Sunday, February 10, 2013

square one

the one question i get asked most is how one knows when one's new starter is ready to be used for bread. the second is how one knows when the levain is ready. i wanted to do a post that pertained to both of these questions. when just starting out on one's new bread path, that which is foreign is most abstruse. hence, the questions above, and the difficulty in determining the viability of something 'invisible'. take solace in this: the world of wild yeast only appears arcane, but once you come to understand the activity behind the seemingly invisible, things begin to clarify. to be sure, one who sets forth to unravel the 'mystery' behind it all will eventually come to see that wild yeast is wholly less abstract than once thought, and will, with certitude, be able to rely upon it concretely: there is no mystery in making bread with wild yeast, you only need to learn, i assure you, it is as simple as that.

to begin, i made a new starter so that one can see that it is possible to have a loaf of bread in a relative few days. days one through nine will see your way through a brand new starter, days ten and eleven will see you to the completion of a loaf of bread.

semolina bread using 9-day old starter

many people have been timorous in their emails to me about their new whole wheat/all purpose flour starters, the one given in the tartine bread book. i know many people who have had great success with it as well, but for some of us, getting it going seems to be the most difficult thing in the world to do. i blame it on the environment, if there is indeed something to 'blame', and not on the diligent, nor the quality of flour, as i have used flour of high caliber from the start, and the culture remained sluggish and intolerably hesitant. so, this post is really for the camp that needed something a little more sure-footed (there is a lovely semolina bread below, in addition to this write-up about starting a rye starter for those who don't need help with a starter). though it also never hurts to revisit things once in a while, so, even if you already have success with your starter, tartine or otherwise, this post might be, in the very least, interesting.

the thing about a whole wheat starter, in my experience, is that it can be temperamental at the start, and decidedly slow, willful even. what i mean by 'willful' is that often at the start it will show promise, only to seemingly die out some days into the process of grabbing hold. if you are new on your bread path, this can lead to complete terror because with no information to help troubleshoot, there is no way to fix the problem. i know. i've been there. if one is patient, and uberly so, one will see their way to the end of a whole wheat/all purpose starter. i must say, and i find it intriguing, that quite a few people who have had success with the tartine starter happen to live in san francisco. coincidence? or are chad's powerful yeasts and bacteria floating around the city, helping those coastal inhabitants make fantastic bread? just a thought. but don't start packing your bags just yet, the rents in san francisco are prohibitively high because of the new start-up boom. so unless you want to pay $600 a month to live in a broom closet, i suggest you read on.

it has been my experience that a whole wheat/all purpose starter does much better when branched off from one that is viable in comparison to one that has just begun. for instance, i have made several starters using various flours that have been branched from my 'mother' starter with great success, whole wheat including. this brings me to my proposal, and one that may help those who struggle with their starter and find themselves at the end of their wits:


a beautiful thing above, isn't it? this 100% hydration, 100% rye starter was made in just 9 days.

at the start of anything, one should begin with the basics, for instance, if one has no experience with math, one does not learn calculus by beginning with calculus. one must begin with simpler math, the building blocks of that which is more complex. the basics are what brought you here today, as this adult, making bread, excelling at whatever other craft in your life. whatever it is that you are accomplished in today, it all began with the basics. the beginning. small bites that led you to the understanding of a whole, or, at least as much is humanly possible given whatever it is that you are pursuing.

the thing about rye is that it is a remarkable flour and the foundation of many culture's breads. it is not wholly easy to work with in breads that call for terribly high percentages of it, given, but overall, it produces a reliable bread, and more importantly, a reliable starter.

the starter i made in 9 days began to show promise from the start. why? because rye is teeming with the bacteria and yeasts that become the building blocks of a sourdough starter. much more than any other flour.

here, have a look:

once water is added to flour, the microbes in the flour begin to grow, on their way to building a stable ecology in a jar, a harmony of acid-tolerant yeasts and acid-producing bacteria. there is very little sugar in flour, but it does have enzymes that break down starch molecules in the flour into smaller sugar molecules (maltose and glucose) that the yeast can feed on. by adding water to flour, we activate those enzymes. when the enzymes are activated, the yeast (which lives and feeds on simple sugars like glucose, sucrose, and maltose) feeds on these sugars that are breaking down, and produce two waste products: alcohol and carbon dioxide. carbon dioxide is the gas that the yeast produces, which makes our dough nice and light, it makes our dough 'rise'. the alcohol produced helps to dissolve aromatic molecules and enhance the flavor and aroma of the bread. a measurable amount of alcohol remains in the bread even after baking for an hour with elevated temperatures. this is what you smell when bread is baking, it is that creamy smell that you perceive when you put your nose close to your dough.

the yeast has its own enzymes as well, like maltase, which breaks down maltose into two glucose molecules that the yeast (and bacteria) can feed on. yeast also produces an enzyme called 'transglutaminase'. as more of this enzyme is produced, the dough becomes less extensible through a cross-linking in the glutenin proteins. this is what strengthens our dough.

the bacteria produce lactic and acetic acids when they eat the maltose in the flour (activated by water), and excretes glucose as they metabolize this maltose, and the glucose becomes available to the yeasts (as well as the bacteria itself) to eat and subsequently grow. the bacteria also excretes an antibiotic which kills off potentially harmful organisms, protecting itself and the yeast. and how is this for symbiosis: the bacteria also eat dead yeast cells, as it requires more than just sugars to survive, so, the dying yeast provides food for our bacteria as well.

as you can see, yeast and bacteria work in harmony. the yeast has its own enzymes to break down maltose into simple sugars that it and the bacteria can eat, and the bacteria breaks also breaks down maltose, excreting glucose as available food for the yeast and itself, and it also eats the dead yeast cells.

the starter is the foundation of your bread. you want to build a good, stable ecology, and over time, as you systematically feed it flour and water, this ecology grows stronger and develops its own unique characteristics. bread is absolutely a food that exhibits 'terroir', like wine. 'terroir' is the expression of a comestible that is the culmination of geography, climate, and the genetic makeup of a given food. that is to say that a certain food exhibits certain qualities based on where it has developed or grown. so, your sourdough will be different than mine. it will contain different strains of yeasts based on where it has been developed. if i moved away from where i am now, bringing my sourdough starter with me, it would transform its makeup based on the climate and geography of where i moved it to, hence, altering the characteristics of my bread.

exciting, yeah? yes, it is. which is why you make bread. which is why i don't want you to struggle at the start.

using the formula below, you will be producing a 100% hydration, 100% organic rye starter which will develop its own terroir based on where you are. you can use this starter for any of chad's breads, yes, and it will provide an intriguing layer of flavor and complexity to all of your loaves. once this starter has firmly rooted, the ecology stabilized, you can use it to make other starters, for instance, further down the road, scoop out a bit of it and make a wheat/all purpose starter if you want to more strictly adhere to chads formula. it's not cheating. you need to have some success with your bread if you are to keep going on your bread path. the last thing you need is a heap of discarded bread books that you never got a chance to dive into. with weeks and weeks of ill-fated attempts at a sourdough starter you are likely to throw in the towel. so, my suggestion is to get going with this rye starter, and on the 10th day, you will be making bread. and it is only when you begin making bread that you can begin to understand it and experiment with it. you can, over time, keep a 'library' of starters if you want, but in the beginning, i urge you, make it easy on yourself. use rye to get your starter going, get some successes under your belt, build your bread-confidence, and then start doing some wild things, like experimenting with different flours in your bread and your starter. i guarantee that when you have many successes with your rye starter, you may try out others, but you will always come back to this one. it's a beautiful thing.

 onto levain.

9-hour fermented levain

so, your sourdough starter is alive and ready to go, it's time to make your first levain. now, in the tartine bread book, chad calls for use of the 'float test' to see if your starter is ready for use. not a bad way to go about this, however, i was still, in the beginning, having irregular success with my bread. i also ended up pinching off tons of levain, bits a a time, and plopping it in water to see if it would float now? how about now? ok, how about now... leaving me with, well, no levain to make my bread. there were several floating attempts that led to no floating. sad indeed.

in comes rye. not only does it make a strong, fast, reliable starter, it also makes a strong, fast, reliable levain.

i do not do the float test. i just know when my levain is ready, and a rye levain is soooo much more forgiving than a wheat levain.  i have made levains out of all kinds of flour: wheat, spelt, white flour, and of course rye. spelt and whole wheat take the longest to ferment, they produce less 'visibly' ready levains. a rye levain gives seriously visible indications of proper fermentation in that it puffs up and LOOKS ready to use. it was with repeated success with my rye levains that i began to know by sight when using other flours, and understand when my levain was ready or not, dispensing with the method of the float test. when i mastered my rye levains, it was then that i realized that spelt and wheat levains take longer to ferment. bingo. that was my issue at the start. dealing with all of these invisible components in bread making, a rye levain that gives visual cues to its viability was all too welcome in my book.

a rye levain will ferment in just a handful of hours. i have made bread using one that is 5 hours old on up to 12 hours old. with whole wheat, the window of time, in my experience, that you can use your levain is much smaller. it takes many more hours to ferment, and again, i find it more temperamental and much more lazy. not bad things, but, i am already doing 20 and 25 hour final ferments for my bread, i don't really want to wait 12 hours for my levain to ferment when i can have one in 6.

if you are a beginner i always suggest using rye if you are having problems getting a starter going using whole wheat, or white flour, or if you are having problems determining if your levain has fully fermented and is ready for use.

i try to, at this point, photograph all of my levains and post the duration of their fermentations so that you, dear reader, will have consistent visual cues, and subsequently build the confidence to experiment with different flours on your own. not that i mind emails, but, getting to know your starter, and becoming completely confident with your levains is fundamental to making fantastic bread and progressing down your bread path in a fulfilling way. and one more time, yes, you can use a rye starter (and a rye levain) for all of chad's formulae, and it will provide a fantastic foundation for all of your breads. i'm sure that he would forgive you for deviating a bit if things were not working some other way.

without further ado, here is your 100% RYE, 100% HYDRATION 9-day starter, followed by a loaf of semolina bread using it on day 10.



9 a.m. MONDAY, weigh an empty jar and write the gram weight with a sharpie. you will see why we did this later. my jar weighed 258g. i just used a pint mason jar. add 30g of BRM organic DARK rye (don't use light or medium rye, more enzymatic activity in dark), and 30g bottled h2o. mix this up to a thick paste, cover, and place in a cool spot in the kitchen. we are making a 100% hydration starter...


9 p.m., scoop out enough starter so that the total weight of the jar with starter equals 30g more than the jar, so, mine equals 288g (258g + 30g starter). tare the scale to zero. add to your 30g of starter: 30g BRM dark rye flour and 30g bottled h2o. so, now i am maintaining 90g of starter (30g seed starter + 30g flour + 30g h2o), and this will be the weight of my starter through day 9. see, we wrote the number of the jar's weight on the jar so that you can scoop out just enough to leave 30g of seed starter. this way, you don't have to dump out ALL of the starter, and add little bits at a time until you reach 30g.

DAYS 2 - 9

at both 9 a.m. and 9 p.m. you will repeat as above: scoop out enough starter so that 30g is left in the jar, tare the scale to zero, then add 30g dark rye flour and 30g h2o.

below is a succession of photos, days 1 through 9 so that you can see what your starter should look like, WILL look like as the days go on. keep your starter in a cool, dark place in the kitchen with the lid on. use a pint mason jar. use bottled water. use dark rye. after the 9th day you will have bread, perhaps you will try the semolina bread that i made just below.


 weigh the jar; add 30g each dark rye flour and bottled h2o.

just mixed. see how thick it is? for those of you who wrote to me wondering if this was 'right', and fearing that their starter was too thick, this is indeed what your starter should look like just mixed. as the days move on, it will become a tad looser, but really, a 100% rye, 100% hydration starter is a rather thick paste.

 side view.

bottom view (you will see why i took a picture of the bottom view as we move along).


only one hour after feeding on tuesday. see the fermentation happening already?

3 p.m. on day 2, see what crazy activity is going on?








ET VOILA! you are ready to use your starter for any formula that calls for a 100% hydration starter, and this includes all of the formulae in chad's book, tartine bread.

here is the bread that i made using my 9-day old starter.

a note on semolina. semolina flour is difficult to work with for a couple of reasons. the flour molecules are 'barbed', which is to say that they cut away at the gluten structure, thereby tightening the crumb. if you employ a high percentage of semolina in your dough, you will have to contend with a bread that doesn't have as much 'loft' as you might like. the crumb will be more uniform, and the crust will be decidedly 'tougher'.

as well, keep in mind that it does not take much h2o to hydrate breads using semolina. so, err on the side of less, you can always add more, but you can't take it away, and no, adding extra flour arbitrarily is never a good idea to compensate for a dough that is too hydrated. you will only end up with an imbalanced dough, and one that you can't learn from, because you have no way to track where the problem lays with arbitrary additions of components.

the breads that i post on this site are all tested and the perfected formulae are given exactly as you see them here. some of the breads that i have made did not start out 'perfectly', in fact, the first semolina bread that i tried a few weeks ago used a higher percentage of semolina, and i futzed with the fermentation a bit, so it did not yield a balanced dough. this bread has been tested and perfected, so, try to make changes in any formulae you see using logic based on the fundamentals of the components within a formula, not arbitrary experiments. for instance, i would not add a sweetener to a bread just because it sounds lovely. i would first have to measure the components against one another, and take into account what the particular sweetening device's properties were, and how they would interact within a dough in relation to a 'base formula', then make my changes based on empirical evidence rather than whimsy.

speaking of all this, keep a journal of all of your bread endeavors, and look back at them to see what worked and why. and try to learn as much as you can about the components you utilize in your breads, including flour, water, and anything else that you might think about employing. grains and fruits need to be soaked first because they will absorb some of the water in the dough, thereby decreasing the overall hydration of the dough and altering your intended goal with regard to its structure. dried fruits and grains that are not soaked will tighten the crumb, and make it more uniform. not bad things, however, you may have intended to have a more open crumb with your bread, so an addition without forethought as to how it will affect your hydration is going to surprise you. nuts and seeds need to be toasted unless you are only rolling the outside of the dough in them, then they decidedly not be toasted first or they will burn. liquid sweeteners and olive oil will necessitate a change in hydration, some flours have no gluten, so you have to pair them with those that do, generally speaking. these are just some examples.

with all that said, i developed this bread using a ratio of semolina and bread flour (bread v. all purpose, because the high protein bread flour will compensate for the low-quality protein in semolina and all those spiky molecules) that will give us a lofty bread with a light crumb and a brittle, shattery crust.


feed your new starter at 9 a.m. the day you plan to start your levain, then again at 4 p.m. you will start your levain at midnight as follows:

50g of your new 100% hydration, 100% rye starter
100g BRM organic dark rye flour
100g cold, filtered water

mix the above until you reach a cohesive mass, cover and ferment. mine fermented for 8 hours.

levain, just mixed

levain, fermented for 8 hours


250g rye levain
200g BRM organic semolina
300g KA organic bread flour
300g cold, filtered h2o
12g salt
30g extra virgin olive oil

mix the above together (MINUS the salt and olive oil) until you reach a shaggy mass. cover and autolyse for one hour.

after the hour autolyse, squish 12g of salt and 30g of olive oil into the dough until it is uniformly distributed. form into a smooth ball. the bulk fermentation begins.

for the first 2 hours of the bulk fermentation, perform a series of turns every half-hour. for the final 2 hours, pop into the fridge, covered, and let it ferment untouched.

after the bulk fermentation, spread a bit of organic brown rice flour onto a workspace. scrape the dough onto the flour. pull the edges in, forming a loose round. cover and let it rest for 15 minutes.

shape the rested dough into a boule. pop into a bowl that has been line with a brown rice flour dusted linen. it's ready for its final fermentation. pop it in the fridge. mine fermented for a total of 19 hours 15 minutes.

ready for final fermentation/after final fermentation


one hour before you bake, preheat the oven to 550 degrees. make sure your stone and both halves of the combo cooker are in there too.

after a FULL HOUR (i'm serious), unearth the dough, straight from the fridge, onto a peel lined with a piece of parchment, score the dough in some lovely pattern, then slide it into the shallow half of the combo cooker.

pop on the top half and turn the oven down to 475 degrees. steam for 30 minutes.

after the steam, remove the top half of the combo cooker using an oven mitt to avoid a nasty steam burn.

turn the oven down to 450 degrees and bake until golden. don't go too dark with semolina, or you risk a harder crust.

crust: uber shattery. lovely, just lovely. crumb: uniform and moist. beautiful, mild, creamy flavor. i loved this loaf of bread. the ratio of semolina and bread flour was just right, and the extended ferment produced a fully gelatinized crumb. i had to pull myself away from it after several slices.

as you work with your starter, it will develop its own 'terroir', making more delicious bread the older it gets. i hope this post clarifies any issues you might be having if you are just starting out on your bread path.

to the staff of life!

this post has been exhibited on Susan's wild yeast blog. thank you susan, for giving us a platform to share our bread!



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