Patience and sourdough

Like many people during the pandemic, I created a sourdough starter. Unlike many of those same people, I kept mine going. If I’m not out on the road or at a concert, one of my other favorite things to do is cook. But following recipes brings out the rebel in me and I’m usually omitting or substituting ingredients, either out of necessity or preference.

Sourdough, though, is different. It’s alive and wants to be fed, and it doesn’t like it when you try different ratios of flour and water. I named my starter Guy, as in “Mr. Guy Sourdough,” because in the early days I kept referring to him in a casual masculine tone. I’d say, “how ya doin’, guy?” or some such greeting and it didn’t take long to turn into a more formal name.

It took me a while to get Guy to the point where he was active enough to bake bread with, and in between I made several loaves that didn’t rise enough to be edible. Over the course of 2021 I perfected making sourdough pizza dough, as well as sourdough discard crackers and baguettes, but it wasn’t until earlier this year that I hit upon a secret to making a good loaf of bread: make a half-size loaf! The other crucial factor was finding the right way to cover the dough during the first 15-20 minutes of baking. I didn’t own a Dutch oven, and the stock pot that I tried instead was tall and awkward. At last I discovered a tip on the Baking Steel website, which was to put the dough directly onto the preheated Steel (with parchment paper) and then cover it with a bowl or pot. Fast forward to now and I own a small Dansk Dutch oven that is the perfect size to bake bread in.

Now for the patience part. Baking with sourdough requires significantly more time than just about anything else that I’ve made in the kitchen (homemade yogurt would be the runner-up). I know this and yet I still look for short cuts or recipes that do not take 24 hours to complete. A recent example is sourdough biscuits. A recipe from Little Spoon Farm landed in my inbox last week and on Saturday I decided to try making it. As soon as I started reading it though, my shoulders sank when I saw that it was an overnight recipe that required a lengthy rise. I wanted those biscuits for dinner!

Then I saw an asterisk towards the bottom of the recipe that said if your starter was active you could skip the overnight part and also omit the baking powder and baking soda. Woo hoo! I immediately started gathering the rest of the ingredients and grated a whole stick of butter using a cheese grater. The asterisk also said to let the cut out biscuits rise for 60-90 minutes on the cookie sheet before baking. Did I do this? Sort of. First I let the uncut dough rest for a half hour or so, and then preheated the oven while cutting the biscuits. I then set them on the counter for at least another 30 minutes, but definitely not a full hour. And just like those rookie mistakes I made back in 2020, I popped the tray in the oven and expected the biscuits to rise more as they baked.

The biscuits didn’t rise.

Not only wasn’t my starter active enough, I should have slowed down and followed the full recipe instead of trying a short cut. However, thanks to all the butter and milk, they cooked through and are fairly edible. I’ve broken them up into pieces for soup and chili, as well as eaten them plain.

I decided to keep on experimenting with another version of my starter; perhaps he’d be called Guy’s cousin. Ratios in sourdough are most often 1:1:1, which stands for one part starter to equal parts flour and water. Occasionally I’ve tried a 1:2:2, where the flour and water are double the amount of starter, but I wondered what would happen if I did a 1:1:2 and only increased the water. (For reference, a lot of the recipes I make call for a high hydration dough, so I thought what if the starter had a higher water content instead.)

This is an earlier photo of what 1:2:2 looks like.

It was interesting to watch, and I wish I’d taken some photos. Initially the extra water didn’t do anything, but several hours later there was a layer of water on top of the otherwise bubbly starter. The starter never grew though, and before I went to bed on Sunday I added an unspecific amount of flour to the measuring cup to see if that would help. It looked the same on Monday morning, and because I was working from home in the AM, I decided to see if this starter would work well enough to make bread.

Success!

This dough had over 5 hours to rise while I went into work, and then more time while I preheated the oven. The end result was a little dense in texture, definitely good enough to eat, but it showed me that I have to use a standard ratio instead of trying to create my own. In most cases, not just cooking, following instructions requires patience. Or, alternate routes should be explored if you want more immediate results. For those biscuits, I could have looked up a non-sourdough recipe and made them much faster. But just like driving along a back road, sometimes the journey is part of the process.

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