Sourdough Starter – The Secret Ingredient to Sourdough Bread and Pizza

Sourdough breads are extremely delicious not just in terms of taste and flavor but in texture and aroma as well. I have seen pizzas made with sourdough and looked amazing, very appetizing in terms of appearance. I wondered about the flavor, and texture. When I utilized sourdough starter on my pizza dough using the Mighty Pizza Oven, I have to say that the flavor of my pizza dough got so much better.

 

Looking through some resources, I found out that the secret ingredient to great sourdough product (may it be bread or pizza crust) is an excellent Sourdough Starter. This can be either fresh dough starters which can be used as is or dried starters which needs to be ‘fed’ first before it can be used. Or simply to make your own dough starter.

 

Technically, lactic acid and yeast fermentation takes place in sourdough making. Unlike in normal bread baking, leavening and flavor agents wild yeast and lactic-acid bacteria (LAB) like Lactobacilli were incorporated in sourdough through natural means (flour, utensils, baker’s hand, air, etc). They would live symbiotically with each other and utilizes flour’s nutrients to produce alcohol, carbon dioxide, and lactic acid. Yeast would produce alcohol and carbon dioxide while LAB would produce lactic acid. Alcohol and lactic acid would aid in flavor development while the carbon dioxide leavens the bread. In addition, alcohol and lactic acid would lower the pH of the starter making the environment not favorable for pathogenic and spoilage microbes. Needless to say, a successful starter would need a very active combination of yeast and LAB to produce excellent sourdough bread and pizza crust that are highly palatable and safe at the same time.

 

Below is a recipe to make my own starter, I should warn you though that making your own starter is quite tedious but definitely worth it ( I recommend buying a sourdough starter). For technical bakers, use 100% hydration which means that the ratio between flour and water is 1:1. I also used all-purpose flour; other bakers would prefer to use other type of flours like whole wheat and bread flour. A combination of different kind of flours would lead to a more different flavor depending on the flours used. I recommend using plain all-purpose flour for simplicity and availability of the ingredient.

 

Sourdough Starter Recipe

Ingredients:

  • 250g flour (2 cups)
  • 250g filtered warm water (1 cup)

Procedure:

In a large container, combine dough starter ingredients. Mix until well combined. You may notice some bubble formation already. These are carbon dioxide released by the yeast. If no bubbles are formed, it is okay and still considered normal. Cover the mixture with plastic wrap and store at warm room temperature (about 70oF or 21oC). You may also use the lid of the container but cover it loosely. Allow to ferment for 24 hours. The starter should have a pleasing tangy acidic aroma after fermentation. Lots of bubbles must also be visible in the dough starter and it must also pass the float test (see the float test portion below). If not, further fermentation is needed.

 

To produce an extremely active dough starter (and if you have time to spare!), do the following method. Do a 48-hour fermentation instead of just 1 day. Weigh out half of the dough starter and discard it. Add equal amount of water and flour and replace the weight of the discarded starter (e.g. if you discard 250g dough starter, replace it with 125g or 1 cup flour and 125g or ½ cup water). Mix with wooden spoon until no traces of flour is left. Cover and store in a warm room temperature again for 24 hours. This process is known as dough starter feeding. Some bakers notice that the sourdough would have a strong sour acidic odor before feeding and sweet alcoholic smell after feeding. Repeat this process for 3-5 days. Longer fermentation time results to a more active yeast and Lactobacillus. This creates a better gas production when bread making. When the dough starter passed the float test after several feeding, it is now ready for incorporating in your sourdough bread making.

 

Float Test

The float test is necessary to check whether your dough starter is ready for bread making. Simply drop a tablespoon of your dough starter into a tall container filled with room temperature water. If the dough floats, it is active and strong enough for baking. If not, keep the doing the feeding process. Do not stir your starter prior to float test. This would rupture the gas developed by your yeast and would result to getting false-negative by sinking. Never proceed to bread baking without employing float test first. You might just waste your starters and other ingredients in doing so. Likewise, never proceed with baking (obviously) if your sourdough starter did not pass the float test. No matter how delicate you handle your dough, it will never produce excellent open-crumbed bread because the yeast cells are inactive and would not want to cooperate.

 

Tips and Tricks

  • Always use filtered water when working with yeast. Normal tap water may contain high amounts of chlorine and fluorine which kills your yeast.
  • If you’re scared that your dough starter will not be as active as expected, try adding a pinch of dry active yeast. This will give your yeast culture a growth boost. However, this would make your bread less ‘authentic’ as sourdough bread should rely on natural yeasts only. And in some way, it is a form of cheating in terms of sourdough bread making. So do this only when you get desperate.
  • If adding commercial yeast sounds cheating to you, there is still another way to help you enhance the culture growth. Add fruit peels (e.g. apples, grapes, etc) when mixing flour and water. The white ‘haze’ visible in fruit’s skin are actually naturally-occurring yeast cultures.
  • If you prefer a stronger-flavored sourdough, use rye or whole wheat flour instead of all-purpose flour. According to some research, the more nutritious the flour used, the more your microorganisms would produce acid and alcohol. This in turn would aid in producing a sharper, more intense flavor in your bread or pizza crust.
  • Cover your starter loosely. DO NOT seal the lid too tight unless you would like to see how a jar explodes from the inside. At extreme, too much gas pressure may cause jar explosion. Imagine trying to open a vigorously-shaken bottle of soda.
  • Ensure that the starter is stored in a warm room temperature like the top of your refrigerator. If it is stored in a cool temperature, the yeast and bacteria cells will be deactivated or retarded causing gas production to be minimal, if not, none at all. High temperature is also undesirable as it may kill both bacteria and yeast cells.
  • Moisture is a basic necessity for most microbial growth. A 1:1 water-flour ratio in sourdough starter (used in the recipe) allows the yeast to grow faster. This is helpful in cutting fermentation time. Too little water would hinder some chemical and microbiological process.
  • Store your starter in a sterilized container with lid. It must be sterilized to ensure that no other microbial cultures are present and thus will grow in your sourdough starter.
  • Sometimes, a white liquid will float on the top of your starter. This is what bakers call ‘hooch’; it is basically the alcohol produced by yeast. It can easily be detected due to its strong alcohol odor and will impart the same aroma and flavor on your bread. If you prefer this flavor on your bread, merely stir the starter. If not, skim it off and discard the hooch.
  • Black spots on top of your starter? No need to worry too much, they are most probably dead yeast cells. Just keep your feeding routine. Unless of course if the black spots have fuzzy hairs, then that’s a different thing. Discard your starter immediately and be careful not to contaminate your starter next time.
  • If your starter produces a lot of bubbles within just 12 hours, it means that your microbial culture have strong activity. You may opt to feed it twice a day (every 12 hours) so that they would not run out of available nutrients easily.
  • Treat your dough starter like a pet! It needs your care (i.e. constant feeding and well maintained temperature).
  • Sourdough starters are unique with each other. Even if you use the same ingredients and procedures, the results are always different. This is because the dough relies on natural yeast and bacteria. Some starters may double in size just after 24 hours. Some may even need weeks for it become active.
  • Discarding ½ of the dough starter may seem wasteful. It is, but it is necessary too for sourdough starter making. By removing ½ of the dough and replacing it with new mix of flour and water, the pH is balanced (having an extremely low pH will kill both yeast and bacteria). To make it more efficient, simply use the discarded dough starter in making cakes, muffins, waffles, pancakes, crepes, and omelets. Although I recommend never try to use discarded dough starter during the first days of fermentation. During these times, the alcohol and acid fermentation by-products aren’t strong yet and thus other ‘bad’ microorganisms can still be present in your starter.
  • If daily feeding is not possible with your schedule, you may opt to store your starter inside the refrigerator. Cold temperature deters or slows down yeast and bacterial activity. However, storing the starter inside the refrigerator would mean that the nutrients available in the flour are not being replenished. In some sever instances, the yeast and bacteria cells would die because of lack of available food making your dough start unworkable. Hence, you still need to feed your sourdough starter weekly. When you are ready to bake your sourdough bread, the starter should be warmed up first. After its routine feeding, store it at room temperature for at least 1 day prior to usage.
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