Sourdough, winter 2014-’15

Every winter I crank up the bread production and for the third winter in a row, I’ve used a sourdough culture.

A sourdough culture is a symbiotic relationship between lactobacillus and wild yeast.   The lactobacillus converts natural sugars in the flour into lactic acid (sour) and the yeast is also feasting on those sugars and making gas and ethanol. I love a really good sourdough, one that tastes sour but also has a sweet taste, as if honey was added.  I’m guessing the sweetness is from the remnants of the ethanol after baking (the sweetness is most prevalent shortly after baking).


Sourdough starter

Sourdough starter just after feeding.  In 12 hours it will rise to double.


Each year I’ve used different sourdough starters.  One came from the bakery at Whole Foods Market, where they bake a decent batch of sourdough loaves daily.  Another I mail ordered from Ed Wood’s International Sourdoughs.  This year, I started my own starter from organic rye flour, which has naturally occurring lactobacillus in it. In all cases, I had starter ready to use after about 4 days.

Last year I made a proofing box.  It isn’t necessary for sourdough bread, but it makes things a little easier.


My old Igloo cooler in service as a proofing box for bread dough and starter.

My old Igloo cooler in service as a proofing box for bread dough and starter.


I started with my cooler and added a light and a temperature thermostat.


Inside of cooler with 25 watt light bulb and jar of starter.  When I'm making a loaf, it goes in here, too.

Inside of cooler with 25 watt light bulb and jar of starter. When I’m making a loaf, it goes in there, too.


The starter was really easy this year.  I started with 4 ounces of organic rye flour and enough water (without chlorine) to make a pancake batter consistency.  Put it into a quart or liter sized glass jar and put the lid on loosely so it can still breathe. I put the jar in the proof box at 90 degrees F for 24 hours.  I didn’t see much of change in the first 12 hours. After 24 hours there was evidence it had nearly doubled, then contracted back down.  It smelled pretty acidic, which meant things were going well.  Then I added 4 ounces of regular flour and enough water for a thicker pancake batter consistency and reduced the temperature to 74 degrees F.

Every 24 hours, I stir it down and dump out all but 1 cup, and add another mixture of 4 ounces of flour and water.  This is the feeding process.  Because ethanol is being produced and making the starter thinner, I use less water for the feedings, so that the flour/water mixture I’m adding has almost a peanut butter consistency (somewhere between pancake batter and bread dough).  About 6 to 12 hours after each feeding (once you get past the first few days), the starter will get bubbly and rise.  Because of my altitude, the starter will go crazy and I have to use a larger jar.

The yeast and the lactobacillus thrive at slightly different temperatures.  The yeast does great at room temperature.  The lactobacillus likes to be a little warmer.  At the warmer temperatures (more lactic acid generated from the lactobacillus), the yeast is not as active.  So there is a trade-off:  more sour and less leavening, or more leavening and less sour.  The important thing is to make sure there is enough sour to keep other wild organisms from taking over and ruining it.

They say (I don’t know who “they” are), that a sourdough starter takes on the personality of the caretaker, the flour and water.

I mentioned above that I dump out all but one cup.  The part that is dumped is used to make bread dough, or goes down the drain if I’m not making bread that day.  Once the starter is stabilized and living a happy life, it can be refrigerated and only fed every 3-5 days, maybe weekly.

I won’t cover making bread in this post, but I will usually take the starter dumped at feeding time and add it to 1 pound of flour and enough water to make dough.  Let the dough sit for 15-20 minutes after mixing, then add teaspoon of salt before kneading.


Difference in height from using flours with different protein contents.

Difference in height from using flours with different protein contents.


After baking several loaves that came out on the flat side, it dawned on me that the flour was probably at fault.  In the past I’ve had no problems with Bob’s Red Mill Organic Unbleached All Purpose Flour.  But this year, perhaps with using a different crop of wheat, it sucks! (See loaf on right in above photo.) In previous years I didn’t like King Arthur Organic Bread flour due to the stale taste.  But this year, the King Arthur flour tastes good, and as you can see on the left in the photo above, has a better protein content, which makes better/more gluten and bigger bread.  I’ve learned I can’t hang my hat on any particular brand and that it’s going to vary.

I become ecstatic when, after all the feeding and kneading, I get a loaf that has just the right combination of sour and leavening, and I just want to share it with everybody I know.



For a few years now, I’ve been toying with the idea of getting a smoker for smoking foods.  I borrowed a friend’s charcoal smoker a little over a year ago and I wasn’t pleased with the results.  On a cold windy day it was impossible to regulate the temperature.  It was either too cold or too hot and either no smoke or the woodchips were going up in smoke way too fast.  It was a constant battle.

So I consulted my neighbor across the road.  He had a Bradley electric smoker and he was pretty happy with it.  He said he just set it and came back a few hours later and pulled out the food.  I immediately came home and looked up the price on Amazon, and suffered sticker shock.  I also didn’t like the fact that it required special woodchip pucks for generating smoke.  So I put the idea aside.

Fast forward to this past spring.

I was repairing a pinball machine that was located in an enclosed patio.  Since the owner had ferocious dogs sequestered in the house, he suggested I come around the side of the house, through the backyard, to the back patio.  On the way I passed a smoker with a digital readout on top of it.  I repaired his pinball machine and as I was about ready to leave, I asked him how he liked his smoker.

“I love it”, he replied.

So we got to talking and recounted our passions for smoked meat.  He told me that he picked up the smoker at a local branch of a large hardware store chain.   The seed was planted.

Fast forward again a couple of months.

I was in a nearby branch of a large nationwide natural food store.  It is the largest of its kind in Colorado. There is a food court inside and one of the vendors sells hot smoked meat.  So I decided to try a whole chicken.  I brought it home and had just a wing.  It was delicious.

“That does it”, I said.  “I’m getting a smoker.”

About a week later when I was down in the city, I stopped by the large hardware store chain and took a look.  Ew, still pretty expensive, but about 40% less than the Bradley.  I thought about it and thought about it again.

I really like handcrafted foods.  I bake my own bread (more so in the wintertime).  I can be fairly obsessive and passionate about what I create. The smoker seemed to fill a niche.  I like meats that are cooked slowly at low temperatures.

I took the plunge and loaded it up, along with bags of various types of woodchips for making smoke, and drove it home.  On the way, I stopped at a market and browsed the meat section.  I left with some baby back pork ribs, something I’ve never cooked in my life.

Once home, I learned that there was some assembly required for this “Made in China” smoker.  Well, many things wouldn’t align properly and assembly took much longer than expected.  Then I was required to burn it in for three hours to get rid of the manufacturing residues.  There would be no time for ribs that day.

During those 3 hours, I scoured the web for recipes and advice.  Over and over I kept coming across this “3-2-1” smoking method for spare ribs and a modified “2-2-1” method for baby back ribs (search the web if you’d like more info).  I learned you can pretty much smoke anything.

You smoked what?

Due to the lateness of that first day, I found something I could smoke rather quickly.  Eggs.  I get the strangest looks (mostly disgusted) when I tell people that.  I boiled them in the shell for a little less than it takes to make hard-boiled eggs.  Then carefully peeled them, applied some seasoning, and put them in the smoker for 45 minutes.  They were excellent.  I’ve eaten them straight,  crumbled them in salads, and made egg salad sandwiches.   Smoked eggs will be a staple here.

There seems to be infinite combinations of dry rubs (spices that are applied to foods before smoking), brine solutions, along with the types of woods used to make smoke.   Lots to learn and try.  For example, Trader Joe’s makes a dry rub that contains ground coffee, something I would have never guessed, but it tastes good.

The following day I made my ribs.  They were succulent and tender.  Probably the best ribs I’ve ever had.  Before smoking, I cut them in half.  One half I thinly coated with molasses and the other half was coated with mustard.  A couple of different spice/herb mixtures was applied next.  For the smoke, I couldn’t decide among the five different woodchips I currently have, so went with a 50/50 mix of apple and hickory.

Earlier this week, I used some maple wood and smoked some whole potatoes.  They turned out well,  a little leathery on the outside, but they weren’t very fresh to begin with.  I’m looking forward to trying them again.

The purists might scoff at an electric smoker, but here at 8,300 feet above sea level, where the weather turns on a dime, it’s clearly the right choice.  During the 5 hours those ribs were smoking, it was sunny and warm, it rained, and the wind blew.  Meanwhile inside the insulated cabinet, the smoker maintained 225 degrees and the woodchips  burned and made smoke.

I have lots planned for smoking including tomatoes, pineapple, peppers, pears, lamb, chicken, shrimp and bison, just to name a few.  I’ll have to post some photos soon.


More bread

I can make sourdough reliably now.  I’ve made three or four loaves now and they all pretty much look like this:




I’ve given some loaves away to the neighbors.

Today I experimented with a 6-grain bread of my own devising.  It was about one-third whole grains with the remainder white flour, sweetened with maple syrup.  The dough was a little too damp so the shape doesn’t look good, but it tastes wonderful and has a good texture.


Whole wheat, buckwheat, triticale, barley, oat, rye and flaxseed