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A sequel of sorts to my slightly long-winded look at the science of sourdough, boiling it all down to a few practical pointers for creating, maintaining and baking with your sourdough starter at home. Does the Internet really need another one of these? Possibly not. Also, the idea was to keep this short and sweet. Oops…

PART ONE: Create your starter

  1. Mix together flour and water. Any flour is suitable, but the higher the ash content the better, so you’re best off with rye, followed by wholewheat, and then whites such as strong bread flours. Place in a covered container – you want it to breathe, but don’t want flies and the like getting in. A ‘Le Parfait’ jar is perfect.
  2. Find somewhere warm – you want an ambient temperature of 25-30 degrees centigrade. This may be in a low oven (or with only the pilot light on), in an airing cupboard, or – if you’re a real fancypants –   in (or on the lid of) a temperature controlled water bath.
  3. Leave it for a couple of days in your chosen warm environment, giving it a stir occasionally to aerate. It should start to bubble slightly. It’s alive!
  4. Feed the starter every day – add equal quantities of flour and water (around 50g each should be fine) per day. Again rye or wholewheat are best. Aerate each time. If possible, split the feed into 2 or 3 feeds per day. Once per day, discard most of the mix before you replenish it. This gets rid of the exhausted flour and encourages quicker yeast growth.
  5. After around 7 days you should have a fairly sweet and mildly sour smelling, nicely bubbling starter. There is, however, always an element of unpredictability when creating a sourdough starter. If it hasn’t worked (see PART TWO first), then throw it away, sterilise your storage jar and try again.

NOTE: Creating your very own starter can be fun, but for guaranteed results and a better chance of longer term starter stability you’re better off nabbing a healthy bit of sourdough from elsewhere – a baker, a friend or the Internet. All it takes is a spoonful or even a piece of starter that’s been frozen or dried out, added at step one above to get things going in the right direction.

PART TWO: Dealing with a faulty sourdough starter

  1. So your sourdough has gone belly up or your attempt at creating a starter from scratch doesn’t seem to have worked? Don’t throw it away just yet. First, sniff it and look at its colour. If it smells awful or there’s yellow, green, or obvious signs of mould then chuck it, otherwise…
  2.  If it looks muddy then that just means it’s separated and that it probably needs a good feed. Check your storage temperature (lower is better for yeast), make sure you feed the little guy three times a day for a while, and try adjusting the flour to water ratio to form a wetter starter for a while.
  3. If your starter smells too vinegary, then either make it wetter, try raising the storage temp (but not beyond 35 degrees C) or do both. Feed and see how it is after another 3 or 4 days.
  4. If your starter smells like nail varnish remover, then lower the storage temperature and, again, feed for a few days more.
  5. Your starter is yeasty but doesn’t seem particularly sour? Time to raise the storage temp a little. Also consider making the starter a little more fluid for a few days.

PART THREE: Long-term sourdough care

  1. If you’re going to make bread every 4-7 days then keep your sourdough in that warm storage spot. Try to feed it three times a day for 2-3 days before each use, otherwise once a day should keep it happy. Remember to check the smell and adjust the heat and fluidity as required (see PART TWO).
  2. If you don’t need the starter for a while then you can put it in the fridge. Yeast and lactic acid bacteria activity will slow right down and eventually halt. When you need to use it again, bring it back out a few days in advance, and either stir all the gunk back together or discard the dirty liquid at the top. Go back into intense 3 times a day feeding mode just to get it nice and bubbly/sour again.
  3. For ultra long storage you can try freezing or dehydrating your starter. All you need is a couple of spoonfuls. To dehydrate it, simply spread it thin onto a plate and place in the fridge for a few days until dry. To bring it back to life go back to step 1 in PART ONE, and add it as you would a sample of somebody else’s starter.

NOTE: It’s worth freezing or dehydrating a portion of a healthy sourdough, just to give yourself a backup plan in case your lovely starter take  a turn for the worse somewhere down the line.

PART FOUR: Using your soudough

  1. If you’ve been changing the fluidity of your starter to tweak its properties then you want to adjust the mix just before usage to get a 1:1 ratio. This will then work with any sourdough recipe you choose, or at least make it easier to calculate the correct amount.
  2. Been feeding your starter rye or wholewheat but want to create a pristine white sourdough loaf or baguette? Just make sure you switch to white flour for the last three days before usage, remembering to discard most of the old mix each time.
  3. Don’t forget that sourdough takes much longer to rise. Adjust the first and final rise times accordingly if adapting a recipe with baker’s yeast, and also remember that you’ll need to cook at higher temperatures to get the same level of browned crust.
  4. Remember the bit about throwing away most of your starter every day? You don’t have to chuck it in the bin. It can be added to a basic bread recipe alongside a (reduced amount of) baker’s yeast to make a sort of hybrid loaf. Even better it can be use as the basis for a superb batter for fish and pretty much anything else you want to deep fry.
  5. You can check to make sure your starter is healthy enough to bake with by mixing a tablespoon with 100g of flour, 70g of water and 2g of salt, and checking to make sure it rises by 50% after around five hours.
  6. The ideal ratio of sourdough starter to fresh ingredients is 20 percent. Most recipes stick roughly around this area. Here’s an example recipe…

BASIC SOURDOUGH BREAD (technique shamelessly adapted from Dan Lepard)

Ingredients: 200g of sourdough, 500g of flour, 320-340g of water, 10g of salt.

Roughly mix together by hand or with a mixer. Leave for a few minutes and then form into a ball on a floured or oiled surface Push the dough, fold it back over, turn again and repeat a few more times. Leave it for 10 minutes more and then do it all again. Do this 3-5 times in total and leave until expanded by 50% from original size. Shape your loaf (watch this youtube video for some techniques), leave until risen by 50% again. Place in an oven pre-heated to 220-240 degrees centigrade for at least an hour, placing a pan with freshly boiled water underneath in the oven. If possible don’t use fan-assisted heating, at least not for the first 10-15 minutes. Turn down the heat to 200-200 degrees at this point. Cook for a further 20 to 35 minutes, depending on whims of your oven and final desired crust, consistency and moistness.

AND FINALLY: Go buy yourself some good bread books. Dan Lepard’s The Handmade Loaf or Short & Sweet (bread and much, much more), Peter Reinhart’s The Bread Baker’s Apprentice, plus Dough and Crust by Richard Bertinet are all worth your time and money.

Oak and alcohol go back a long way. Oak tanks and barrels were once the only thing used for fermenting and then transporting wine and other drinks. More latterly the use of sherry and then whisk(e)y barrels became a common way to infuse drinks in more complex ways. And now the age-old practice of barrel ageing has even been appropriated by mixologists, who use short-term ageing (of several weeks rather than months or years) to put a fresh spin on familiar cocktails.

But here’s the thing. These mixologists are ageing their product in barrels, whereas much of the wine industry now simply mimics the original process using wood chips and micro oxygenation. So why not do the same on a far smaller scale? Even better, why not massively accelerate the whole process?

Some things are lost, obviously. You can’t expect to do any actual maturation by converting tannins and acetic acid into more desirable elements. But drawing out some of the beneficial aspects of the hemicellulose (which, when toasted releases wood sugars that provide caramelised and smoky aromas and flavours), lactones (woodiness and a coconut element), and lignin (vanillin and further spicy smokiness) to add another layer is another matter.

The geniuses over at Cooking Issues discussed the concept of cavitation, using nothing more than a cream whipper and nitrous oxide cartridge, some time back now, and for a while the technique got everybody – especially those without access to an expensive sonic cavitation wand – pretty hot under the collar. Aside from a mention in Modernist Cuisine, there’s been less talk of this technique recently. But it remains a great way to draw flavours from porous things into liquids (we use it at Restaurant Allium for quick Sloe Gin, for example).

Remarkably it even works with wood.

I’ve got a couple of ideas for increasing the level of infusion even further, but for now try this. You’ll be surprised how well you can oak age something in  a little over an hour.

Ingredients: Untreated oak wood chips or oak barrel chips. Optional: Whisk(e)y, sherry etc

Equipment: ISI Cream Whipper and two cartridges. Optional: Vacuum chamber

1. If you’re lucky enough to have genuine barrel oak chips (previously used or otherwise) then you’re good to go. If not, fake the coopering process by toasting the chips in a dry pan. Different levels of toasting will emulate different types of barrel. Sherry barrels are lightly toasted, bourbon casks are usually set alight inside to create a layer of black char.

2. If you want to mimic the effects of ageing in a bourbon or other type of used barrel, then turn off the heat and ‘deglaze’ with a slug of your chosen beverage. Some will burn off, but the rest will be pulled into the dry wood chips. Leave the chips to cool, put them an open container and add more of your chosen alcohol. If you have a vacuum chamber then place the container inside, switch on the machine and then shut it down before the cycle ends. Leave for 20 minutes before completing the cycle. If not, just let ’em mingle for an hour or two. Drain the wood chips and either leave to dry naturally or place in a very low oven to speed things up.

3. Load the cooled wood chips and your chosen CHILLED drink into the cream whipper. It’s even worth doing this with water for the first test, just to get some idea of the strength of the infusion – more chips will mean a stronger brew. Fire two canisters into the whipper, shaking vigorously each time. Leave for another half hour.

4. Strain the contents of the cream whipper, through muslin or a superbag and enjoy. Or go mix yourself a nice cocktail.

There’s an art to successful hot smoking. Cold smoking, on the other hand, now that’s a science.

Ensuring a continuous supply of flavour-imparting smoke while maintaining a steady, safe temperature generally either requires an expensive rig or some cannily McGuivered homemade network of offset chambers and pipes – with both solutions requiring some skill to minimise the amount of heat that reaches the food. Digitally controlled smokers, on the other hand, offer a fire-and-forget alternative, but they don’t come cheap. All of which makes the fact that the ridiculously inexpensive Pro Q Cold Smoker really works so surprising.

Out of the box, the Pro Q looks every bit as cheap as it really is. But this is one gadget where the genius truly lies in its simplicity. Though little more than a mesh basket with a set of barriers that create a spiral maze into which you dump a supply of fine sawdust, the Pro Q will stay alight for up to 10 hours. And all the while it will produce smoke without fire, and without the need for a draft of any kind. As a result you can dump it into just about any container – a wok, crockpot, even a cardbox box, place your food on a shelf above, and leave it to work its magic.

The sawdust burns so gently and slowly that you just need to control the ambient temperature to effectively control the smoking temperature. Logically that should also mean this will work a treat for very accurate (and cheap) hot-smoking, too – simply by placing the unit and a suitable smoking chamber inside an oven. At the risk of this post turning into an infomercial, you can find out more about the Pro Q here.


Equipment: Pro Q Cold Smoker, oak sawdust

Ingredients: Salmon fillet (preferably wild). Freeze at -20c for 7 days, or until -35c core temperature, if you want to be sure of killing any parasites.

  1. Rub an even cure mix of salt and sugar onto boned salmon fillet, at a ratio of 8g salt and 8g sugar for every 100g of salmon.
  2. Vacuum seal if possible, or pack tightly. Place in fridge.
  3. After 12 hours, rinse off the cure. Pat excess moisture from fish, bu don’t dry it too much. Leave it slightly tacky.
  4. Place in a chamber with the Pro Q Smoker filled to halfway (enough for at least 4 hours smoking.) Ensure the food won’t drip onto the sawdust – use foil to create an ad-hoc barrier, if necessary.
  5. Light the Pro Q and close chamber. Ensure the temperature inside the chamber remains around between 18c and 24c. Do not allow to exceed 26c.
  6. After 4 hours remove salmon from the smoker and refrigerate until use.

Note: Curing is a necessary process, but the cure ratio can be altered to some extent to suit individual tastes. Try varying the salt percentage from 3.5% for something milder to 10% for a saltier end result, for example.

Clockwise from rear: Sparkling Elderflower water kefir, water kefir grains in sugar solution, kefir cheese, kefir grains in milk.

If kefir didn’t naturally exist the chances of any crazy scientist inventing the stuff would be pretty unlikely. It’s just too weird.

A wholly unlikely symbiotic structure consisting of bacteria, yeasts, protein, sugar and lipids, kefir grains possess a strange and slightly unappetising, cauliflower-like appearance, their size and shape changing as they feed and grow. Search the web and more often than not you’ll stumble upon websites with more than a whiff of incense about them. Health nuts and Woodstock refugees seem strangely attracted to the stuff. Consequently, instructions for caring for kefir grains often verge on the superstitious.

It’s thought that the the shepherds of the North Caucasus were the first to make use of kefir, placing the grains in fresh milk as a way to preserve it, the inoculation transforming it into a refreshing beverage in the process. Left to its own devices, kefir will feed on the lactose in the milk, the process souring it as with yoghurt culture, but with the yeasts also producing carbon dioxide and a small amount of alcohol (typically 1%). As with a sourdough yeast starter, the level of tartness and the yeast activity can be controlled to some extent by temperature and the amount of ‘food’ available.

While kefir can be used to leaven bread, and the curds produced by kefir do make an interesting alternative to fresh milk cheese curds, the drink itself is something of an acquired taste. A milky drink that’s fizzy and yeasty is just too freaky for many Western palates.

Water kefir, though, that’s a different story.  Where regular kefir originates with flora from a sheep’s intestines, this stuff is thought to have first been discovered on the leaves of a type of Mexican cactus. Thriving in sugared water rather than milk and with a slightly different bacterial and yeast strain makeup, water kefir – also known as Japanese water crystals, African bees or Tibicos – can be used to produce drinks that Westerners will lap up. Even without any additional flavouring, water kefir drinks pack a tang not unlike that of ginger beer (the original ‘Ginger Beer Plant’ is actually another bacteria-and-yeast symbiotic blend, and water kefir was also traditionally also used as an alternative).

Unfortunately kefir d’acqua seems to be the runt of the litter. Keeping it healthy involves regular feeds, as well as just the right acidity and mineral levels. Here’s a simple guide based on my experiences:

Basic water kefir drink technique

1. Place your grains in water – a couple of spoonfuls of grain will happily work their magic on a good litre of water. If mineral water isn’t available (or is too costly in the long run), try a mix of tap and filtered. Try adding a touch of calcium chloride  if your grains are looking overly ‘cloudy’ (but not too much, as it can cause the liquid to become unpleasantly syrupy), and throw in half an unwaxed lemon to keep the pH level just right. Don’t add lemon or any other fruit juice as this will tip the acidity too far. You can, however, add fairly acid-neutral flavourings such as crushed ginger root.

2. Be sure to keep it in a container that will let the excess carbon dioxide escape. Leave at room temperature to ferment for a day, add another tablespoon or two of sugar and give it another 24 hours.

3. Sieve the contents, decanting the liquid into a bottle along with any extra flavourings. The kefir grains can be re-used again (as can the lemon for a few more runs).

4. You can drink your kefir beverage at this point, but if you really want to get busy with the fizzy, place it in a sturdy flip-top glass bottle. Add a touch more sugar, seal the bottle and ferment for another 24 hours. Refrigerate ready for use.

You can find kefir and water kefir sellers on ebay, or ask a friend to share some of their ever-multiplying grain stash. Just watch out for the tie-dye.

Scribbling, ponderings, and maybe a little food porn…

by Mark Ramshaw

owner at feast for the senses
food design, private catering, consultancy

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