Saturday, 26 March 2016

Sourdough Bread

Lucia de Moranza 
Ealdormere Pentathlon A.S. L
Figure 1 Sourdough starter (aka Fred)

The basics of bread baking have changed very little from medieval times. In Platina’s De honesta voluptate et valetudine pp. 13-14 (Book 1) written in 1465:
"... Therefore I recommend to anyone who is a baker that he use flour from wheat meal, well ground and then passed through a fine seive to sift it; then put it in a bread pan with warm water, to which has been added salt, after the manner of the people of Ferrari in Italy. After adding the right amount of leaven, keep it in a damp place if you can and let it rise.... The bread should be well baked in an oven, and not on the same day; bread from fresh flour is most nourishing of all, and should be baked slowly." (Gode Cookery)

As the medieval world didn’t have the luxury of scooping yeast out of a jar from the fridge, they relied on wild yeast for leavening. There were two main means of working with wild yeast, either skimming it off the beer process, or encouraging a small portion of dough to ferment, making (Stevens, 2009) a sourdough starter. I chose to experiment with the later, as we’re not a beer brewing household.

Sourdough starter is most often shared and passed around from person to person, and while I did have starter passed on from another baker, after a tragic accident with a loose lid on that jar and the realities of gravity, I was faced with starting a new one. To get the starter going, I took equal parts by volume of all purpose flour and tap water, mixed together and left on the kitchen counter with a hope for enough wild yeast in my kitchen. After a day or so, it was clear that winter was not the time of year to find a lot of wild yeast and I gave my starter a yeast transfusion with a small sprinkle of commercial yeast. About every day or so, the starter gets fed with another dollop of equal parts flour and water and a good stir. It smells properly sour and there are little bubbles on the top of the starter when everything is going well. If there is a layer of liquid on top of the starter, it has gone too long between feedings, and the yeast is starting to die. Sometimes this is fatal to the starter, sometimes you can revive it. It is important to remember that sourdough starter is a living thing (Mine is named Fred.), and can be highly variable. There is often a great deal of frustration with early recipes at the lack of precise directions, but the ingredients are not modern process consistent to permit such. A cool kitchen, or a humid day will have surprisingly large impact on how long bread needs to rise, or how much water to add.

For my own ease and cost, I used all purpose flour (white and whole wheat, depending on the loaf), acquired from the grocery store. This is modern finely ground wheat flour, and produces excellent gluten formation and a familiar crumb and flavour for the modern palate. It permitted the difference in flavour based on the sourdough to come through and be examined. In period, wheat was popular, but barley, oats, rye and spelt were also used and Italy often added in buckwheat and corn. (Parasecoli, 2014) My exploration this time was into experimenting with sourdough as the leavening, rather than the flours, so I kept the flour choice consistent.

Figure 2 Pre-sponge dough
The basics of baking with sourdough as a leavener haven’t changed much from modern two step sponge style bread recipes. This method takes about a cup of starter and mixes it with sufficient flour to just start to form a sticky dough.

Figure 3 Sourdough sponge
That dough is then covered and left to sit somewhere warmish for anywhere from a few hours to overnight. Over that time, the yeast continues to ferment and the flour absorbs water to begin its gluten formation and becomes a goopy mess and well worthy of the name ‘sponge’. The longer it sits at this stage, the stronger the sour flavour is in the finished bread. In my often very cold house, this is in the oven with the oven light on to provide warmth.

From this sponge state, enough flour is added to make a proper dough, and everything gets well kneaded until it stretches nicely or your arms threaten to disown you, whichever comes first. At this point, I shape the dough into rounds that are about of a size to hold in one hand, which is usually about a pound of dough. They get placed on a tray, and put back in the oven with the light on to rise. Period bread was nearly always depicted as rounds of bread, if you are planning on baking bread in a loaf pan, this is when you put it in that loaf pan (or any other container).

Figure 4 Baking white bread (fol. 61)
and selling millet bread (fol. 62v),
Tacuinum Sanitatis (BNF Latin 9333),
early 15th century

I apparently neglected to take a picture of my bread at this stage, so enjoy a period image of bread going into the oven. The picture helps give a good idea of the size of the loaves as well, especially in comparison to the woman’s hands.

It is at this point, that I have found the most variation in rise time due to external conditions and the state of the starter. On a warm day, with a super active starter, the bread looked nicely puffed up in an hour or two. With a sleepy starter, I’ve left it 12 hours without being overproofed. (Overproofed bread comes when the CO2 production has slowed down to where it is no longer being produced faster than what’s escaping and the risen bread falls.) It comes down to patience, and being willing to make a judgement call on what looks ‘about right’. The conventional wisdom holds to the dough doubling in size. I generally prefer a denser loaf, so I aim for half again, approximately. There are many who prefer to do two rises, I don’t have good luck with two rises, the second rise is generally just pathetic, so I stick to one rise.

At this point the next big variation between modern practice and period practice emerges. I do my baking in a modern electric oven with excellent insulation and a thermostat. While I would love to experiment with a fire and brick based bread oven, that is yet on the ‘someday’ list. I’ve experimented with a couple means of baking bread in my modern oven. The first is very standard to modern practices. Pre-heat the oven to 450F, put the loaves in for about 15 or 20 minutes and then turn the oven heat down to 350F and bake for another half hour or so, until done. This results in a fairly consistent loaf, with a nice crumb, and a very crunchy crust. I don’t feel that this is all that consistent with the way a brick oven would heat up. The fire within the oven would bring the bricks up to a very high temperature, and while they insulate well, the oven would slowly cool as the bread bakes. I’ve started pre-heating my oven as high as it will go, as well as pre-heating a stoneware pizza stone at the same time and then setting my loaves in on that and quickly shutting the door and turning the oven off. The loaves were paler by comparison, but cooked through, even though I do not think it was hot enough to start. It is an area I wish to spend more time exploring (ideally with a proper brick oven.)
Figure 5 Sourdough bread baked in loaf pan

 I find that this bread keeps very very well, and in fact, I prefer the state of the crust after a couple of days rather than fresh from the oven. The aggressively crunchy nature settles to something more chewy after a few days. This is a dense bread, one that holds up extremely well to dunking in soups and stews, and stands up well to a nice solid chunk of sausage. I enjoy baking with sourdough cultures, in spite of the variability of it and I do not expect that to change. I would be very interested in experimenting with other kinds of flour, and other kinds of oven situations.

Figure 6 Loaves baked with only ambient heat

Banham, D. (2004). Food and Drink in Anglo Saxon England. Gloucestershire: Tempus Publishing.

Dyer, C. (2000). Everyday Life in Medieval England. London: Hambledon Continuum.

Gode Cookery. (n.d.). Retrieved from

Jacob, H. (1944). Six Thousand Years of Bread. Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press.

Parasecoli, F. (2014). Al Dente - A History of Food in Italy. London: Reaktion Books.

Platina, B. (1480). De honesta voluptate et valetudine. Retrieved from

Stevens, D. (2009). The River Cottage Bread Handbook. London: Random House.

Thirsk, J. (2007). Food in Early Modern England. London: Continuum Books.

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