Wisdom is acquired by experience, not just by age, said my most recent fortune cookie. Granted, I do understand this truism has a lot of gosh-that’s-so-true-ism when it comes to bread-making. It is, alas, a skill. You have to spank a lot of dough to understand the stretch and rise of what makes it what it is. It honestly is not hard, though. And I truly think that if anyone has an earnest desire to make his or her own bread, then one should start with the no-knead methods and variations. One will realize how wonderful yet…unimproved that method is, mainly because the bread doesn’t keep long and has no real taste. Eventually, using a sourdough starter or levain is the way to go. And making one’s own levain isn’t as hard or as wasteful as it sounds.
I tend to keep on top of cooking-slash-cookbook trends. I am not saying I am a purchasing consumer of said books so much as I like to learn the culinary lingua franca…it’s me eating up the culture of cooking, as it were. And it’s another year, another batch of books of bread cookery that came ’round and were duly inspected by yours truly. And again, over and over, bread-bakers and cookbook-writers claim that the only way to make a sourdough starter at home is to throw away two-thirds of the volume of flour to do it.
Do you honestly think that your average baker threw away two-thirds of anything to make bread a hundred years ago? Two hundred? Two thousand years ago? And the history of bread is five thousand years old (give or take) so…I am just sayin’. I think, have always thought, this oft-repeated instruction is profligate, another example of our throw-away culture, this time with us literally throwing away our cultures. It doesn’t have to be that way to make or even maintain your own levain.
One of the least scary descriptions of home-grown yeast and its needs comes from a recent cookbook: Darina Allen’s Forgotten Skills of Cooking (which is excellent, by the way). “Actually, there’s no need to be scared of yeast, it’s pretty good humored and, like many of us, it has a sweet tooth and likes to be warm, so be nice to it. The average warmth of a kitchen provides a suitable environment in which yeast can grow….” The average warmth of the kitchen provides a suitable environment for children and husbands to grow, too. Even know-it-all wives get schooled in a warm kitchen.
Granted, I have a starter (its name is La Mama) that I have had running for years now. I did start it by throwing half or more of it away and it galled me. But if I don’t get to baking twice a week I don’t think La Mama is dead and just start over. Nope; ever the tightwad, I use what I have, making something hurriedly with part of it (English muffins, pancakes, crepes) while I add more flour to the majority of it to revive it. If it is not really actively bubbling, it takes a couple of days to make two loaves of bread this way, but…I don’t feel guilty about wasting even a cup of the stuff.
Hey: it’s winter in the Northern hemisphere, and we gardeners still have a yen to get our hands dirty, so, why not get out the flour? Probably the best compromise of all is a no-knead loaf with some of your own bubbling sourdough starter. Please see the recipe in the comments. And…get baking!