I write a lot about using cast iron cookware on this site, but I assume that everyone is already a convert to the traditional cookware movement. Cast iron often gets a bad rap because those unfamiliar with it assume it takes a lot of work to maintain. Yes and no. The simplicity of a non-stick fry pan is countered by the need to "season" and re-season, and yes, re-season cast iron pans. But in reality, after the first five to ten uses, a well-loved cast iron piece will need little more than a wipe with some oil to keep it clean, fresh, and ready to use.
On day one hundred and seventy of my temporary working from home I attended a meeting where I was told to think about how I was going to transition to a permanent working from home scenario. That's corporate-speak for things just got real, so maybe buy a comfortable chair and clean up your home office because you're going to be there for a while.
So it goes that four and half months into this pandemic ... quarantine ... lockdown ... work-from-home experiment ... I’ve baked my six-dozenth loaf of sourdough bread.
I think at one point I joked about reaching one hundred before this was all over. That joke might be on me. Be careful what you wish for, some say.
Spreading some active sourdough starter thinnly across a bit of parchment and letting it dry out is a great way to pause, preserve or pass along the work and legacy. The effort will result in dried chips of dough that can be stored for the long haul in an airtight container to be revived in the future. Going on a long vacation often means neglecting the feeding cycle required by an active starter, but can be brought back to baking status in a few days if dried and shelved.
The inevitable happened, and my flour supply morphed away from the familiar collection of yellow-bagged bread flours, the kind I’ve been baking with for years and years like a loyal customer and into other brands. I shook the last dregs from my bags of “Best for Bread” and multigrain mixes.
Sourdough has become routine.
As routine as Saturday pancake breakfast. As routine as birthday cakes. As routine as washing up after a meal.
I pulled pandemic loaves numbers 47 and 48 from a hot oven yesterday evening and set them to cool on the counter. The bread for the next couple days. No ceremony (not that there ever really was) and no fuss. Just supplies.
Like anything that involves subjective evaluation, opinions vary widely on the quality of sourdough flavour that is produced by a decades-old starter versus one that is only a few months or years old. But while any mature starter, one with at least a few dozen feeding cycles to its claim, is likely better than one freshly cultivated there are probably other more important factors at play than age. New starters, for a start, might more often be used by bakers new to sourdough and thus with less experience.
While many enthusiastic new bakers are kneading their way into learning the nuances of sourdough, seasoned flour-fluffers will eagerly remind them that there's no good shortcut to a great starter. Commercial yeast, bought from a store, has been selectively bred and cultivated with the express intention to provide bread-makers with a quick, clean rise. Natural yeasts, captured from the air, grown with patience, and maintained for years as a sourdough starter, are slower and allow longer proof-times that produce interesting flavours giving sourdough its distinctive taste.
Ken Forkish's book Flour Water Salt Yeast has been my sourdough guiding light through much of my experience baking bread at home. His website is a great resource for simple techniques to get high quality sourdough. The video collection that accompanies the book is especially useful for anyone newly interested in dough development.
The key to sourdough is natural yeast. This is not something one buys at a store. Natural yeast is cultivated over weeks, then years, by capturing, developing, growing and tending a starter -- a levain -- a mother dough.