That’s what my friend’s father, a holocaust survivor, used to call the bread he found when he arrived on American shores. Not only does most commercial American bread lack taste and texture, it also lacks the ability to satisfy.
Today’s ersatz breads have sparked a bread revolution—in the past few decades “artisan” bread bakeries have sprung up in big cities and far flung towns.
I think the craving for real, substantial bread is merely a material reflection of a spiritual condition—the craving for a life of meaning and substance which has so many people young and old questioning the “the way things are”. The emphasis on pointless accumulation, empty communication, and meaningless association leaves us with a spiritual hunger, which we were warned about a couple millennia ago.
And you shall remember all the way which G-d your G-d led you these forty years in the wilderness… He afflicted you, and suffered you to hunger and fed you with manna which you didn’t know and which your fathers did not know, in order to make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but by the word that comes from the mouth of G-d does man live. —Eikev, Devarim (Deuteronomy)
According to Jewish law, bread automatically confers the title “meal” upon any repast. The process of planting, harvesting, winnowing, and grinding grains (wheat, spelt, rye, barley, or oats) and mixing the resulting flour with water, letting it rise, and baking the dough is one of the most complex processes we apply to any raw ingredient. It is an obvious metaphor for the work we put into earning enough dough (or bread) to live.
At a higher level, the process of making bread (from planting the seed to baking the loaf) mirrors the process of our spiritual growth—we find a Torah concept and plant it in our psyches. We harvest the many commentaries and arguments and discussions related to the concept. We winnow out various several levels of explanations, from from the surface level to the most hidden, deep and mysterious,. We review the concept—grinding it over and over again. We mix it with water, the Torah teachings that form a context for what we’ve learned and we let it rise and bake it until a beautiful teaching becomes ingrained in our minds and hearts.
Today’s bread is instant—with the help of commercial yeast, within the matter of an hour or two, dough puffs up to incredible heights and air-bread is born. The resulting loaf is puffy and bloating, leaving us vaguely unsatisfied, no matter how many slices we eat. Natural, yeast-free starter (aka “sourdough”) made at home over a period of a couple weeks satisfies in a way air-bread never can.
One of the top-ten baking questions I get asked is: How can I make a sourdough starter?
Producing slow-fermented bread with natural (sourdough) starter or even commercial yeast, is not rocket-science (unless you want it to be). It’s actually easy, though you need to focus a bit when you try it the first few times. You can read about the health benefits in my post on real rye bread and the Torah of bread as well as my post on the gluten-intolerance conspiracy.
Aside from typical “sourdough bread” and rye, homemade starter makes an excellent Challah, and because many so-called sourdough starters aren’t sour at all, depending on your recipe, your Challah can be as sweet as you like. Books by Maggie Glezer, Jeffrey Hamelman, Peter Reinhart are all good places to look for interesting recipes, methods and techniques.
I use a starter method based on my favorite author for the beginning baker, Maggie Glezer. I like to keep quite a bit of starter in my fridge, so I make more than she recommends. You can get her books, A Blessing of Bread and the classic, Artisan Baking Across America, and use her method and her amounts if you’re experimenting for the first time.
Or if you’re ambitious, and have some serious baking experience under your belt, try Jeffrey Hamelman’s excellent Bread: A Baker’s Book of Techniques and Recipes, which is perhaps the book I use the most.
If you’re sure you want to jump in and make a larger amount of starter, follow me*:
When making starter, one generally disposes of the excess along the way (you’ll understand why, once you start). But I take all the excess and keep adding it to an “excess” bowl, and use it for flat breads. Sometimes I’ll use it for cakes, pancakes, muffins, and so on. Since I make those treats rarely, I often freeze my excess. I’ve noticed no change in it’s rising power once I’ve defrosted it and refreshed it.
As for the starter itself, I like to follow the recommendation of most professional bread bakers including Glezer and begin with rye flour which produces a consistently good starter. On my wish list is a grain mill, but since I don’t have one, I use Bob’s Red Mill Organic Dark Rye Flour. The key is to use flour that hasn’t been sitting on the shelf for years, so either order it online or get it from a store where you are certain it turns over rapidly.
Glezer starts her “Sourdough Starter Diary” on a Sunday, which eliminates the need to refresh the starter on Shabbos. Here’s what I do:
Sunday Night: Prepare your bowls. Wash two very clean glass, ceramic, or melamine bowls in very hot water, and dry. Mix 1/3 cup organic, whole rye flour with 1/4 cup pure water in one bowl, mixing well. Transfer your paste to the other bowl, and cover with an inverted plate or foil or plastic wrap—though I believe this can affect the taste. Whatever you use, make sure it isn’t air-tight. If you use plastic wrap or foil, be sure to leave it a bit loose. Otherwise, your fermentation process might be too quick and you may find yourself with vodka on your hands, not starter!
Leave out on your counter top at room temperature. Wash the other bowl and set aside.
Tuesday Morning: The starter according to Maggie, should have puffed up a bit and smell sharp. Don’t worry if it even smells nauseating—after one or two more refreshments, it shouldn’t. Add 1/4 cup pure water and 1/3 cup (organic) all purpose or bread flour. I use all-purpose King Arthur’s flour, organic or regular, depending what’s available. I find this is consistently the freshest, best-tasting flour, and I have never seen a flour weevil or other insect even after careful sifting and checking. Stir well, scrape down the sides of your bowl, and cover.
Wednesday Morning: Now is when Maggie converts it into a stiff starter. The benefits of a stiff starter as opposed to a liquidy one is that you can rehydrate it to the level you need for your recipe, plus she says it keeps longer than a liquidy starter. I generally make my starter once or twice a year, hold it until Pesach and toss it if I haven’t used it up and never have found the liquid starter to spoil or become inactive. Glezer takes 2 tablespoons of starter, here, but I use 1/3 cup. I transfer the leftover to another clean bowl which I call my excess bowl, and cover it. I add 1/3 cup pure water to the remaining 1/3 cup in the starter bowl mixing well. Then I add 1 heaping cup flour, stirring well (use your hands, a spoon doesn’t really work well). I transfer this to another clean bowl, cover it, and clean out the used bowl. Now I have two bowls on my counter: the starter bowl and the excess bowl. Either now, or Thursday, take your (covered) excess bowl and transfer to the fridge.
Thursday Night: I take out everything except one third cup of starter and add the excess to the excess bowl and put it back in the fridge. I mix 1/3 cup pure water with the starter, add a heaping cup of flour, stirring well. Then I transfer this to a clean bowl, cover, and wash my equipment.
Saturday Night (Motzei Shabbos): Repeat the same refreshment steps you did on Thursday.
Monday Morning: Repeat the refreshment.
Tuesday Morning: Repeat the refreshment. By now the starter will really show signs of rising and bubbling and coming alive. Sometimes, mine has already risen by Motzei Shabbos (Saturday night). I think this depends on the temperature in your kitchen, the quality of the flour and water you use, and so on.
Wednesday Morning: The starter should really start to smell great! Repeat the refreshment.
Final Wednesday Night: Now do the refreshment with 1/3 cup starter, 2/3 cup water, and 2 1/2 cups flour. Don’t forget to add the excess to the excess bowl.
If your starter has tripled or quadrupled by Thursday morning, it is ready to go. If not, do the same refreshment once more, and call this your Final Thursday Morning Refreshment.
Add water in order to make a more hydrated starter in order to immediately use the starter in your recipe and store remainder in fridge, in glass jar or bowl, tightly covered. Generally I add half the starter’s volume in water, stir well, and this becomes my liquid starter for my recipe. I’ve been doing this for years therefore I’m able to judge what strength and consistency I need my starter (and even bread dough) to be. Plus, I don’t mind if my bread tastes a little bit different each time, but when you are starting out, it’s best to follow your choice of recipe exactly so you can get a sense of how an optimum loaf tastes.
Next time you pull out the starter, bring it to room temperature, then do one or two rounds of the final refreshment until the starter is able to triple or quadruple in eight hours. I am not exact, if my starter is slightly weaker, I may add a bit more to my bread dough and/or I am sure to ferment the sponge and the dough a bit longer.
*If not, try this easy liquid starter method from Israeli blogger, Hannah Katsman.