My personal cookbook

So how do you keep track of all the recipes that come flying at you in blogs, emails, websites, subscriptions, your mom’s index cards…. and even books? What happens if you travel somewhere? How do you access this? I’m getting the idea that what I do is somewhat unorthodox – I’ve found I’m usually on the path less travelled – but none the less there are occasional kindred spirits along the road.

This is about how I keep track of it all. We’ll see how many of you think the idea actually has some legs.

My inspiration goes back to about 2009 and a book The The Cure for Death by Lightning By Gail Andersen Dargatz.   This is a wonderful, tragic, deep hitting novel about a poverty stricken community in rural BC in the late 1940’s. In it the mother of the main family keeps a scrapbook in which she puts and writes anything to do with her cooking. It forms not just a personal recipe collection and reflection, it is a diary – the life of her family revealed through a culinary perspective. I thought at the time that its a cool idea  – and wondered how it could happen for me.

It didn’t take me long to fix on Excel as the vehicle to go with. Recipes on the internet are always  written in columnar fashion. I use excel for virtually any function that requires data entry, and feel very comfortable in this environment. It enables tons of text data without taking up a lot of space. It can be sorted so that a chronology can be entered. It’s easy to copy and paste a recipe – most of the time recipes are a simple copy and paste. It’s equally easy to respond to those “Ooooh! that was delicious – can you send me the recipe?”. Sure. No problem. It’s easy to find, easy to copy into an email and send it along.

In the last few years I’ve migrated it to Google sheets   – this enables me to use whatever computer I’m at without worrying about backups,

How it works

  • Each sheet is a different food category: baking, desserts, soups, salads, etc.
  • Each column is one recipe.
  • Each row has a few common elements: row 1: title; row 2: source or URL row 3: date entered; row 4 notes. Below that its however the recipe comes to you.
  • And that folks is it!

I should note that I have a couple of other sheets not part of this: a bread baking log, a sausage log, and a fermentation log.  

How can you use it?

  • Being a google sheet, and in columns, its easy to read and even edit on an android phone.
  • I can make changes on the fly without having to worry about saving or backing up
  • Easily store every recipe you have.
  • Share it with your loved ones – in effect creating a growing family cookbook. In my case, only my son has editing privileges. He’s turning out to be a good cook, and he knows Excel a lot better than I do. As I noted to him, “This spreadsheet constitutes your culinary DNA.”
  • Whenever a friend makes something that I find remarkable, I’ll get them to contribute. This usually means they tell me orally what the recipe is, I write it down, and put it in the spreadsheet. Then I send them a copy of that by email with the question – “Is this what you meant?” Once they are clear and I am clear this is the recipe, in it goes
  • Copying a recipe, you have the option to either paste the text only or keep it in a table. Thus you could easily pick off certain recipes and put them together as a small self published book for friends.
  • Use any of the empty cells to do measurement calculations
  • Like with any spreadsheets you can widen or narrow the rows and  columns. The text wrapping controls offer more possibilities than Excel.

Generally if you are comfortable in a spreadsheet environment, you will be comfortable with this.  Since its a google sheet, it’s best viewed in Chrome. If you don’t have it already, you may need to get Google Drive from their play store. If you can download it as an Excel document that will work too.

If this means of storing recipes is an idea you would like to play with, download it as an Excel file, then do your playing. You don’t even need to do that. The concept is the thing.

What I have done is to copy and paste one of the sheets with all its warts and wrinkles. I’ve made it editable by anyone with the link. It means that I am prepared for it to be inadvertently (or deliberately) messed up. I figure that chances are it will be ok, but if it’s not I’ll just copy and paste from my personal file. If you like it as an approach to store your recipes, great. Go for it. The value is more in the process than in the recipes themselves.

As the years go by, it grows. How can it not? At this point, after 6 years, I’m about at 600 recipes. Who knows where it will go.

Here’s the link https://docs.google.com/spreadsheets/d/1qCoT2R1XCij-vHwCGcr-C0LwxZqcTfJDQuXHauxpEpE/edit#gid=0

I am curious in this day of infinite possibilities, how do you keep track of your recipes?

More fun with Sourdough: Party Bites

It’s been a while since I last did a blog.  I’ve been pretty busy with an online course I’m teaching.

This blog is about finger foods and neat things you can do with sourdough. It started a couple of days ago with a request. My son attends a program with other adults who have quite complex needs and they’re having a Christmas party. I was asked to supply some of the food and the criteria set for me what was that it needed to be

  • delicious
  • easy to eat finger food: something you can pop in your mouth.
  • soft
  • healthy
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The finished bites. This quantity uses about 700g of flour and about a litre of filling.

So I was wondering what to do. I had an idea of people being able to pop something fairly small into one’s mouth. I thought about using bread dough to surround a filling  – sort of like an oven baked sandwich.  Like Tim Hortons Timbits except healthier. A further criteria  I also added was that I didn’t want it to be greasy: when it was picked up and eaten hands would remain clean.

I figured that if I rolled out a 66% hydration dough (your average bread dough) to about a quarter inch or so, trimmed to an even rectangle, about 12”/30cm x 4”/10cm that would be a good start.

I then brushed on melted butter (you need a fat hit in this kind of thing – but not too much). Next I added about half a teaspoon of  filling, and wrapped it up so the filling is entirely cased in dough.

It went as I had envisaged and I’m very pleased with the results.

The two fillings I used in this particular case were a vegan ricotta analog:  a block of tofu, lemon juice, lemon zest, salt, pepper, and parsley. It’s what I used for my  cheeseless vegan lasagna.  The other filling I made was a mix of diced red pepper and chicken burger from  chicken burgers I made  recently. But really, you can add any filling you want.

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Ingredients for the vegan ricotta analog

This is a food in the same tradition as filled pastries and croissants,  somosas, calzones, ravioli, patties, pasties – even arguably fritters – except that instead of being several bites big, its one  – at the most 2 -bites big. And unlike its culinary siblings, using a bread dough means its clean to the touch and contains a lot less fat, though just enough to make the taste amazing.

Assuming you bake bread, I’ll take the directions from the point where you have a dough that is  bulk risen and ready for its final rise. For the quantities you see in these pictures, I started with about 700g of flour.

  1. Heat oven to 450F
  2. Roll out first rise completed  bread  dough to about ¼” thick and trim it with a pizza cutter to yield rectangular shapes 4” or 10cm wide  20151217_055319
  3. Melt about 20-30g butter
  4. Brush the melted butter on the rectangles
  5. Spoon ½ tsp  blobs of your desired filling  along the length of the rectangular dough leaving a small space between each one  – just like making ravioli. 
  6. Fold the  half of the rectangle with no filling over the filling.
  7. Cut  between the folds with the pizza cutter and begin to crimp and work on the on the ball to make it as smoothly round as possible, with all the filling encased. The more accurate  the better.
  8. Bake on a baking tray with parchment paper or a silpat liner for about 11 minutes at 450F. They should be browned on the bottom and gently puffed out.20151217_062536
  9. A note on the filling: if you are using meat, it can go in raw as you will be baking it to about 200 degrees F. The fat drippings from it will infuse into the cooking dough, making the end result wonderfully comforting and filling.
  10. Don’t be tempted to brush some butter on the top  unless you  want it obviously greasy.  
  11. Cool and serve.

If you like the look of these, I’d be really interested in what you decide to use as a filling. Please jump to the Replies and share your ideas.

Cranberries!

I’ve updated the blog – the results of my cranberry ferments.

homecookexplorer

Note: the November 22 entry refers to recipes and events in the October 8 entry below it.

November 22

Its been a while since I last blogged. I blame getting an unusual number of students in the online courses I teach. I was expecting a handful. I got 42.

But a response (below) asking what happened makes me put the course aside for a moment and do an update.

So essentially I made our usual (Canadian) thanksgiving cranberry relish the way I always have done it (not fermented) and I made a fermented version. I also tried the cranberry chutney noted below – a honey ferment. So here is what happened to these various experiments:

  • whole cranberries in a brine: These have lasted fine and continue to ferment although the fermentation is not nearly as vigorous as what I am used to. I don’t get much of a strong LAB…

View original post 1,082 more words

Cranberries!

Note: the November 22 entry refers to recipes and events in the October 8 entry below it.

November 22

Its been a while since I last blogged. I blame getting an unusual number of students in the online courses I teach. I was expecting a handful. I got 42.

But a response (below) asking what happened makes me put the course aside for a moment and do an update.

So essentially I made our usual (Canadian) thanksgiving cranberry relish the way I always have done it (not fermented) and I made a fermented version. I also tried the cranberry chutney noted below – a honey ferment. So here is what happened to these various experiments:

  • whole cranberries in a brine: These have lasted fine and continue to ferment although the fermentation is not nearly as vigorous as what I am used to. I don’t get much of a strong LAB taste – which is fine – I don’t want it in a cranberry condiment.
  • whole cranberries in honey with a little water. Same as above. 
  • chopped cranberries in honey. This one was interesting. Again as above there is not a strong LAB taste – yet at the same time there is no evidence of mould. 
  • The remains   – about 200g  – of our non fermented cranberry chutney became mouldy in the fridge after about 2 weeks.
  • The same fermented chutney was kept outside the fridge, and did not mould.
  • The raspberry ginger ferment likewise was fine – inside or outside the fridge.

What to make of it?

Cranberries on their own are naturally acidic  – apparently around 2.5 pH on their own. (FDA) Oranges and apples too are acidic  – between 3-4 pH. So even without fermentation, our cranberry orange relish is going to last a long time (or should) as its a pretty acidic mix. Looking back, its surprising that there was surface mould after a couple of weeks. The ferments however were also pressed down, with little to no air contact.

I’m questioning whether they actually fermented in this time, or if the natural acidity combined with lack of exposure to air on the surface was the most significant factor.

I also have to keep my goals in mind. In this case its not to make a ferment per se. I’ve already got enough of that in my life. Its simply to make a great condiment that can exist happily outside the fridge for a few months. It would appear that the type of container would be important. The air contact needs to be controlled.  A standard mason jar filled to the neck with cranberry material either whole, chopped or a chutney, covered with honey should work well. With time, it should ferment too.

 Next Steps

I’m going to try putting up 2L each of our usual relish and the raspberry ginger relish, in 1L standard mouth mason jars that will be left in the basement. Due to the difficulty of keeping the liquid (honey slightly diluted)  on the top, I’m not going to puree them in the ferment phase. I’ll use whole fruits, or chopped oranges and apples. When I need some for a condiment, I’ll take what I need and puree it before serving. Currently fresh cranberries are not available to me – so I’ll need to decide whether to wait a few weeks or to do it sooner with frozen cranberries.

 

October 8 2015

For years, I’ve made Molly  Katzen’s Cranberry Orange relish to accompany our Canadian Thanksgiving dinner. It was published in her truly excellent Still Life with Menu cookbook as part of a vegetarian thanksgiving dinner.

Then this year I found out about fermenting. Everything has strangely changed.

Oh – I’m still making the same Cranberry Orange Relish  – I would have some serious familial discord if I didn’t. But I did buy a 3 kilo bag of berries from my coop and this afternoon I did some experimentation.

I should also say that this is going to be a different kind of a blog. Most food blogs are what I would call ‘TA DA!!!’ blogs: great food porn picture at the top of the finished product, a cool story that gives context and personal interest, and the recipe. Everything done and cleaned up – fait complit.

This is definitely not a TA DA blog. Its definitely an ‘in process’ blog where its all about what I am trying to do, as I really have no idea of where it will all end up. I will do a followup blog: I’ll tack on the newest bit on top in a few weeks once I see how my experimentation went and reblog it. Either way, you will get recipes, promise.

So In this I am asking the following questions:

  1. Can our usual Cranberry Orange Relish be fermented?
  2. Trying out someone else’s fermented cranberry condiment recipe (yum!)
  3. Is it better to ferment cranberries in honey or in a brine?
  4. What difference will chopping the cranberries make (honey ferment)?
The mise en scene for this little experiment.

The mise en scene for this little experiment.

The Cranberry Orange Relish essentially is this:

  • Chop in a food processor:
  • 2 cups cranberries
  • 1 granny smith apple
  • ½ an orange including the peel
  • ½ cup brown sugar.

That’s it. Super simple, super delicious. Now go and buy Mollie’s book ’cause there’s a ton of really excellent stuff in there!

As you can see, getting the fruit mash below the water will be a challenge.

As you can see, getting the fruit mash below the water will be a challenge.

For the fermented version I substituted honey instead of the sugar. A little tasting shows what I knew and what  I should have done: a little less honey. We’ll see what difference the fermentation makes.  I’m planning on fermenting it for a week. It was a little challenging getting that water on the very top – so I’ll have to keep on top of the molds. 

I started my investigation into fermenting cranberries by posting a query on the Wild Fermentation FB page about other people’s experience with cranberries and got some interesting and quite useful feedback – and a recipe from Sara Kueber McKoy.

Here is her recipe:

Sara Kueber McKoy’s cranberry raspberry ginger chutney

  • 1 litre chopped cranberries
  • 1/2 cup fresh raspberries
  • 3/4″ diameter piece of fresh ginger  2″ in length into thin planks & then cut into 1/2″ long strips,
  • 1 1/2 tsp salt
  • 3 tbsp honey
  • Let it sit overnight in airlocked jar and in morning top up with water and then adjust salt to taste. Ferment for 5-7 days at 71-73F and in then refrigerate.

The effect of the raspberry and ginger on the cranberries is quite magical. Its definitely something to experiment more with  – I’m thinking of taking some of it for a salad dressing.

This one is looking great and tasting great even before it ferments.

This one is looking great and tasting great even before it ferments.

Generally the feedback from the FB page  was to use honey instead of  brine as the fermenting agent. That made sense – cranberries are definitely tart.

After that I prepared the following brines – setting up single bottles to check out my questions. I now have:

  • whole cranberries in a brine
  • whole cranberries in honey with a little water
  • chopped cranberries in honey.
  • I might have done chopped cranberries in a brine but ran out of cranberries.

So that’s what happened today in my kitchen. Not quite. I also wrestled with some sourdough starter too – but that is another story.

Fermentation 101

The purpose of this blog is to respond to friends, colleagues and anyone who has recently asked me “What’s this fermentation stuff you’re doing all about?”

So let’s start at the beginning…

Bacteria are all around us – on any surface we touch, on the food we eat, and most importantly for our health, throughout our entire GI (gastro-intestinal) system.  Some bacteria are bad for us, causing diseases and cancer and ultimately death. Other bacteria are good for us – digesting food, creating antibodies to keep the bad bacteria in check, creating enzymes, proteins, and all sorts of other great stuff the body needs. Our bodies have both good and bad bacteria, and when we are in a healthy state, the balance between the two is exactly what it ought to be. We need the bad bacteria too so the good bacteria is kept on its toes to fight it. When we get sick, the bad bacteria and/or viruses gain the upper hand and the good bacteria need some help.

What LABs look like.

What LABs look like.

When food comes in contact with water, the bacteria on that food that need water to grow and develop get active. They feed off the starches and sugars on the food, changing them to lactic acid, alcohol and carbon dioxide. The bacteria that do this are thus called ‘lactic acid bacteria’ (or LAB for short) and are the same good bacteria that lives in your gut doing all this wonderful digesting and immune system balancing and protection. The process of putting food in water (with a little salt as the bad bacteria do not exist well in a salty environment) and letting the LABs – the lactobacillus bacteria – eat, reproduce, and develop – is called fermentation.

Its as simple as that: a fruit or vegetable, in a slightly salty brine will yield a fermentation that is really good to eat, as it produces the same lactobacillus bacteria your body has and needs for digesting and protecting you. (Yes – there’s a lot more – but that’s it in a nutshell.)

That all said, here are three simple fermented vegetable recipes that require no more than a bowl, a knife, a few jars and lids.

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When you get into it, things like this happen. I asked a potter at the market to make me a crock pot. It has 2 lids – one to press down on the ferment, the other a lid for the pot.

Water and salt

Before we begin, a couple of notes about water and salt. Fluoridated tap water comes with chemicals designed to kill bacteria which is great for pathogens (the harmful bacteria) but it does not discriminate and kills the good stuff too. So use non fluoridated water of some kind: distilled, reverse osmosis, even filtered well water  – as long as you know it’s safe to drink. With respect to salt, don’t use iodized table salt. It has iodine and anti caking chemicals added. Preferably use sea salt, or kosher salt.

Pickled cucumbers (makes 1 litre)

  1. Make a solution of 1L quality water and 50g of quality salt.
  2. clean the cukes, cut off the flowering stem and pack them whole (if possible) into a 1 L wide mouth jar. Add anything else you want to flavor it with: garlic, dill, peppercorns, other spices…
  3. Pour the brine over, fill it up to the top.
  4. The cukes MUST be fully submerged under the water. If not, they will mold (The harmful mold bacteria require air in order to live.) This can be done using a wide mouth mason jar,  holding the cukes down with a small mouth lid and weighing it down with  250 ml mason jar full of water.
  5. Keep it at room temperature in a dark place for 1-2 weeks. During this time the lactic acid bacteria will begin fermenting and go through a succession of LAB colonies.
  6. They are ready to eat – pop your jar in the fridge. The fermentation will slow right down and you don’t need to continue weighing it down.

Sauerkraut

  1. Shred about 1 kilo (4 cups) of vegetables
    • mainly cabbage but also  -and according to taste –
    • carrot, onion, garlic, spices that you like (pepper, caraway, cumin, coriander)
  2. Add 20g (2%) salt and massage the mix for about 3 or so minutes until the salt pulls the juice out of the vegetables.
  3. As in the cuke recipe above, pack the kraut into a 1L wide mouth mason jar.
  4. Using either a small lid (as described above) or a cabbage leaf push the mix under the liquid and weigh it down so that none of the shredded slaw is above the surface. Pack it down as far as it will go. Add a weight (could be a smaller jar of water) to keep the kraut below the water line.
  5. Keep it at room temperature in a dark place for 1 week.  
  6. They are ready to eat – pop your jar in the fridge. The fermentation will slow right down and you don’t need to continue weighing it down.

 

A brining slaw in a crock pot. But a mason jar would work fine too.

A brining slaw in a crock pot. But a mason jar would work fine too.

The inner lid presses down and compacts the ferment. LAB brine is on top, and the ferment can breathe.

The inner lid presses down and compacts the ferment. LAB brine is on top, and the ferment can breathe.

Mason jars work fine, just keep them in a dark place. Use a wide mouth jar and a small lid weighed down by a small jar full of water.

Basic slaw

This is the same as the sauerkraut except there’s less cabbage and more of everything else. Consider grated carrot, onion, sweet peppers, hot peppers, corn, kale, chard, beets….. the possibilities are endless. Adding herbs and spices will help things too. Add the ones you and your family particularly like. Tasting as you go works too!

So what can you do with this?

  • Eat it on its own
  • Mix it into rice or grains for flavour and texture
  • A garnish over sausages, burgers – really any meat (think sauerkraut over a sausage)
  • A garnish in soups or salads
  • As part of a sandwich: but a warning – squeeze out the water, and place it between something else on the sandwich that won’t let water through – otherwise you will have a soggy sandwich.
  • Puree and use in a salad dressing, sauce, soup…..
  • Use the brine as a substitute for lemon or vinegar in a salad dressing

And…. Since I am  ingesting active probiotics, can I not eat too much? Likely yes. But listen to your body. You will know when you have had enough.

Resources

This blog is a quickie to get you started on the wonderful road to fermentation – a very brief layman’s overview, and does not truly do it justice. I would strongly recommend reading these sources for more detailed and expert information:

https://www.facebook.com/notes/wild-fermentation/how-vegetable-fermentation-works-/10151520254610369

http://www.foodsafetynews.com/2014/03/fermenting-veggies-at-home-follow-food-safety-abcs/#.VdXW-vlVhBd

http://www.webmd.com/vitamins-supplements/ingredientmono-790-lactobacillus.aspx?activeingredientid=790&activeingredientname=lactobacillus

http://www.wildfermentation.com/whats-so-wild-about-fermentation/

http://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/28/magazine/can-the-bacteria-in-your-gut-explain-your-mood.html?_r=1

Also check out the Wild Fermentation Facebook page – its very active and has a mine of information. https://www.facebook.com/groups/WlidFermentation/

And… Definitely buy Sandor Katz’s Wild Fermentation book

Let me know if you tried one of these recipes out.

Fun stuff to do with sourdough

Fresh herbs and slices of butter leaving room to fold over the dough.

Fresh herbs and slices of butter leaving room to fold over the dough.

A couple of days ago I did my sourdough workshop. It meant I had to prepare a loaf (which was all eaten), a bulk rise, and during the workshop we put together another bulk rise. It meant I had quite a lot of doughy product to sort out after the workshop.
The loaf that had proofed overnight in the fridge after enduring about 3 hours of proofing at room temperature was predictably overproofed. I should not have slashed it. Oh well. Taste was still fine.
What I decided to do with half the dough we put together was to make a BBQ’d herbed tea biscuit (sort of) dinner flatbread.
I took about half the dough (about 400g) which had been refrigerated overnight and had risen slightly & rolled it out on a floured surface until it was about 1/2” thick.
I then went out and cut some fresh oregano, thyme, basil and chives, cut them up and spread them on the dough. Garlic and pepper too.
Next I laid the inside 70% of the surface with generous slices of unsalted butter, and folded the corners and sides over so that no butter was showing.

BBQflatbread (3)

In the middle of folding and rolling. Its important the butter does not squeeze through.

In the middle of folding and rolling. Its important the butter does not squeeze through.

Following the technique used for laminated pastries – puff pastries, croissants and the like, I folded the dough gently in 3, rolled it out gently, being sure to flour it so nothing would stick. I repeated this “fold in 3 then roll out” sequence a number of times – maybe 6-8. Anytime some butter showed up, I slapped a little flour on it.
For the final roll out I left it at approximately ½” or 1.5 cm thick in a somewhat oval shape, on parchment paper, for about an hour.
After an hour, turned on the BBQ, and once hot, I gently turned the dough off the parchment paper and onto the BBQ. I’m afraid the timings here aren’t a fine science: you want to cook it through. This amounts to 2-3 minutes on each side. What happens is the dough cooks, the butter melts and evaporates, infusing into the dough and helping it to rise, as its trapped by the flour layers around it.
It can be served either as a large flatbread, or cut into squares and served as tea biscuits.
What you get is a quite decadent buttery herby dinner flatbread. Yum!

BBQflatbread (1)

image

baguette and pitas about to be baked

The next day…..

But there was another chunk of dough as well, languishing in the fridge. What to do with it? Well I had put on chickpeas to soak – thinking humus and falafel. So what more logical than to do some pita to accompany it. Again I had about 400g of dough to play with. Not enough.
So what I did was to add some more dough – white flour: 400g flour, 240g water, 8g of salt: all ‘baker’s ratio’. I was also a little concerned that the starter would be a little old so I added a pinch – truly no more – of yeast as well. Four hours later and it was nicely risen to become little pitas and a baguette. The dough in the fridge had become a kind of mother dough. Here I wanted something like the choices I get at a sub shop. I added italian herbs, garlic and Asiago cheese on top. For the pitas I wanted fairly thick soft ones that could hold a falafel or other sandwich material.

It all worked out well. The baguette is delish as are the pitas. All this goes to show what kind of flexibility and on the spot creativity you can get with a chunk of old sourdough bulk rise.

Sourdough Bread – simple and delicious!.

Wouldn’t you love to be able to make a beautiful loaf of sourdough bread, but found the prospect  too complex, confusing and time consuming? Wouldn’t it be also great if you could integrate it seamlessly into your already busy life? This blog describes  a process for making sourdough bread that, if you follow it more or less correctly, will yield a rich, complex, nutty, flavourful sourdough each and every time. 

I’m preparing this as an online accompaniment to a sourdough bread workshop I am doing for my food coop. I’d like to see lots more people doing sourdough, and, I’m a teacher by profession. Even though I may be far from an expert on bread, I can at least teach it.

Understanding Sourdough

A basic sourdough loaf begins with 4 elements: starter, flour, water, and salt. That’s what you can see and measure. What you can’t see is the complex microbial community that also lives, grows and changes in it  – until its baked, that is.

The starter starts off as flour and water, but growing in it are important living bacteria species of probiotic  Lactobacillus as well as yeast – Saccharomyces cerevisiae. These microbes are present in the flour to begin with, but need water to activate them. The rise in the sourdough comes from the yeast producing carbon dioxide, as well as evaporating water being trapped in the loaf. Meanwhile, the lactobacillus metabolizes sugar to provide that distinct nutty/tangy flavor.

Since the yeast and bacteria are responsible for all that happens, it’s important to understand life from their point of view.  They  are very simple little one celled organisms and they don’t have a lot of needs. Their main need is food and temperature. In the case of sourdough, their food are the starches and sugars in flour but they need  water to release and activate them. The yeasts and bacteria grow best at different temperatures.  Sourdough yeasts  can grow and develop in a in a wide range of temperatures from 10C to 35C. Their optimum range is between 25-30C When they are baked, they die off after  about 45C degrees. The variety of lactobacillus bacteria present tend to prefer higher temperatures. Most people prefer room temperature as this often provides a good time window for the rising. It also gives the bacteria more time to develop, and thus a more complex, nutty flavour.

In the picture below (left) you can see the  two yeast cells on the left  budding, the one at the bottom has just separated. The picture on the right shows lactobacillus bacteria in their colony.

 Yeast reproducing Lactobacillus

Here’s a video of yeast reproducing.

We can use this information to effectively control our sourdough times, and taste.  For example if we want to have a faster rise it can go on top of the fridge, or in a slightly warmed oven.  If we want it to take longer,   – if we want our bread to rise while we’re away at work for about 9 -12 hours might be an idea to put it in the coolest spot in the basement, or the fridge.

The taste can be manipulated too: leaving it at room temperature and going easy on the refreshing will encourage the lactobaccili bacteria and give a tangier loaf. Likewise, increasing the amount of starter will achieve a similar result.

The starter

The starter is the most important key to great sourdough. Its the home to numerous micro organisms including the  yeast. Its responsible for both the rising and the taste. Through its care, you can manipulate it to achieve different results.

mixing the starter refresh

mixing the starter refresh

Starters can be made easily: 150g (approximately 1 cup) of fresh organic whole wheat flour and 250g pure water (1 cup)  mixed together, in a covered one litre glass jar will at room temperature will start bubbling in  a few days. Note that the flour weight is 60% of the water weight – or to put it the ‘baker’s way – the water is 166% of the flour. But its easier on the mental math to think of the 60% ratio.  Ideally use  organic whole wheat flour and unchlorinated unflouridated water (as these chemicals will kill them). Once it is bubbling, pour off all but 150g of it, and refresh it with 90g flour and 150g of water. Do this one more time after it bubbles up again, let it develop, then refrigerate. This stabilizes the culture and it  should be already for use at that point. Once started and maintained, you should not have to do it again.

Initially its important to see how long your refreshed starter takes to fully bloom. Put a piece of vertical tape on your jar and note the time and temperature of its rise. This will give you vital information about your starter characteristics. In my case, its 8 hours at 22C. What that means is that when I put a new loaf together, it needs to do its bulk rise and proofing all within that 8 hour window. This will assure me of a successful loaf with great oven spring. It also means that I can likely retard the rising to 9-12 hours by keeping the bulk rise conditions at a lower temperature – say 17-18C. On the other hand, the rise will be a lot faster on a humid day in summer. 

Taking care of your starter

Keep your starter in the fridge  – especially if you want sourdough to be reliable and easy to maintain. At this temperature, it remains not quite dormant yet ready for use.  If you keep your starter at room temperature it’s going to be very active until it starts dying off and you will be spending a lot of energy refreshing it. It can remain viable in your fridge for up to a couple of months. Bakers have different ways of managing their starter. Some always keep at least a cup of starter (approximately 250g) available.

I like to keep a little over 100g. When you wish to bake, you must refresh it – an equal weight of water and 60% of the starter weight in flour. With my 100g I refresh it twice: The first time, I add 100g water and 60g flour (=260g). The second time I do 260g of water and 156g of flour. This leaves me with lots of starter to put together a 2800g dough – see my Making Sourdough Easy and just in time blog 

Now consider the food for the starter and think about it from the yeast’s perspective. Let’s say we have 100 grams of starter and you feed this hundred grams of starter 50 grams of flour and 50 grams of water. From their perspective they’re going to look at that and ‘say’ “Seriously like I’m going to finish this in no time flat! I need way more!”

On the other hand if you had only 10 grams of starter and you feed it 200 grams of flour in 200 grams of water it’s going to get really excited: “Wow this is like so much food I just can’t wait to chow down and get into it and reproduce like crazy and move like crazy and make all kinds of carbon dioxide gas.” (which is responsible for the rising and the  holes in your bread).  

So the learning here is:

  • if your starter is getting a little old, use less of it, not more.
  • If your starter is getting a little old, refresh it. The ratio is as follows – by weight: 10 parts starter, 10 parts water, 6 parts flour. My usual go to is 150g starter, 150g water, 90g flour.
  • If you want to use more starter to make a tangier bread, make sure it has been well refreshed and is at its peak of bubbliness. This can be done by refreshing only some of your starter (half cup each of starter, flour and water) and using most of that for your loaf.

The whole rising cycle

This great diagram (below) from http://www.classofoods.com/page1_3.html shows the evolution of the yeast and bacteria in the bread. (You may need to click on the image to see it clearly.) Ideally, you want to do the bulk rise for most of its exponential growth phase, the final rise at nearly the end of that phase, and into the oven as it’s nearing the height of it. This is hard to do – we can’t exactly build in a scale to show how much ‘food’ is left for the yeast –  and it will take practise. If you do not let it fully develop, it is underproofed and will seem gummy. If it’s overproofed, you will not get any oven spring – that magic lifting it undergoes in the oven. It might even fall. With practice, you will get to know your starter, and your local conditions well.

yeast cycle

The lag phase is seen initially in the bulk rise: you look at it and nothing appears to have happened.

In the exponential growth phase it expands. Ideally it should be proofed and baked in this period.

If it reaches its stationary phase or beyond – too late – sorry. Its way overproofed.

Baker’s percentage and Hydration

Baker’s percentage: Usually percentages add up to 100 –  except for bread.  The weight of the flour you use is always 100%. All of the other ingredients are expressed as a percent of the weight of the flour. Thus if you have a loaf that has 1000 grams of flour and you add 20 grams of salt, the baker’s %  would be 2%.  Every single ingredient in your bread can be expressed as a Baker’s Percentage. If this 1000g loaf had 20g salt, 600g water, and 50g starter, the Baker’s Percent for the whole loaf would be 167% (100+60+2+5).

Hydration hydration is the wetness of the dough, the ratio of the flour to the water expressed as a percentage.  It’s the weight of the water divided by the weight of the flour. If you’ve got a 1000g loaf (100%) and you add 600 grams of water (600/1000) =  60% hydration. In the starter, 250g water/150g flour gives a 166% hydration.

Final bread hydration is usually anywhere between 60% to 85%. 85% gives you a very wet dough, but one in which the yeasts will appreciate the extra  water medium.  Even 1% makes difference in hydration. From this discussion it should also be clear that you need to weigh your ingredients, ideally using an accurate scale. My personal go-to ideal hydration for an everyday pan loaf is 66%.

Hydration table

Over the past couple of years my reliance on excel to make sense of the data in my world and my urge to make good bread have resulted in the development of a planning application for any yeasted bakery product. While it will make ready sense to anyone used to Google sheets or Excel, I believe it is friendly to those who are not so comfortable with it.

The worksheet has a variety of tabs along the bottom that correspond to the type of baked good you want to make. The ‘LOG’ tabs enable you to keep track of what you have done, something that is always useful until you really get the hang of it.

Its simple to use: you can only change the yellow cells. Changing these will change the formulas telling you how much flour, water and salt to add. All the other cells are locked, so you can’t destroy it accidentally.

My sense is that if this is a tool you find useful, you will probably want to  download it as an Excel file, or make your own google sheet copy. Downloading to Excel will remove all the cell protection.

Equipment

Beyond some basic kitchen gear such as mixing bowls, spoons, jars, oven mitts and of course a stove, here’s the other gear you need.

Must have’s

  • A scale: good electronic scales are widely available at hardware and kitchen stores. Make sure it can take up to 5kg. Once you start using it you will come to appreciate the consistency it gives you in your cooking.
  • A good breadpan: thick, no rust. Have at least one that is the size of a pan loaf you want to make.
  • 1L glass jar – preferably wide mouth. This is for the starter beast in your fridge.
  • pastry brush: to oil the pan, spread toppings or egg white before baking

Good to have

  • Electronic kitchen thermometer: Until you get completely used to your oven/bread/timings, you need to be sure the baked bread is at least at 190F/88C
  • Pizza stone: It means that the bottom of your pita/pizza/boule/batard hits a very hot surface when it goes in the oven ensuring more even cooking and a great crust on the bottom. The pizza stone must go in before you turn the oven on. 
  • Pizza peel: to move things on and off the pizza stone easily
  • Parchment paper: used under pitas, batards etc. makes their transfer in and out of the oven really easy. It also saves you on the cleanup.
  • Bread scraper: to help with stretch and fold, clean your surface, help your bread out of the pan
  • Water spritzer: Spritzing the loaf after its been in the oven a few minutes helps the crust get nice and crunchy.

Optional

  • Baguette couches to rise and bake baguettes
  • Other bake pan sizes
  • Proofing baskets and cloths: the bread is proofed in these and turned out onto the pizza peel
  • rising bins: These are large plastic bins many pro bakers use for bulk rising a lot of dough.
  • a lame  – an old fashioned razor blade to slash the bread. Sharp knives, serrated knives work well too.

Other foodstuff to consider:

While you can make a very simple bread with only flour, salt, water and starter, you inevitably will want to consider other additions:

  • oil to brush on the pans
  • egg white to brush on top
  • wheat germ, any kind of grain, small seed, sunflower seeds either mixed into the dough during your stretch and fold or as part of the crust
  • herbs/spices/garlic/cheese (as in making a herbed foccacia for dinner)

Doing it!

  1. Refresh the starter you need for your loaves: the amounts of water flour and original starter are built into the hydration table. Do this 6-8 hours ahead of mixing. This will assure you of a well refreshed starter.  Something important to note here is that when you pour out your refreshed starter, weigh it again. The gassing off will have reduced the weight of your starter by about 7-8%.
  2. Plan out what bread(s) you want to make using the hydration table. The same dough can be used to make several different products.
  3. If your starter is highly active and you want more of a sourdough tang, use more starter  – as little as a 3:1 ratio to the flour. If it is a little older, you may want to use less – up to 20:1. Doing this will delay the proofing time.

Mixing

  1. Thoroughly combine and mix flour, water and starter together.
  2. Wait 20 minutes. This wait period is called the autolyse. The flour is hydrated, fermentation begins, the proteins stretch out, the gluten has a chance to begin its development in the absence of salt.  
  3. Add in the salt: 2% of the weight of the flour. The salt is critical to toughen up the dough and slow down the fermentation. Use the calculator as there is also flour in the starter that needs to be taken into account. 
  4. Knead until well combined, put in a bowl with a wet cloth, noting the temperature you are rising it in.

    place back in bowl

    The beginning of the bulk rise

The Bulk Rise (AKA fermentation)

  1. Let it rise until it is almost doubled in size  – but not more. When you gently press it it should indent, not collapse, and slowly spring back. Depending on the temperature, this will take between 3 and 18 hours. At room temperature this will be between 6-9 hours.  Initially you’ll need to explore parts of your own environment to identify ideal times/locations.
  2. You can stretch and fold the dough once or twice in this period. This removes gasses from the dough, allows the yeasts and bacteria to become acquainted with other parts of the colony (and maybe more food) and helps the dough rise evenly.
  3. The dough cannot have finished its full rising at this point, otherwise it will be overproofed by the time it hits the oven.

Shaping the dough and proofing

  1. Remove it from the bowl and knead using the stretch and fold technique.
    Pull

    stretch one corner of the dough…

    and fold back to centre….

  2. Let it rest while you prepare your pan(s) (assuming you are making a couple or more bread products).
  3. If you are making more than one loaf, divide it into however many loaves/pitas/buns etc. then begin a second stretch and fold with each one that culminates in them being in their final shape. Use your scale: loaves and boules are typically 800-1000g, baguettes: 400g, buns and pitas: 100g or so.
  4. Shape your final loaves. Youtube is a great resource for observing specific techniques for specific kinds of breads: Loaf pan, boules and batards, baguettes
  5. You more than likely will want to include crust toppings. Here are some ideas:
    • Its always a good idea to brush on oil if you are using a pan.
    • a variety of grains, nuts, and seeds always go well. They also form an important layer between the bread and the pan to prevent it all sticking. 
    • working garlic, herbs and cheese into a baguette gives an excellent dinner side
    • corn flour or regular flour as a dusting on the top or bottom works well
    • White egg wash will glisten up the top
    • oil or melted butter brushed on the top browns it nicely too. 

      sesame buns on parchment paper

      sesame buns on parchment paper

  6. Slashing is critical: a thin cut on the crust allows the bread to expand well in the oven (oven spring). See either Youtube or this Food 52 entry.
  7. Use parchment paper for anything going on a pizza stone. It makes it so much easier!
  8. Let the bread(s) proof for between 1-2 hours, until they have begun to rise and will slowly spring back after being gently poked.

Baking

  1. bake your loaves using these general guidelines. Finished bread should be between 190 and 205 F:
    • for an 800g loaf – 450F/232C for 12 minutes, 425F/218C for 12 minutes, 400F/204C for 12 minutes
    • For a pan loaf cooked directly from the fridge: 450 for 15 minutes, 425 for 14 minutes, 400 for 13 minutes.
    • Pitas take about 3-4 minutes at 450F/232C, preferably on a baking stone
    • Baguettes and buns take between 12-20 minutes at 450F/232C: the bigger the loaf, the more the time.
    • Due to the fact that your oven drops 30 degrees every time you open the door, I prefer to cook my different kinds of loaves separately, though I sometimes will throw in a baguette when a pan loaf is 1/3 cooked.
  2. Remove from oven and their pans and allow them to cool for at least 30 minutes.

Fitting sourdough into your busy life

Integrating sourdough into a busy working life is perhaps the biggest barrier to starting it in the first place. It appears to be too complex, the timings do not fit in well with your wake/sleep/go to work schedule. I’d argue that this can be worked around if it is truly something you wish to do. Here are some ideas:

  • When beginning it, do your initial tries when you are not going to work. Use the hydration table log to record your changes and observations, and to get a feel for it.
  • Identify some of the following:
    • What time of day do you want it to appear out of the oven? (set this as your goal)
    • When are you not around in your house?
    • When is your usual sleep/wake cycle?
  • Keep in mind:
    • Initial mixing takes about 15 minutes over a half hour period.
    • You do not have to be around for the bulk rise
    • The final proofing will take between 2-3 hours from beginning to the end of baking, of which you will be actively attending to the bread for between 10-30 minutes depending on how much you are baking
    • Consider baking directly from the fridge. In this case the loaf has proofed for 12-24 hours in the fridge and goes directly into the oven. This will cut down on your ‘need to be around while the bread proofs’ time.
    • Think creatively of various places in your house that are either warmer or cooler, ranging from a warmed oven (heat to its lowest temperature, then turn it off) to your fridge. Even within your fridge there will be cooler and warmer areas. Basement floors can be really useful if you are in a house.
    • If you completely blow it and either under or overproof it, and you know it, pitas or pizzas are incredibly forgiving, and you will still be more than appreciated for the result.
  • Make a plan that takes into account the needs of the bread and your own time needs and commitments. Try it out, reflect – talk about it with other bakers either near you or on the forums noted below  – you will find a solution! Here is an example of this kind of plan, for someone who is around in the evening, but at work between 6:30AM and 6:00PM, and given an 8hr starter cycle (which may be different for you).
    • Upon getting home from work, refresh your starter.
    • In the evening, plan the loaf or loaves that will be cooked the following evening,
    • Before hitting the sack, mix the flour, water and refreshed starter. After 20 minutes, add salt, knead for a minute, and refrigerate with a damp cloth over it.
    • First thing in the morning, take it out, do a little bit of stretch and fold, and leave in a place that is not more than about 20C.  Go to work.
    • Return from work; stretch and fold, prepare loaf or loaves, leave them in a nice warm place (if you want hot bread with dinner) to cut down the proofing time to an hour or less. Prepare dinner, finishing with baking your bread.

Resources

I’d like to point out some really important resources: This blog and the workshop I am giving are but door openings into the magical wonderful world of sourdough. There is so much more to know, and to experiment with.

  1. The Fresh Loaf is a really thorough and comprehensive site with its own very interactive discussion forum wrapped into it.
  2. Northwest sourdough is the work of Theresa Greenaway, a West Coast sourdough expert baker. The work I am presenting to you is directly derivative of her work. In her 4 volumes on sourdough she authoritatively covers all the possible uses from breads to quickbreads and cakes. I would  strongly recommend getting all four of her books.
  3. Related to this is the  https://www.facebook.com/groups/perfectsourdough/ which has a faithful following of both expert and newbie bakers.
  4. And another facebook sourdough group: https://www.facebook.com/groups/360136781918/
  5. Wild Yeast is another baking blog focused on sourdough
  6. The Tartine Loaf is legend on the west coast and this you tube shows you how. This loaf was the focus of Michael Pollen’s AIR chapter in Cooked, also an excellent read.
  7. Bread science is expertly covered by Emily Beuhler in her book of the same name.
  8. Check out the Lactic Acid in Sourdough article for a technical but easy to read explanation of the chemistry of it all.
  9. The Clever Carrot is a blog of similar scope to this one – well described.