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The Perils and Pleasures of Sourdough

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Let me add my thanks to everyone else's - and how I'm jealous of those around here who have experienced your baking firsthand.

Despite hearing stories of 25 year old starters killed in two days, my own failed attempts, small successes and all the conflicting advice, I can't seem to let go of the sourdough addiction.

What have been the best learning moments of your sourdough experience? What do you think are the most common sourdough misconceptions? In the end, do you think its worth it? :)


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Sourdoughs are like children, destined to be the subjects of unconditional love, fascination, and not a little bit of angst

Research into sourdoughs in the U.S. began in California and papers published in the late sixties and early seventies by Frank Sugihara, Leo Kline, and their collaborators ( one of these was called The Nature Of The Sourdough Bread Process). They are readable papers, and most people have based their stuff upon them.

Before the introduction of beer yeast which became baker's yeast, sourdoughs were the only fermentation method, and being spontaneous, it was discovered by accident most probably, and then mastered. There are organisms all aroud us which make things ferment and lots of fermentable stuff. Sourdough cultures consist of two types of organisms: heterofermintive lactic cultures ( i.e. the kind of beasties which ferment saurkraut, not cheese or yogurt) and wild yeasts. The yeasts yield delicate flavors and lighter results, while the lactic stuff leads to denser results with varying degrees of "tang". Temperatures and other growing conditions can lead to the dominance of either, hence a baker's style ( even when this is not conscious) depend upon how the culture has been "built" and treated. Put most simply, darker flours, lower temperatures, and less frequent "feedings" ( i.e. additions of flour and water) lead to denser, tangier results. Inversley, Whiter flours, warmer temperatures, and more frequent feedings will lead to lighter, more delicate results. An extremely important point is that storing a culture in the refrigerator ( or anywhere under 12o C) will, in principle, kill-off the wild yeast portion of the culture, leading to very dense, very acis results. Many people appreciate the extra punch of an acid sourdough, but the Frech point of view is more middle of the road: the characteristic flavors should be there, but the loaves should be light enough to have ( and retain) a crispy crust.

As I said, the two elements of the culture are all around us, so to make a culture, one must put them into propitious growing conditions. Much has been written about the use of grapes and other fruits to get things going ( steep the raisins in room temperature water and once things are fermenting merrily, mix the liquid with flour and continue to build with feedings of flour and water...). Raymond Calvel feels that if bread is made from flour, then what more logical thing to use than flour to start a culture?. It is best to begin with at least a portion of darker flour ( rye or whole wheat) because logically there are more "beasties on the outside of the grain, and more nourishment for them. I don't have the time, with so many questions to answer, to go through the process, but I myself use the method outlined in The Taste Of Bread.

You mentioned the age of a culture, and I have been given pieces of starter as old as 100 years. One treats these with reverence, of course, but I have found that after a few days on the feeding schedule and other conditions I usually use, that these cultures quickly begin to mimic my own culture in all respects. Regular feedings, and two building stages for the levains just before the dough stage have, in my view, always been worth the extra trouble.

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  • 2 weeks later...

Hello Adoxograph,

I think my best learning moment with sourdough bread production came early in my career, when my first boss, a German woman, taught me about the Detmolder three-phase system of sourdough. Basically, the mature culture receives a series of three builds over the course of about 28 hours, after which all the latent potential of the sourdough is developed--the potential, specifically, for the lactic and acetic flavor characteristic, as well as the culture's leavening potential.

The Detmolder method is fascinating, and produces remarkable bread, which I enjoy making to this day (there's some 90% rye presently on the counter at home made with the three-phase system). But most amazing to me is how one starts with about 40 grams of mature culture, and once the series of builds is complete and the final dough is mixed, one winds up with about 20 kilos of bread. This is an increase of 500 times. It is these commonplace miracles of nature that excite me most.

Jeffrey Hamelman

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I think my best learning moment with sourdough bread production came early in my career, when my first boss, a German woman, taught me about the Detmolder three-phase system of sourdough.

Thanks very much for the posts!

This reminded me of a site where the Detmold system is discussed, along with an interactive calculator and lots more links and info:


Very interesting that you do such large refreshes! I'll have to try it, as I triple 2 or 3 times per day over at least 2 days to build 5 grams of starter into about 6 kilos final dough... I read something similar very recently (can't remember where) only it focused more on using temperature to control fermentation (descending) and favouring of yeast vs. bacteria over the entire process (high temp at first for yeast, lowering for bacteria/acid...).


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