Category Archives: Sourdough

Sourdough English Muffins

It’s a little more work than pancakes, but these english muffins are another great way to use up excess sourdough starter. I absolutely adore english muffins but I never buy them because in our household we just can’t go through bread fast enough to warrant options. (Though that’s changing now that we have another roommate.)

These muffins call for sourdough starter but the starter isn’t the leavening agent – baking soda is. The starter adds flavor and enough acidity to activate the baking soda. If you’re willing to get out of bed an hour early, you can whip these up on a school day. Just mix the dough the night before. It’s so much fun to watch them puff up on the griddle!

Here’s the recipe, adapted from a post on The Fresh Loaf.

Whole Wheat Sourdough English Muffins

1/2 cup whole wheat starter

1 cup milk

1 Tablespoon sugar

3/4 teaspoon salt

2 & 3/4 cups whole wheat flour

1 teaspoon baking soda

cornmeal

Mix the starter, 2 cups of flour, and milk in a large bowl.  Stir to combine, cover, and leave out for 8 hours or overnight.

In the morning, add remaining flour, sugar, salt and baking soda and mix well.  Turn onto a lightly floured surface and knead for 4-5 minutes.  Roll out to 3/4 inches and cut into rounds with a biscuit cutter (or water glass).  Roll out the scraps and cut more muffins from them.  Dust a sheet pan or silpat mat with cornmeal, place muffins on the pan using a spatula, dust the tops with cornmeal and let rest for 45 minutes.

Very lightly oil or butter a pancake griddle. Heat to medium-low and cook muffins for about 6-8 minutes on each side, or until browned on the top and bottom and cooked through.

Notes: An over-greased griddle creates a crispy crust, which just isn’t quite right for an english muffin. This recipe should work with white flour, but you may need to adjust the amount of flour. Like store-bought muffins, these really must be toasted.

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Happy, Healthy Sourdough Starter!

Yep, that’s the news. My sourdough starter is gurgling and frothing away, and last week I made two GREAT sourdough loaves. (I’ll post about those later.) Having received both my starters from friends I had not really read up on caring for a starter. I just added equal parts flour and water once a week (if the starter is living in the fridge) or once a day (if the starter is living on the counter). I was reading the forums on The Fresh Loaf and discovered that I should be adding both flour and water equal to the weight of the starter. OH. That means if I have 8 ounces of starter, I need to add 8 ounces of flour and 8 ounces of water at every feeding. Though my starters have seemed healthy, they’ve been following a rather prude diet. So yesterday I gave my starter a proper feeding and wow did it froth up. Twelve hours later it had doubled in volume. I’m curious to see the renewed rising power of my post-anorexic yeast culture.

I also plan to keep the starter on the counter for the foreseeable future to diminish the sour flavor – another tip from The Fresh Loaf.

This new feeding schedule is going to create a serious excess of starter, so I’m stocking up on quick-bread recipes to use it up. Today I made cornmeal sourdough pancakes for lunch. They were excellent – better than the original! I simply substituted 1 cup of starter for 1/2 cup of flour and 1/2 milk from my favorite buttermilk pancake recipe. They didn’t taste the slightest bit sour or yeasty, and they were much lighter than my usual pancakes. Next on the menu….crumpets and sourdough biscuits.

Nursing a starter back to health.

Again, I let my sourdough starter go hungry for far too long. I am a terrible mother. But I do have a pretty good excuse: the past month has been a whirlwind of packing, moving, and then unpacking. And the requisite IKEA trip. But the spacious new apartment is so worth it – especially considering the kitchen cabinet space! If you’re like me, deep drawers for bowls are one of life’s little luxuries.

But forgetting to feed my starter is just one of the things that fell by the wayside. (Be glad I’m not posting about my overdraft charges – though I’m vindicated by this New York Times article.) I gave the starter a peek last night. A gummy doughy base was submerged in gray liquid. The separation of flour and liquid is normal…but not that sickly gray hue. I assumed it was mold. Vigorously stirring the doughy mass revealed an air pocket that released inky liquid. Mold. Ick. As a scientific type I am sort of delighted that I witnessed a bakebook admonition come true. Several sources warn that starters must be well stirred, lest an air pocket or clump of flour provide a haven for mold to grow. In a healthy starter the yeast defends its territory against molds. There ain’t room for the both of ’em. But a dry pocket keeps the yeast out, giving mold a little foxhole.

So I’m running an experiment to see if my yeast can reclaim its territory. Last night I stirred it all together (dough, liquid, mold, and yeast) and added one cup each fresh water and fresh flour. Tonight I did the same, discarding a cup’s worth or starter. The starter is not looking so horribly gray now and the odor is kinda normal. I don’t plan on baking with it anytime soon, but I’ll be watching daily for signs that the mold is entirely gone and yeast is thriving again.

So much for beginner’s luck…

I’ve spent two weekends baking since my last post and I’m sad to report less success than my last sourdough. Here’s April 5th:

pain au levain pain au levain - cracked bottom crust

You can see that the base is cracked. From what I’ve read I think my cuts weren’t deep enough, and that my crust (again) hardened too quickly, forcing the bottom crust to crack open to let steam escape. The bottom crust is inevitably weaker than the top because when shaping the final dough you round the top and seal any flaps together on the bottom. Worse though, this loaf clearly didn’t rise all that much. I made the mistake here of trying a whole new recipe: Pain Au Levain from The Bread Alone cookbook. Pain Au Levain is technically a sourdough, but it involves a step that lessens that familiar sourdough flavor. To create the “levain” I mixed flour into my starter to create a dough and let that ferment for 8 – 10 hours. Then I added more flour and kneaded the dough. The recipe takes just as long my sourdough but the dough doesn’t spend time in the fridge, where the yeast slows down. So I think with my Pain Au Levain I may have tuckered out my yeast before the dough hit the oven.

After several busy weekends I finally had a chance to bake again this Friday. I returned to my previously successful sourdough but made a few unfortunate changes! First, I wasn’t expecting to have time to bake, so I didn’t “wake” the starter up ahead of time. I’d had it in the fridge for three weeks, feeding it water and flour only once a week. When I plan to bake I need to bring the starter to room temperature a day before and feed it every 12 hours. I really wanted to bake though so I decided to go for it despite my sleeping starter. As predicted, the dough was extremely sluggish to rise but I tried to be patient, hoping for the yeast to wake up at some point during the process. By the time I was ready for bed my dough still hadn’t risen so I put it in the refrigerator so that it wouldn’t peak while I was asleep. This turned out to be a pretty good call. I brought out the dough in the morning and left it on the counter to rise with a thermometer inserted. When the dough finally warmed above 70 degrees I started to see some action. By 9pm it had doubled so I punched it down and shaped it. But again I found myself up against a bedtime and decided to bake the shaped loaf after only 30 minutes of proofing. NOT a good idea! I keep hoping that oven spring will miraculously fix a sluggish loaf but I think I’ve proved it just doesn’t work that way.

a very sour sourdough

The other oddity you might notice here is the bubbly texture. Here’s a closeup:

close up of sour sourdough

Inspired by No Knead Bread, I deliberately added a bit less flour than usual to keep a wet dough. Comments I’d read about this loaf suggested that a wetter dough might give me those large irregular air holes. Eh, who can tell when your dough isn’t properly risen in the first place!

This bread has an very pronounced sourdough flavor. I’m wondering why that is. One guess is that either the rise (i.e. fermenting) time was longer than usual, and another guess is that my starter has actually become more sour as it ages. Well I killed my starter this morning so maybe I’ll never know! Perhaps feeling slightly vindictive, I left my starter out on the counter for three days without feeding it and this morning found a film of mold growing over the top of it. Eew. On a small scale this shouldn’t be a problem – just spoon off the mold and the yeast will kill off the rest. But I just didn’t feel prepared to tackle a whole lot of mold. And to be honest, I’ve resolved to return to humbler yeasted breads until I am more skilled.

I’ve had requests that I give away or even export my bread (thanks for the vote of confidence Cessi)! Sure, there’s plenty to go around, but seriously my loaves are still barely edible.

oven SPRING!

I ended my last post with the word “mostly.” Meaning that my loaf “mostly” rose. Everything went according to plan until I slid the dough into the oven. Now what’s supposed to happen is that the dough rises rapidly in the hot oven, giving it that last lift and nice round top. This is not just an aesthetic – it’s the difference between airy texture and dense texture. Sadly Sourdough #1 never got it’s oven spring.

As ever, the question is why?
I have a few theories. First of all I used entirely whole wheat. I think that was overly ambitious on my part. Whole wheat is inevitably heavier than white flour and therefore rises a bit less. Secondly, I think my oven was too hot. Maybe you noticed that my crust looked a bit…um….dark? It’s basically on hairy edge of burnt. I think what happened is the crust hardened so quickly from the heat that the bread couldn’t rise any more. And also my cuts were fairly shallow – you can see from the picture that they really filled in with the wee oven spring I did get.

When I baked the next weekend I went for white flour. Or, more specifically, I went for a flour that Dan Leader (of Bread Alone fame) calls “20% bran.” Basically this means that the flour has all of the germ and 20% as much bran as a whole wheat flour has. You can’t buy this flour in the store but I easily mixed it according to Dan’s recipe: 3 cups of white flour, 3 tablespoons wheat germ, and 1 cup whole wheat flour. I also made much deeper cuts before the loaves went into the open around 1/2″ or 1″. Here is the very happy result!

oven spring!

oven spring!

This one was a joy to eat!

The other thing I did was buy some kitchen toys: a baking stone, a dough scraper, and a thermometer. My baking stone is supposed to create a better crust and better oven spring but I didn’t notice a difference. I think one of the problems is that I don’t have a peel to slide the bread onto the stone. The dough stuck to my metal baking sheet (which was doused in flour) and I may have lost some lift while struggling to transfer it to the stone. Mostly I used the dough scraper for clean up, but it’s also the perfect tool for dividing the dough into two halves. Regarding the thermometer, I’m trying to keep my rising stages at a steady 78-80 degrees. The thermometer is also useful at the end of the baking period when I measure the temperature inside the loaf – if it’s around 212 degrees I take it out of the oven, but let it cool before cutting in because the bread continues to bake even after it leaves the oven!  Here’s my thermometer in action:

thermometer in action

thermometer in action - slightly high at 81 degrees

Despite my oven spring this loaf still had a fairly even texture. That’s fine for sandwiches but I prefer bread ripped from the loaf and doused in olive oil so my next goal is to figure out how to to create those rustic breads with large uneven airholes.

Research makes perfect?

After rock #2 I turned to the internet (where else?) and found this amazing site! Farmgirl Fare: Ten Tips for Better Bread Farmgirl Susan lays out techniques that make the type of breads that are only distant cousins to supermarket sandwich loaves. Most of these techniques were a bit too advanced for my amateur skills but I took her advice and ordered the Bread Alone cookbook (or bakebook?). When it arrived I read and re-read the first chapter, which doesn’t even contain recipes. It’s all about flour textures, time, temperature and fermentation. It turns out that jump-starting the yeast with luke-warm water is actually a bad idea. Ideally you should create a long, slow rising period which helps the dough develop more flavor through fermentation, and also prevent your yeast from getting tuckered out too quickly. The science of baking is fascinating – when you knead your dough it’s temperature actually rises due to the friction! Dan Leader (the author) recommends that you calculate your individual “Friction Factor” and use that to balance the temperatures of your flour and water.

Reading about kneading dough I had the ah-ha moment: The 15-17 minute rule is important. If the dough is under-kneaded, the gluten will not be developed enough to allow the dough to rise during fermentation. It turns out that the kneading process changes the very structure of the gluten (wheat protein strands) to be longer and more elastic, which traps the air created by the yeast. SCIENCE!

Just a few days later my friend Emily invited me to take a class on sourdough bread at Brooklyn Kitchen. Though I now had a good handle on the concepts thanks to Bread Alone, the class gave me the opportunity to poke and prod properly kneaded dough at several stages. Thanks to my friend Tom I had a tiny tupperware of his sourdough starter waiting in my fridge. And so that weekend I baked bread – and it rose! (mostly)

Real Sourdough Bread...served with my favorite food.

Real Sourdough Bread...served with my favorite food.