|A finished loaf of rice cooker sourdough with starter.|
Good bread is, as I've said before, one of the things that it can be difficult to find in Japan. Japanese bread is tasty, but it tends not to have the heft or flavor I prefer. To be fair, this was also true in the U.S., and I also made my own bread there. In Japan, this proved to be a challenge as I don't have an oven. I've made good use of my rice cooker, though, which you can read all about here along with a recipe for rice cooker yeast bread.
My inspiration for sourdough came while watching Michael Pollan's Cooked. Based on the book by the same name, the documentary takes a look at some basic, traditional methods of making food. One segment examines bread and its history particularly as it pertains to the United States. While I was aware of many of the issues discussed, I was still shocked to understand how flour and bread evolved over the years as well as yeast. As farming and milling practices changed (industrialized and became reliant on chemicals and additives), nutrition levels dropped. This made it necessary to add nutrients to the recipe. By taking out much of the bran, we lost nutrients, and the yeast, too, lost many of its vital, living components that actually helped people get those nutrients from bread. (There are those who argue that gluten allergies are really an issue with the modern process of making the bread, not the grain, but that is another interesting story for another day.)
As I watched and listened, I thought about another food writer, Sandor Katz, and his classic book on making fermented dishes. It seemed to me that sourdough would be a logical next step. So, that evening I mixed flour and water and waited for the yeast to come to the buffet I'd laid out.
|Sourdough starter just starting to bubble.|
Yeast is, like dark matter, all around us all the time. It is a natural part of our environment, and so we attempt to harness it to help out in the kitchen. Foods like beer, wine, kimchi, natto, kombucha, chocolate, and sauerkraut are delicious examples. By setting out a bowl with flour and water in my kitchen, I aimed to entice some of my very local yeast to settle there and have a snack.
After about three days of nervous watching, regular stirring and aerating (lifting the spoon up about three inches or so as I fed the starter) small bubbles appeared. The yeast, you could say, was at the table.
I continued feeding and stirring my sourdough starter and soon had a very lively, bubbly mass. The smell was definitely sour, but also yeasty in a lovely, bready way.
Using a combination of Katz's recipe and mine adapted from The Tassajara Bread Book, I made my first batch of sourdough bread. Everything essentially followed the same steps as my rice cooker yeast bread, but with a few caveats.
I still mixed up a sponge, the goupy mixture of flour and yeast, that is a very traditional beginning of bread. An important difference in this case is that using a sourdough starter means I don't need to add any sweetener. Unlike dry yeast, the starter is already raring to go, so a sweetener like honey or molasses isn't necessary. (On occasion, though, I have added molasses as I am fond of that flavor.)
I find the best timing is to mix the sponge up in the evening, wrap it in blankets and tuck it on the couch. (In winter, I even give it a hot water bottle.) By morning, the sponge is bubbly and happy and has risen considerably.
|My husband keeping the sourdough warm while he works.|
The rising times tend to be a little bit longer depending on the weather. In summer or on warmer days, the sponge and dough tend to be more active and rise faster. I set it in a sunny spot and wrap it in a dark blanket. Again, a hot water bottle in winter is also not a bad idea or simply holding it on your lap while you work.
|A finished loaf of beer-based sourdough with fresh cucumber and butter.|
Sourdough can have a strong taste. My friend, Sarah, uses a different recipe, and while her bread has a sourdough tang, it is nothing compared to the flavor punch of mine. (Think a particularly pungent blue cheese.) Her methods vary a bit from mine, but it I certainly believe it also comes down to the environment of the starter. Yeast varies by location, so it stands to reason that the resulting flavor of sourdoughs will also vary by location. You are tapping into your microbiome (how cool is that!) after all!
People often express amazement and admiration that I make my own bread or can jam and pickles. Even as I enjoy basking in their adulations, I have to tell the truth: it really isn't that hard. What these tasks require are time, patience, and some attention to detail. However, those, too, are somewhat flexible. I am a little bit lazy and inattentive, so sometimes the dough rises longer than usual, or I forget to take the rind out of the yuzushu. These are not deal breakers by any means. Bread rises while I run off to teach classes or research information for an article or while I sleep. Yuzushu or umeboshi (pickled plums) steep along in a dark cupboard for weeks or months while I travel, garden, write, or spend time with friends. Just be there when it bakes for best results.
These projects certainly can feel intimidating at first and like most things done for the first few times, mistakes will be made. More often, you get to eat the mistakes and learn something in the process. Whether you decide to make bread to feed your family, the resistance or both, don't be afraid. Enjoy the process of exploring, making something with your own two hands, and sharing it with family and friends.
Sourdough Starter Recipe based on Sandor Katz
Ingredients for a Single Rice Cooker Starter
1 cup flour (any flour is fine)
1 cup water*
Mix the flour and water in a bowl vigorously. Cover with cheesecloth and stir at least once a day. After about three days, give or take, you will notice bubbles when you visit. The yeast is there. At this point, add roughly a tablespoon of flour (again, any kind is fine) a day and stir it in. This is feeding the starter. As the yeasts and bacteria feed on the flour, they burp and fart, creating a protective layer of liquid over the top of the starter. Just stir it back in each time you feed.
Keep doing this for about three or four days. By the end of a week, the starter should be a lively, smelly mess in your kitchen. Hooray! It's time to bake!
*Double bock, gone flat, is a nice substitute. (Don't worry. It wasn't a Baird Beer, although I'm sure that would make a lovely bread. I would just rather enjoy it in a glass with my bread.) I've also used the water from making soba noodles and steaming potatoes.
Basic Sourdough Bread Recipe
1 cup sourdough starter
1 cup lukewarm water (beer is nice here again, by the way)
4 cups flour
1 tsp salt
2 tbsp. oil
1/4 cup of sesame seeds, sunflower seeds, or whatever other things you fancy mixing into the bread.
Mix the starter and water (beer) to make a kind of slurry, a.k.a. the sponge. Mix in 2 cups of the flour to get a thick mud. Stir and stir and stir. I recommend 100 strokes at a minimum. Never cut through the middle of the sponge. Just like in the soil, you don't want to bust up the community of things bonding and working away to feed you. Cover and let it rise for anywhere from a couple of hours to overnight wrapped in blankets with a hot water bottle.
The starter has probably doubled in size and looks quite festive by the end of this rising time. That's perfect. Sprinkle the salt over it, drizzle the oil about, and toss in that quarter cup of stuff at this point. Stir without breaking up the dough.
|Kneading away and making a mess.|
|Dough rising in the sponge bowl.|
Once the dough seems to push back at you, it's time to give it a rest. I lightly oil the same bowl the sponge was in** and set the dough in there, cover it, and wrap it up once more with a hot water bottle. Let it rise for anywhere from two hours to overnight. **Don't bother cleaning the bowl. I always figure the extra bits probably help it feel at home after the trauma of the kneading.
Transfer the dough to a lightly oiled loaf pan. You can punch it down, as I suggest in the other recipe, but it is not entirely necessary. The shock of the transfer causes some deflation as it were, so I sometimes just let it rise. This can vary from a few hours to overnight.
Transfer the pan to the rice cooker and turn it on for a full cycle. Flip over the dough when the cycle ends, and start it up again.