Sourdough Science Saturday

My starter is a little over two and a half years old and as I alluded to in my previous post I’ve baked about two hundred and fifty-ish loaves of bread with it, pre- and during pandemic.

You would almost think I would understand it better.

About an hour ago I pulled my Thanksgiving loaf from the oven and it turned out great.

All around, I followed my basic twenty-four hour prep-and-proof plan, the process I’ve been fine tuning for years even before this starter, and which works for me fairly consistently.

Only it sometimes doesn’t.

Like this summer.

This summer we had a heat wave for a solid month where the temperatures outside rarely dropped below twenty-five degrees at night and routinely stuck in the mid-to-high thirties during the day. Also, it rarely dropped below twenty-five degrees in our house (including the kitchen) which was a nightmare, the waking kind, because I could hardly sleep in those conditions.

All the bread I baked during this month flopped.

Poor rise. Dense crumb. Edible … but not enjoyable.

And at the time I got it into my head that the heat was putting my yeast into some runaway proof and I was missing the window to bake it and get a good loaf.

However.

I’ve had a few months to think about this, and my nineteen degree kitchen (where I proofed today’s loaf to within one standard deviation of perfection) only added another layer of evidence to my theory.

“You’d think the yeast would have liked the heat.” Went the conversation with my wife. “But I think my yeast aren’t loving it.”

Not all yeast are created equally, after all. In fact, there are fifteen hundred known varieties of yeast, and the yeast that come in the little envelope from the grocery store may have very little lineage in common with the yeast I caught in my kitchen two and a half years ago.

The yeast from the store are bred to grow consistently, quickly and thrive at warm temperatures.

I’d be willing to bet that whatever yeast I found thriving in my kitchen air and trapped in my starter probably prefer, say, a dry central Canadian climate and do quite well in my nineteen degree kitchen. Wouldn’t it make sense, after all, that the most common yeast floating around my house were probably plentiful enough to be caught because they actually favoured … preferred … had maybe even adapted to … the conditions of my house?

So, back in June when my house was eight or nine degrees warmer than normal, those nineteen-degree-loving yeast … well, they made some garbage bread.

And today, when my thermostat is regulating the house to optimal conditions for both me and my yeast … well logically they made a loaf of awesome bread.

Short: Long Weekend & Floury Friday

In Canada, we celebrate our Thanksgiving in October.

The right way.

And as we prepare a large meal for Sunday evening, my wife is out shopping for a fresh turkey and I’ve spent Friday evening getting my sourdough started.

While making sourdough has become fairly routine around our house, I find myself usually making sandwich loaves. In fact, over the duration of the pandemic I’ve baked about two hundred and twenty sandwich loaves … but only four classic dome loaves.

So, Thanksgiving is a lot of things, but it’s a thankful opportunity to bake up a beautiful classic loaf of sourdough to enjoy with our Sunday dinner. I settled on a basic white flour loaf with about twenty percent organic spelt mixed in. Nothing beats sopping up some turkey gravy than a thick slice of buttered sourdough, after all.

And of course, the work starts on Friday.

The Artful Joy of Splitting Sourdough

A friend of mine killed her starter.

Dead.

I didn’t ask how. Vacations. Life. A summer heat wave.

It happens.

So a few days later I just split mine and delivered one half it to her in a plastic pouch.

Problem solved, and she could go back to baking loaves.

This marks the third time I’ve split my mother dough into some giftable offspring.

Sharing starter starter seems to me to be almost a core tradition embedded deep in the subculture and shared process of breadmaking.

Starting a new starter from scratch is not difficult, of course, but neither is it a quick process.

Even if your newly gathered and grown starter is ready to use in a couple of weeks, there are countless feedings of wasted flour during that span and even then I’ve found that a good, productive starter takes many more weeks (or months) to mature and hit peak efficiency.

So instead we share. Half for me. Half for a friend.

I did this by scooping half of my starter from its home with a spatula from the little plastic tub where it has lived for the better part of two and a half years. That half went to my friend. Shared, the travelling half got a new home, a fresh feed of its own and a chance to bake bread for another family.

The remainder got a feeding and returned to its corner to enjoy the fresh dosing of flour.

Such a simple act…. but at the same time a clever and marvelous way to spread a bit of sourdough joy with friends and neighbours.

Heat Proofed

While the baker in me is disappointed by the negative impact the heat has had on my sourdough, the science nerd side of my brain has been giddy at watching how this blast of summer temperatures spun the dial on one of the variables in the delicate process.

My fellow Western-North-Americans know this all too well right now, but if you’re not from around here you may have not heard that we’re in the early half of what is turning into a week-long, record-breaking heat wave.

Many of us (and our winter-ready homes) are ill-equipped to handle such heat. My house is designed to contain heat, reduce air circulation, and stay warm through eight months of sub-zero temperatures.

I don’t own either an air conditioner or a personal swimming pool.

I personally prefer the weather to be about ten degrees Celsius and I am far more comfortable in a wool toque and ski gloves than a sun hat and sandals.

In other words: It’s hot. I’m uncomfortably warm. And it’s going to be scorching for at least a week more.

In the midst of this blast of irregular heat, I ran out of bread (a regular occurrence) and went about my regular routine of making dough and getting a couple of loaves of sourdough ready to bake.

Now let me back up one step: regular readers know that I have been making bread two or three times per week for the last sixteen months of this pandemic. I have a recipe and a process that I follow with rote precision, step-by-step, to produce a consistent loaf.

For comparison, a pair of loaves that I baked with a blend of local rye flour a few weeks ago turned out great, rising on the counter for about twelve hours pre-bake after an overnight proof in the fridge.

Great rise. Consistent crumb. Pleasant overall result:

Compare the successful loaves from the second photo to the less-than-stellar loaves from first photo in this post.

I cut into one of those squared-off loaves this morning and found a dense, poorly-risen, heavy bread that more resembled a dense bagel then a fluffy sandwich bread.

For comparison, those first two loaves proofed and rose on my counter for only about eight hours before I had to turn the oven on mid-day (in the hottest part of the afternoon to boot) because they were obviously starting to over-proof, losing cohesion and loosening up.

To be clear, both pictures are loaves from the exact same flour blend, from the exact same bags of flour, from the exact same process… save for that the average outside temperature is about twenty-five degrees warmer this week than two weeks ago.

This means also that my kitchen is currently at least five to ten degrees warmer than normal, despite my best efforts to keep it cool.

The heat has completely revved my yeast into high gear causing what seems to be an accelerated, runaway proofing that I have no great experience (yet) working with. If I bake anymore loaves this week I’m going to need to rely less on watching the clock and more on watching the pans.

And to sum up…

Baker me: sad.
Science-nerd me: neat!