Thursday, August 15, 2013

Making Rye Sourdough Starter

Rye tastes better when sliced with an heirloom knife!

A fixture of weekend lunches when I was a kid was a long rounded loaf of rye bread. My father, a mechanical engineer, applied his precision slicing skills to the crusty brown bread, sawing it into perfect slices with a Bakelite-handled bread knife as we watched impatiently, awaiting our chance to nab a piece as it fell off the loaf. Served with margarine (Fleischmann's at my house), melted cheddar or a bowl of my mother's hearty lentil or split pea soup, nothing could be more satisfying!

Now, years later, I've been on a quest to duplicate that bread, and it has been a journey of trial and error. My first effort produced loaves so dense and hard they could have done double duty as door stops. After some sleuthing through my cookbook collection and online, I arrived at closer approximations of the magic loaf haunting my dreams. It turns out it requires a sourdough starter--basically a mix of flour, water and perhaps a pinch of yeast to get it going. The result is a mixture that turns sour, bubbles and ferments over time. When used in bread-making, it adds a bit of tang, rise and keeping power. (Another fond taste of childhood traces back to the famous San Francisco sourdough loaves, which you can still buy at Fisherman's Wharf.)

Refrigerated starter ready for action
So far, I have experimented with two starters, one using white bread flour and the other light rye. What follows is a recipe for the rye; it's from George Greenstein's awesome "Secrets of a jewish Baker: Recipes for 125 Breads from Around the World" (Ten Speed Press, Berkeley, 2007). He uses the rye sour to make a host of different rye, sourdough French and whole-grain breads. This time, I used the rye sour to make his baker father's Hungarian-style rye.

Meanwhile, here's Greenstein's recipe for rye sour. The preliminary step is only done the first time. Once you've made the sour from beginning to end, you refrigerate part of it and use it as the "mother" for  the next batch. Sure, it's a bit time-consuming, but then, so is bread making! Still, if you love that great yeasty smell of sourdough, as I do, you'll be happy you took the time.

George Greenstein's Rye Sour Starter

Preliminary Step

About 48 hours before you want to bake, combine the following in a large bowl:

1/2 cup white rye flour*
1/8 teaspoon active dry yeast
1 cup warm water
1 tablespoon crushed caraway seeds (optional)
1 teaspoon minced onion

Mix until smooth, cover and let stand in a warm spot until bubbly and fermented--up to 24 hours.

*I use King Arthur brand White Rye, but any light rye (with germ removed) will probably do. I haven't tried making the sour with medium, dark or whole-grain rye, but it might work and deserves a try.

Stage One

Caraway seeds add character.
About 24 hours before you're planning to bake, add to the above starter:

1/2 cup water
1 1/2 cups white rye flour
A few caraway seeds (optional)**

Combine starter, water and 1 1/4 cups rye flour, and stir until smooth. Sprinkle 1/4 cup remaining rye over surface of the dough. Cover with cloth or plastic wrap. Let stand until doubled in size and surface appears cracked. This may take from 4 to 8 hours. Try not to allow the sour to collapse. (I found that by the time I believed the dough was ready, most of the flour had already sunk in, with no apparent cracks but quite a few bubbles, and the surface had a kind of puffy look to it.)

**If using, grind in a coffee or spice grinder or with a mortar and pestle or rolling pin.

Stage Two

Nice Rise!
Water + Flour + Time = 

If you want to increase the amount of starter, the ingredients below can be doubled, but not more, as the strength of the starter will be compromised.

1/2 cup warm water
1 cup white rye flour

Combine water and 3/4 cup of flour with Stage One sour, and stir until smooth. Sprinkle remaining 1/4 cup of flour over the dough surface, cover and let rise for another 4 to 8 hours. At this point, if you're not going to bake bread that day, you can refrigerate the starter overnight. I did this and took the starter out of the refrigerator the next day to complete its rising for the third and final stage. Insomniac that I am, I rose pretty early and put the starter on the counter. After a few minutes, I saw that the fermentation, which slowed in the refrigerator, picked up steam (literally!), with little bubbles appearing on the surface.

Stage Three

1/2 cup water (better to use warm water if sour has been refrigerated)
1 cup white rye flour

Make sure you use a bowl large
enough to hold the rising starter.
Greenstein suggests preparing the third stage when you're ready to bake; that's what I did. Add the water and flour to the Stage Two starter, cover (and hope the batter doesn't rise over the top, as mine did!). When this stage has fully risen--about double again--you're ready to bake. But before you do, set aside 1/4 to 1/2 cup of the mixture. Put it in a covered nonreactive container (I use a glass jar with a lid that seals) with a slight film of cold water on top. When next you bake, proceed with stages one to three. The sour can be kept for several months, but you need to feed it a little flour and water every few days to keep it active. If you wait a week or so, it will probably be just fine. It can also be frozen.

Happy bread baking!

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