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Getting sourdough levain from a French baker – has anyone tried it?


Druckenbrodt
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Not sure if it's just the weather, or my German roots coming out, or the fact I have three small children who love baking and 'scientific' experiments, but I've got this urge/curiosity to start making sourdough bread, specifically rye bread, which I just love. After two, admittedly not very scientific, failed attempts to make a starter, I'm now reluctantly considering the idea of giving up on doing it all on my own and trying to get a levain from somewhere. Has anyone here ever tried persuading a French bakery to sell them some of their own levain? I can imagine they might feel that's a bit like giving away trade secrets, and so I feel a bit nervous about what seems a rather cheeky request...

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As Lisa says, whatever starter you receive will be repopulated by local yeasts over time. Try making your own--feed it with pineapple juice for the initial two days. The acidity will prevent nasty leuconostoc bacteria from taking hold and give the yeast a bit more time to get established. Keep feeding 1 or 2 times daily until it reliably doubles. It is exactly what a 'french bakery' would do if their own starter failed.

The starter doesn't really determine the bread's flavor profile: it is more about manipulating the pre-ferment/"build" of the starter and the various things you do (or don't do) to the dough....fermentation schedules, temps, etc. Too much mystique surrounds the starter, IMHO: it is just a yeast culture.

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Thanks for the replies everyone. I agree there's perhaps too much mystique around the starter, and it was in that spirit that I set to with my first attempt, in the spirit of George and Cecilia Scurfield in their - otherwise - very reliable little book 'homebaked'. Their advice is simply to mix a few tbs flour with warm milk and let it sit for a few days... I have tried to resist getting obsessively drawn into all those sourdough forums but I do feel a little sad whenever I glance at my second attempt jug of pasty stuff sitting on the shelf above the radiator (temperature is 20 celcius so surely not too hot?) I was feeding it twice daily and It did start to bubble excitingly and expand (though not quite double) a few days ago but then I fed it and it never bubbled again, and now gives off whiffs of acetone or at best cider, which I fear is not a good sign.

I shall now go forth and try and find someone else's levain to multiply. The next problem is finding a baker who does sourdough near me, and finding time to get there, so it may be a while before I can give an update on my adventures. I live in Pantin, just across the Périférique from the 19th, which is not a sourdough hotspot. There is a rather nice bakery on the rue de Crimée, near the Buttes Chaumont, which has wood fired ovens and which I'm sure does pain au levain. The only thing is the woman who runs the shop is quite rude and rather annoying...

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Thanks for the replies everyone. I agree there's perhaps too much mystique around the starter, and it was in that spirit that I set to with my first attempt, in the spirit of George and Cecilia Scurfield in their - otherwise - very reliable little book 'homebaked'. Their advice is simply to mix a few tbs flour with warm milk and let it sit for a few days... I have tried to resist getting obsessively drawn into all those sourdough forums but I do feel a little sad whenever I glance at my second attempt jug of pasty stuff sitting on the shelf above the radiator (temperature is 20 celcius so surely not too hot?) I was feeding it twice daily and It did start to bubble excitingly and expand (though not quite double) a few days ago but then I fed it and it never bubbled again, and now gives off whiffs of acetone or at best cider, which I fear is not a good sign.

I shall now go forth and try and find someone else's levain to multiply. The next problem is finding a baker who does sourdough near me, and finding time to get there, so it may be a while before I can give an update on my adventures. I live in Pantin, just across the Périférique from the 19th, which is not a sourdough hotspot. There is a rather nice bakery on the rue de Crimée, near the Buttes Chaumont, which has wood fired ovens and which I'm sure does pain au levain. The only thing is the woman who runs the shop is quite rude and rather annoying...

I remember trying to make a starter and ending up with lumps of papier mache. Then I read that rye flour forms a starter much more readily than wheat flour. (There are all sorts of reasons for this, but my grasp of the science is minimal.) Equal weights of rye flour and water (I've never used milk), cover lightly, let it hang out. For the first few days I dumped half and fed it daily, still using rye flour. It worked for me. Later you can feed it with wheat flour to change it to a regular levain. I kept half as a rye starter and half as a wheat starter. I use tap water, but I let it sit out overnight so the chlorine dissipates.

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Google "pineapple juice starter" and you can read reams of info about the recent tendency of certain yeast inhibiting bacteria to immediately take over a sourdough culture. Typically, a sourdough culture's acidity keeps the bad bacteria out and the yeast thriving, but if the bad stuff takes hold, it can inhibit the yeast. In the initial days, the culture is neutral ph (or even basic, if you use milk or alkaline tap water). It will indeed bubble and look as though it's taking off, but it won't ever double because no yeast colony is thriving. Apparently, the leuconostoc (an otherwise okay bacillus that is responsible for sauerkraut) gets in the way--the jury's still out on why it's so readily taking over in contemporary attempts to make sourdough cultures.

I failed to create my own starter multiple times, then discovered that I wasn't the only one. American baking instructor and author Peter Reinhart popularized the pineapple juice method, but it was pioneered by home baker and chemist Debra Wink. She examined her initially bubbly cultures and identified exactly what was growing in them, then figured out how to manipulate the ph to exclude the unwanted and promote the yeast growth.

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Previous comments are all good ones. This may sound like heresy to some but you can use commercial cultured yeast to make a starter. Cultured yeast, kept growing in a batter of water and flour, after a few days will revert back to it's original 'wild' state and become like any other yeast starter you would develop/ grow in your home.

If pizza places will sell you some dough, I see no reason why a baker would not sell or give you some yeast starter. You could even develop a starter using raw bakery dough. If you really want to try to grow some wild yeast, the milky film on grapes and on cabbage is yeast. If you feed it with flour and water, you can encourage it to grow into a starter but getting truly wild yeast like that is hit or miss whether it will make good yeast for bread making.

ps you can grow starter at room temperature, inhibit and preserve it in the refrigerator or even freeze it without very much fear of killing it but excessive heat will kill it. BTW if it dies, don't feel bad. It isn't a pet, it's just yeast.

Edited by Norm Matthews (log)
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Oof! That's painful. There are lots of things you CAN do but why would you? The simplicity of the sourdough process is beautiful in itself.

So what if it takes a few tries to get a starter going? Once it is fermenting, take a little care of it and it's yours for life.

I had a mispent middle-age hanging around French boulangeries. It's not so easy. They are often small so there's nothing to see and as soon as you walk through the door, that crowd you were hoping to hide behind evaporates and the woman behind the counter wants to know your order.

Get you own starter going and once it's established it will be as good as any veteran culture.

A few years ago, on holiday in France, I spent some time trying out different methods. If you're interested you can read the account here

Personally I'd stick with straight flour and water but it's a matter of choice.

Mick

Mick Hartley

The PArtisan Baker

bethesdabakers

"I can give you more pep than that store bought yeast" - Evolution Mama (don't you make a monkey out of me)

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Something I forgot to mention before if you are having difficulty starting a yeast culture: Chlorine inhibits yeast growth. If your water is chlorinated, draw it and let it set overnight so the chlorine can dissipate- or- use bottled or filtered water. Warm, not hot water also helps yeast grow faster than cold water.

Edited by Norm Matthews (log)
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I'm with everyone else. You should try. Especially with the pineapple juice, only bottled water (just for the beginning), and a good not overly processed flour.

I did it. My first try was a total disaster because I wasn't patient enough. You need to wait for the right effect at every stage. My second, a winner. I followed instructions from Peter Reinhart's book: Artisan Breads Everyday

The sourdough rye recipe I used I think is from Bread.

Having said that, someone gave me some starter as a Christmas gift last year. They bought it from a local bakery and while it's very good, my bread has never gotten as sour as with my own starter. (I don't know why, maybe I did something wrong.) But it's a strong, old starter that I have no intention of getting rid of. I give starter to my friends all the time too. They usually kill it within a day though. :laugh:

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Thanks so much for the sound advice and kind encouragement everyone. Apologies for not reporting back sooner - have been in the 'trenches' juggling tax returns, deadlines, and daughters, including a baby who won't sleep before midnight.

So. Last weekend I remembered that far from being in a sourdough desert, our local market has a really great bread stall selling delicious pain au levain. The lady who runs it looks a bit like a witch - complete with warty nose and arms as big as thighs. I faffed around a bit before finally getting to the point - she looked at me askance throughout, as if to say why on earth would a customer try making their own bread, which would so obviously be inferior to hers - and her answer was a resolute 'non,' although she did offer to ask her baker if he had any advice to impart… I will see her again today.

In the meantime: we finally have lift off. Miraculously, considering how neglectful I've been. If there were social services for sourdough, mine would be taken away from me. I had abandoned my starter (2nd attempt) at the point of my first post, but had been too depressed to throw it away. It had been sitting above the radiator for a few days smelling strongly of acetone. Then my boyfriend, who has been completely unaware of my internal crisis, had a moment of curiosity and told me my starter smelled yeasty. So I chucked most of it away and divided the rest into two starters, one fed with white flour, the other with whole grain rye. I also followed Norm Matthews's suggestion and put the tiniest smidgen of fresh cultured yeast in the rye starter. I've been feeding both with milk, mainly because I keep forgetting to buy bottled water, and if I leave it out to stand overnight my boyfriend has a tendency to pour it away. Still, it's very hit or miss when I get round to feeding it. Certainly not twice a day, more like once every 24 hours. And there were a few days of total neglect. Despite this, the last two days there has been energetic bubbling, and yesterday finally, after a morning feed, it more than doubled it's growth by early evening.

They still smell a bit of acetone though. Is this a bad thing? Will it affect the taste of the bread? Would you add grapefruit juice to a starter that's already doubling, as a way of getting rid of the acetone smell? (But the smell is from the yeast, no? Not the 'bad' bacteria?…)

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They still smell a bit of acetone though. Is this a bad thing?

Just curious and thought it was worth double-checking… did you really mean acetone (nail polish remover) or where you thinking of acetic acid (vinegar)? If you meant acetic acid, i.e. a vinegar smell, then I would take it as an encouraging sign.

BTW it's always worth perusing wikipedia for some general background info.

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