Let me introduce…. Herbert!


For years I wanted to bake bread. I tried to bake bread without any mechanical assistance a few times and the results weren’t anything I was crazy about. Then came the era of the bread machine. I bought a bread machine and made pretty good bread. I even made serviceable pitas and pizza dough. All seemed right with the world. Then, the era of artisan breads began. Suddenly gorgeous sourdoughs and wonderful whole grain loaves were everywhere. Great for me: because I didn’t have to make bread. I could buy wonderful bread for what I still think is a reasonable price. Still, I love to bake and good bread (the kind with texture and flavor) had eluded me.

A long time ago, I tried to made sourdough starter. It was milk based. The instructions were pretty basic for sourdough starter. However, there was one neurosis-inducing clause in the instructions. It basically said: Keep an eye on the starter. If it turns pink, grows mold or smells bad, do not use it, discard it right away! On day two the starter became a color I can only describe as beige. Beige? Is that pink? It is sort of pink, isn’t it? Not flamingo pink(!) but sort of brown…is this ok? Will I die if I use this stuff?! So I show this stuff to my Boyfriend who is absolutely not on board with a colony of yeasts and bacteria living in the same house as him. He tells me “yes, it is definitely pink, toss it!! Toss it now!” (Wait! He is colorblind, what does he know?). Ok. I can’t handle this ambiguity anymore. I toss it.

I forgot about sourdough until last January. I don’t know why I started to think about making good bread again but I stumbled on to Alton Brown’s Country bread recipe on Epicurious. He instructs us to make ”Proto Dough” using commercial yeast, which you can keep feeding flour and water and use indefinitely. Wow. A Sourdough starter that starts life with commercial yeast, could this be what I was looking for? It turns out that it was. Although my starter began life as a bland colony of commercial yeast, I can now attest to the fact that it has evolved and I believe wild yeast and good bacteria have not only joined the party but have taken over party arrangements from now on. The flavor of my baked goods is quite fine. I have yet to make bread with a real sour tang, but everything has a mellow grainy, malty flavor and a wonderful texture that I can only attribute to the use of this starter.

My Boyfriend was still a little scared of the bubbling crock of microorganisms I’ve been cultivating and have dubbed Herbert. He is slowly getting over it now that I have been producing things like Rosemary Potato bread and Sourdough crusted pizzas. Since bread is cooked, bread is fine, I have however been banned from making my own vinegar or sauerkraut. Oh well. It won’t be my fault if a partial bottle of wine gets misplaced and goes…vinegary…

I haven’t been baking a lot of bread lately. Now that it is summer, it has been a bit hot to run the oven at high temperature. That is no problem because you don’t have to care for and feed your version of Herbert daily if you don’t want to. If you decide to follow me into this sourdough madness be advised that care and feeding is really easy. As stated before, I cook on the weekends. Herbert lives in the refrigerator all week. I take him out the morning I want to bake and add a ½ cup unbleached white flour and ½ a cup of warm (between 100- 110 degree F.) water to his jar and stir until there is no lumps. Herbert gets to eat for 2 hours, which makes him active and bubbly. Then he is ready to be used in baking. If I don’t want to bake anything else that weekend, Herbert goes directly back into the fridge. If I do leave him out for a day, I feed him, wait two hours and pop him back in the fridge. (Which leaves me pondering: does my sourdough starter think it is experiencing the seasons?). The starter is so strong now that I substitute it for the yeast called for in the bread baking recipes I adapt. If you follow the link for “Proto Dough” above, you will see these instructions: “To use proto-dough in a regular yeast recipe, replace the dry yeast and every cup of liquid (including dissolving liquid) with 1/2 cup of proto-dough, 5 ounces liquid, and 1/2 teaspoon instant yeast.” I do this but omit the yeast and my recipes usually turn out fine.

I recently shared Herbert with my coworker. My coworker loves to cook and has spent the past eight months listening to me blather on about sourdough this, sourdough that. I think my enthusiasm may have been a little infectious. We were talking about cooking and bread came up and I offered him some Herbert. He immediately took me up on it. His Mom is apparently an excellent baker who grinds her own wheat, so he is anxious to learn. He asked me what to do with his sourdough last week and I didn’t know what to tell him. I don’t carry my recipes around with me and I really don’t know how to teach something like baking. Part of the reason for starting this blog is to chronicle baking with Herbert so that I can share the recipes with whoever wants to bake along with me. Part of the reason for this blog was to have access to my recipes if I am away from home. Like I mentioned before, I tend to bake by the book and cannot remember recipes. Good reasons to blog and why I love the Internet so much. The technology allows us to share ideas and experiences. A very cool thing, indeed!

In closing for today. I encourage you to get a starter. Make your own it is easy. If you have a baker friend who is into sourdough, ask if they will share. They probably will and you’ll have a shortcut to a mature, full flavored starter. Baking is good for your soul and this kind of baking may actually be good for you. I noticed that I felt healthier eating my homemade sourdough. Here is a link you might find interesting.