My bread baking journey started with the recipe on the back of the King Arthur whole wheat flour bag. After a time, I graduated to focaccia, pita, ciabatta, and other rustic breads. Sourdough, however, seemed like a bread on a different plane. I pored over information about sourdough starters but always felt overwhelmed.
Looking back, I can say that the most challenging aspect of sourdough is the misinformation and lore surrounding it. This post is intended to dispel some of that.
First off, "sourdough" has become the accepted American term for breads made with a long-living "starter." The starter is added to bread doughs to raise them instead of using commercial yeast (active dry or instant yeast). However, sourdough can be a bit of a misnomer. The breads I now make with my 2-year-old sourdough starter are not very sour at all. They have a wonderful flavor--much more complex than your average sandwich loaf--but they are not "sour." In fact, there are those who would argue that if your loaf of bread is sour, you're not doing it right.
While I won't go that far, I will say that this view of sourdough is incomplete. Which is why I refer to my starter as a "levain." Levain is the French term for a mixture of flour and water that has been colonized by yeasts and bacteria. Over time, these organisms consume the natural sugars found in the flour, and the mixture must be fed periodically to prevent the organisms from exhausting its sugar supply.
CLICK HERE FOR A BASIC LEVAIN (STARTER) RECIPE
I also refer to my starter as a levain because most people equate sourdough with the infamous San Francisco-style sourdough breads. San Francisco sourdough is a very particular type of bread from a specific region, and I do not find it applicable to the kind of bread I make, nor is it applicable to levain-raised breads around the world. Thus, for accuracy's sake, many bakers, myself included, prefer the term "levain." If that word makes you uncomfortable, try “starter,” which is also accurate.
A second misconception about levains is that they vary widely depending on where you live due to local variations in microbial life. For instance, you may hear it said that your levain will be different from every other levain simply because you live in a different place with different yeasts and types of bacteria. This is not entirely true.
You see, while there may be different populations of yeasts and bacteria depending on where you live, only certain types of bacteria and yeast will want to make their home in your levain. This means that whether you live in San Francisco, Seattle, Des Moines, Memphis, or Schenectady, your levain will foster basically the same yeasts and bacteria as anyone else's. What will give your bread its uniqueness are ingredients, method, time, temperature, shape, and technique.
Another common myth is that you should add certain types of fruit to your initial levain to begin the fermentation process. This is unnecessary. You can start a levain with nothing but flour and water, and there's really no need to use anything else. Our culture has come to expect quick results. If quick results are not achieved, we soon grow tired of the process. Adding things like grapes or blueberries or sugar or honey may quicken your levain and get it bubbling faster, but not by much, and they do not add more than very fleeting flavors to it. As Ken Forkish puts it in his book, Flour Water Salt Yeast, "Grape yeasts live on grapes because that's the environment that suits them. Grape yeasts don't flourish in a flour environment."
It is not, broadly speaking, even very important which type of flour you use in your levain. I use organic unbleached all-purpose flour, but you can use bread flour, whole wheat flour, rye flour, spelt flour, or even gluten-free flours. Many bakers use a blend of all-purpose and whole wheat flours. The yeasts and lactic acid bacteria will take to pretty much any flour, but it should be said that they tend to colonize and consume rye flour or whole wheat flour more quickly than others.
I use all-purpose flour for practical reasons. I do a lot of baking, and most of my baking uses all-purpose flour. I buy flour in 25-pound bags for economy's sake, and as you might imagine, it's hard enough finding room in a home kitchen for one 25-pound bag of flour. As I am using an all-purpose flour that is reasonably high in protein (about 11-12 percent), I do not need to use bread flour (roughly 14 percent protein). Do not use southern all-purpose flour (such as White Lily) for bread making. These low-protein flours make wonderful biscuits, but they are not well-suited to bread making.
One of the initial hindrances to my understanding of levain was the vast amount of overcomplicated guidance on the subject. Many authors, in an unrelenting quest to be thorough, fill page after page with charts, feeding schedules, and caveats. Of course, this is admirable, but I found it prohibitive as a young baker new to the idea of levain and levain-raised breads.
Some books will tell you that you need to keep your levain at a constant temperature during its initial development. Others will give you detailed instructions for different types of levains. This is good information for someone who has experience using a levain, but initially it's enough to know that levains are not terribly finicky. If you consider the vast array of climates and cultures that use or have used levains, from ancient Egypt to Gold Rush era Alaska, you might get the impression that they are resilient. You would be right. It is possible to kill a levain, but it is not at all difficult to keep it alive.