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The Science of Sourdough
My mom gave me a bread machine about twelve years ago. It sat on a shelf in the garage for about five years, until I finally opened the box, threw in the boxed bread mix it came with, added the liquid ingredients and turned it on. Even though it was just a mix, the ingredients of which were at least five years old, I was addicted at the first bite.

Since then, I have evolved my bread-making technique and have customized some recipes. I didn’t plan on getting into sourdough, as I felt that developing and maintaining the start would be too much trouble, when someone gave me some Amish Friendship Bread start, along with an elaborate list of directions. 

I normally won’t take time for this sort of thing but something about this process intrigued me so I went along with it. Day One – squeeze the bag to blend the ingredients. Day Two, do it again.
On Day Five, it gets interesting – add ingredients to the bag, blending by squeezing. On Day Ten, make the bread, which is really more of a cake. Then, pass along a baggie of start to someone else. And so it goes.

It was so much fun and so delicious, it took me awhile to realize I had made my first sourdough bread and I wanted more. Before too long, I was babysitting three different sourdough starts, in addition to the Amish Friendship Bread. 

Sourdough bread has been around for centuries, possibly dating back to 3700 BC. In more modern times, French bakers introduced sourdough techniques in San Francisco during the Gold Rush. From there, the sourdough tradition made its way to Alaska. During the Klondike Gold Rush, miners would keep a pouch of sourdough around their necks, and in their sleeping bags at night to keep it from freezing, when actually, heat can kill the sourdough, while freezing does not. But they weren’t taking any chances as food sources were scarce.

The difference between sourdough and regular bread is lactic acid bacteria. Bacteria and yeast spores are naturally present in flour. Adding water or some other liquid to the flour causes the enzymes present in flour to begin breaking down the starch into sugars which the yeast can metabolize.

Over time, given the proper temperature and refreshment, the mixture ferments into a balanced, stable culture. The start is born and can be kept alive indefinitely, if treated properly. 

There are many starts which can be purchased but I decided to create my own. I would call it an experiment, observing how the mixture changed in composition and consistency over time. I made starts using wheat flour, white flour and potato flakes.
As a beginner, I discovered a simple start that takes only 24 hours to cure, and the entire start gets used in the recipe, so there is no continuing commitment. This start is created using half of a 12-oz bottle of beer. 

Pour half a beer (3/4 cup) into a 32-oz jar. Add one teaspoon of packaged yeast, four teaspoons of packed brown sugar, one cup of flour and stir. Cover and let stand at room temperature for 24 hours or so, stirring two or three times.

When ready, pour the start into the bread pan, add 1/3 cup milk, one egg, 4 teaspoons olive oil, 2 cups bread flour, 3/4 teaspoon salt, and one teaspoon of active dry yeast. I also add a teaspoon of ground flax seed, perhaps a sprinkling of raw sunflower seeds and/or raw chopped cashews. 

Press start on the bread machine, using the basic white setting, and about three hours later you’ll smell the aroma of baking bread. 

An important step is to check the consistency of the dough when the machine begins the kneading cycle. At this point, I will either add a drizzle of water or a bit of flour until it reaches the proper proportions. 

There is so much more to sourdough and I am only just beginning to experiment. I still have not found the formula for the signature “sourness” that people expect from sourdough but part of the fun is the journey and I’m determined to unlock the secret.

I must warn you that diving into sourdough is addictive, also that I have added 10 pounds to my small frame since I began my odyssey into bread making. This obsession comes with a price.