Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Back home...for now!

Back home after a long visit overseas and itching to finally get back to baking after a 6-month hiatus, I took out the levain nuggets I had made in the fall to jumpstart the rebirth of my starter. (To make these nuggets, I cut up my 60% hydration starter in small pieces, let them air dry until completely dessicated and then store them in an airtight container). The whole process is normally a no-brainer: I cover two or three nuggets with water, let them sit for a while, add flour, mix and let rest, feed again, etc., until the thing come back to life. It usually takes between 36 and 48 hours.
Well, this time, it didn't go as planned. The first batch of nuggets (luckily I had made three) had become infested with tiny black insects. All the bugs were dead (I guess levain bacteria are not what these beasties are supposed to snack on) but the nuggets were history.
As to the second batch, it didn't even have a chance to show its mettle. Since the house was pretty cold (I know, everybody is sweltering across America but I assure you, in the Northwest, we have natural air-conditioning and my house is nowhere close to overheating). So anyway it was barely 60°F in the kitchen and since I am now the proud owner of a warming drawer (something I had never seen or used before), I figured I would set the warmer at the lowest temperature and put the levain inside. I guess I should have read the manual before I entrusted my baby to this thing as it does get awfully hot, much more than I thought! To make a long story short when I checked on the levain an hour later, it was resting placidly where I had left it and when I opened the lid, it exhaled a doughy sigh that bore no trace of the wild aromas I am so crazy about!
Out came the last surviving nuggets. Needless to say, I was extremely careful with them. I treated them to a steady diet of high-extraction wheat flour and freshly milled rye and after 24 hours of what I assume was deep reflection on their part, they finally came back to life. When they woke up, they showed such vigor that within 48 hours, I was able able to bake, which was good since we have family coming to visit next week and I needed to replenish the freezer...
While all this was going on I was so frustrated that I decided to go back to an old workhorse, Jim Lahey's no-knead bread of New York Times and Internet fame, and give it another try, except that this time I used the same proportion of whole grain (a mixture of wheat, spelt and rye) as in my staple dough (the one I use for the rustic batard). This dough has a depth-of-flavor which we have grown addicted to and I wanted to see for myself how much was due to the freshly milled grains and how much to the levain.
Well, now I know. The yeast-based miche (made with a dough that had fermented 24 hours after the initial mix) turned out just fine but the aromas were muted, barely perceptible. Nothing like the fragrant music we have grown accustomed to. I am not bashing yeasted dough: I love tasty baguettes and other prefermented breads way too much for that. I am just saying that this 24-hour bread came in very handy (it made great breakfast toasts) but that it wasn't the same, which means that I will happily remain on levain duty for the foreseeable future.


  1. Thank you for sharing this experience! Such foresight on making several batches of nuggets. I will try to air dry some of my starter and see if I can bring it back to life. Been missing your posts.

  2. So glad you are back, I have missed your comments on FB and didn't know you were gone! If you ever have a problem losing your wild yeast again, give me a holler, we are pretty close now and I can have you some in a jiffy.


  3. Thanks for visiting, Gretchen! I am happy to be back!
    Hi, Teresa, thank you for your comment and for your kind offer. Somehow I thought you no longer lived in the NW. I must have missed something. I'll be sure to turn to you if I ever get into a tight spot again and please feel free to do the same. In any case if you live close by, it'd be fun to meet! Let me know...

  4. Hi MC,

    I'm attending SFBI course for a week right now and our class is full. Too bad Frank is the ones who is teaching our class not Didier but Frank is doing a great jobs. Thank you again and welcome back to your new home. I’m looking forward your new baking adventures.


  5. Hi Kim, I am so happy it finally worked out. Frank is a great instructor. Tell me more about what you learned when you have a chance. Talk to you soon!

  6. Forgot to say, please say hi! to everybody for me. :-)

  7. Hi MC....
    It is good to have access to an internet connection....i was in Nice for a few days...finally got my carte...i set up a satellite dish last maybe....with a little fine tuning when i get back to the mountain today... after more than a year...i might even be able to get my blog up and running... hope you are well...

  8. Oh, I have nightmares about something happening to one of my starters... Glad you had a third one that survived!

    I agree completely with you on the evaluation of breads made only with commercial yeast - trying to make a rustic "boule" with that is ok, but never reaches the level of the real thing, not only for the taste, but also the texture of the crumb.

    great to "see" you back!

  9. I've had trouble making good bread with whole grain flour and long fermenting times combined. While the white flours tend to support well the extended fermentation times and develop complex aromas even with commercial yeast (I don't have the endurance to use sourdough starters) the same method produces boring soggy structureless beads for me if I add whole grain flours over 20%...
    For a time I've wondered why... Maybe the enysme content is different? I will probably never know...

  10. Hi Daeril, there may be different factors at work. Which whole grain are we talking about? Rye and spelt contain far less gluten than wheat and gluten is what enables the dough to sustain a long fermentation. Other grains tend to move faster than wheat.
    But even when wheat is concerned, weight for weight, a whole grain flour will tend to have less protein (gluten) than a white flour because it contains the part of the kernel (germ and bran) which have no gluten. You may be able to up the amount of whole grain flour if a) you use more wheat than other grains and/or b)if you add a bit of gluten flour to your whole grain mixture.
    Also in my experience, a long fermentation is less necessary for developing aromas in whole grain flours since these flours tend to be more aromatic to begin with. You might however want to try "mashing" the whole wheat flour you are planning to use and see if you notice any difference in the final product. See this post
    Good luck and please keep me posted!

  11. Thanks MC! This gave me a good idea! By mashing at high temperature the protein disasembling enzymes could very well be neutralized. Will try and keep you posted.



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