white sandwich loafs. I have a pretty good feel for the textures, scents, and proof times of my bread recipe these days, but having an experimental loaf literally side-by-side with a control loaf was an interesting comparison.

In addition to a stiffer dough, the rise time was much longer for the Guinness loaf. Both batches spent the better part of Saturday in the fridge, and overnighted there. On Sunday morning I pulled both out at about 6 am, put the beer bread into a proofing basket and covered, and split my sandwich batch into my two loaf pans. By 5 pm as we were finishing off making our evening meal the sandwich loafs were clearly ready for the oven — almost too ready — and actually starting to creep over the edges of the pans. The beer loaf, on the other hand, needed more time, and I pushed the bake back to almost 9 pm (because I eventually needed to go to bed!) and I think it still could have used another hour of rise.

What is not entirely clear from the photo was that (just like the dough) the baked Guinness bread was darker and richer in colour than the white bread loaves.

And when I sampled this morning my take was actually… meh.

The bread is okay. It’s definitely edible, but my first impression of the taste was that it was a little bitter or even carrying an undertone of burnt coffee.

The crust definitely has an after-taste that lingers. And to be clear, the bread was not burned. In fact, other than only hitting about 80% of what I’d call a good rise, it was perfectly baked and timed out of the oven. The crust was crackly, and the besides cutting through an unfortunate air bubble for my glamour shot, the crumb was not too bad either.

But there was definitely a burnt aftertaste in the crust, and (to a lesser extent) in the softer parts of the bread.

My takeaway from this was to ask myself the simple question: Given that I pay about four bucks for a can of Guinness locally, was it worth the substitution over my basically free tap-water? And sadly, even though I was very excited to try this beer bread this morning, I would have to say …no.

I think I’ll stick to this stout in liquid form for a while longer.

Honey Brown Sourdough (Part Two)

Yesterday morning I started preparing an experimental loaf of sourdough where I replaced all but a little of the water in the recipe with a honey brown lager.

Today, the loaf has been proofed, baked and sampled.

But let’s back up a step.

I’ve been pondering sourdough mix-ins. In the past year of pandemic lockdown I’ve baked about a hundred and fifty loaves of bread. Ninety-percent of these have been baked purely to answer the “we need bread” call. There are a few reasons I turned to sourdough as a mostly reliable source of food during the pandemic, and some of them are practical. Yet, I’ve long had a curiosity about working towards honing skills in arts and science, and tending a sourdough starter to bake awesome bread checks off a few boxes in that inquisitive mindset approach to life.

Sourdough also overlaps nicely with the Philosophy of the Cast Iron Guy (TM) in that a sourdough starter is simple, down-to-earth, and extremely useful. Flour, water, and cultivated yeasts can be fed and maintained for years (and generations) with some basic care and feeding, and at anytime a little bit of that starter can bring a bit more flour and water to life to create a delicious loaf of bread.

Plus, I cook most of my sourdough in cast iron, so there’s that.

Yet man cannot live on bread alone. Someone said that.

I have often looked for ways to make the bread a bit more interesting. Adding some cheese or herbs makes a delicious loaf. A swirl of cinnamon and sugar in a sweetened bread is amazing if it works out right. And, of course, I’ve collected various varieties of flour to play with the blend that makes up the bread itself.

Yesterday, I tried substituting the water for beer.

Beer is largely water, of course, and the other ingredients in a brew overlap so neatly with sourdough that it has been said that beer making and sourdough baking are cousins in the culinary world.

So, what does beer bring to the blend?

To prepare to answer this question effectively I made sure that before baking with a full can of my beer of choice, a Sleeman’s Honey Brown Lager I had more than one can in the house. Last night, after prepping the dough ball for it’s final rise in the proofing basket, I poured myself one of the other cans and settled into the couch to do some relaxing and a bit of writing.

The honey brown has a sweet and malty taste, and while I’m not a beer expert it would rank somewhere mid-to high on a refreshing scale. It’s not quite one of those gulp down in the heat of summer brews, but it’s closer to that than, say, an IPA which I would usually consider a run-over-your-tongue and savour-it beer. What I was focusing on with the bread, however, was did any of those beer flavours carry over to the final loaf?

First, bread had a lot more air bubbles in it than usual. I’ve made the foundational sourdough recipe so many times now that I’ve got a really good feel for times and temperatures. This can be caused by a lot of things, and usually it’s because too long of a rise, but with the outside temperatures being in the minus thirties it’s been tough keeping the house consistently warm, let alone speedy-bread-rise warm.

Second, the darker colour resembeled a loaf I’d have cooked with a blend that had a lot more full grain flours in it. I cook white bread often, because usually I run out of the smaller bags of multigrain or whole wheat and we always have white bread flour. My white bread has a distinctive shade of pale (though not ever bleached white) and this 100% white flour bread was not it. The amber-hued ale brought a richer colour to the final loaf that I liked.

Finally, the bread did have a stonger flavour than a plain white loaf. I would say that it wasn’t a beer flavour specifically but rather something more nutty or generally richer and deeper. Beer-adjacent, definitely. The best way I can put it is that while normally I eat my bread for breakfast with jams or honey, somehow I would think this loaf would do better with a bit of swiss cheese or as part of a less-sweet sandwhich. The complexity of flavour that the beer gave to the bread was enough that can confidently say dabbing a gob of strawberry jam on this would clash and make it tough to swallow.

Was it worth sacrificing a can of beer (over free tap water) for a richer loaf? Moderate postitive. I’m going to try a stronger, darker stout beer (likely a Guinness) next to see if there is an even richer final result to be had, but while the results with the honey brown lager were subtle I think I would try this again, yes.

Can I use a cast iron pot or pan to boil water?

One of the adages of cast iron cooking is that to improve your cast iron cookware, just use it.

What is not necessarily clear in that basic advice is that to make any cast iron seasoning better, stronger, and more resilient, the use of your cast iron should follow a couple basic principles about how it should be used. Simply:

Heat and oils are good in that they improve your seasoning.

Soaps and acids are bad in that they degrade your seasoning.

So, where does water fit into these rules? And what do we mean by boiling water?

For example, a lot of recipes call for a portion of water (or broth or wine or other neutral liquid) and instruct bringing it to a boil. Is this bad for the pan?

Or, when I first started using my cast iron dutch oven I was unclear on if I could use it to, say, cook up a big pot of pasta or if I should stick with the steel pot we’d been using for years.

I did a lot of reading on this a number of years ago and the best advice anyone gave me on this topic is simply that the strength of cast iron is not boiling water: there are better tools.

Boiling water is not necessarily going to ruin you cast iron, but it’s definitely not going to improve it. In the same vein of thinking, adding liquid to you recipe is fine, though these are not the dishes that build up the seasoning nor make it better. Water in your pan or pot does not follow the basic principle that heat and oils are improving your seasoning. And some have argued that boiling water alone (or with salt or pasta) can actually loosen the seasoning on your pan and cause it to flake off.

In a pinch (say out camping with a single pot) sure… heat up that soup, steam your veggies over the fire, and just use your iron. That’s what you’ve built up that legacy seasoning for, after all. But know that you’re withdrawing from the seasoning bank you’ve been saving into.

So again, there are better tools. Keep and use a steel pot, and save your cast iron for what it does best. Not boiling water.