My Life With Sourdough: Science and Intuition
Sourdough, AKA Levain, Culture, Lactobacillus, and Starter is a wild yeast that helps to make bread rise, gives it aroma and flavor, acidity and strength, texture and shelf life. It is a natural bacterial culture that requires feeding on a regular schedule.
Maintaining a healthy sourdough culture comes with a responsibility to care and nurture it throughout its’ life. My sourdough culture has been with me for over 20 years. It is a living organism that needs to be consistently fed and cared for. My team at the bakery does a marvellous job at keeping our culture alive, happy and consistent and it shows in the quality of the bread that we produce at our bakery. This is not an easy task, I tell you. Temperature fluctuation is very dramatic in a bakery in Saskatchewan and it is difficult to keep a culture happy in these circumstances. We use science and intuition to help us keep our culture alive and well.
When you work with a sourdough culture for a long time, you understand how to read it.
Sourdough communicates to us, giving us signals. It lets us know when it is ready to be fed and when it is ready to be used for bread. If it needs more food, heat or time. We use these cues to make adjustments in time, temperature and feeding schedule in order to keep our culture happy. In return, it makes the best bread.
We interpret those signals using visual cues, aroma and taste. An undermature culture will taste like flour and does not look active. An overmature culture will smell and taste acidic, and start to liquify. The sweet spot for our culture is when it has doubled in volume and starts to recede at the top and tastes tangy and lactic.
The baker has many options when creating and maintaining a healthy sourdough culture, depending on the particular flavour profile and desired effect on the dough. A stiff culture with a warm water temperature and feedings every 4 hours can bring a sweet flavour profile as well as strength to a complex dough such as the “cake like”, Panettone or, Columba di Pasqua. We in the industry lovingly call this an “Italian Starter”. It brings to these doughs a sweet characteristic and strength to carry the high levels of butter and sugar present in these holiday breads. These breads require building the culture up slowly adding ingredients at each level of fermentation.The breadmaking process takes 4 days. At Christmas I make the Classic, Panetonne, and at Easter, the Beautiful Dove Shaped Columba di Pasqua; The Bread of Victory and Peace.
Life with a sourdough culture requires planning and patience. When the bakery is on holiday, we need to have someone feed our culture to keep it happy. My Brother jokes; “When you go on holiday you need someone to feed your cats and your culture”.
We are committed to caring for this culture, except that one time, when my Sister in Law almost ruined Christmas by forgetting to put the starter in the mix to rebuild the sourdough culture. As a result, the entire culture was wiped out. Luckily, we had another spelt flour starter created from the mother culture and we were able to rebuild it and Christmas was saved.
But seriously, I am devoted to my sourdough culture. I have taken it on the road to baking competitions in Mexico City and Paris. I have taken it home to feed for special breads.I have taken it through airport security where it was scanned by a special device. I have gone to the bakery after nights out with friends to feed my Italian Culture for Holiday Breads, as it KNEEDED to be fed every 4 hours.
To me “sourdough” is not an ingredient in a bread, it is a living organism that works in symbiosis with the baker, giving and taking. That is the way of life and my life would feel incomplete without it.