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Home » Food » Bread » Techniques - Lambic Bread - Making Sourdough
Lambic Bread
By Bruce Brode

    Bread and beer are close relations, enough so that anthropologists have been discussing which is the older product which had the 'civilizing' influence on humans through the grain agriculture necessary to make either one. The parallels are many, right down to the fermentations that take place in beer wort and in bread dough. Small wonder that they go well together, too.

    Put in beer terms, sourdough breads are the "Lambics" of the bread world; in other words, the sour ones fermented with wild microorganisms and not cultured ones (in their classic renditions). The Lambic reference is to the unique sour ales brewed in a farmhouse tradition near Brussels, Belgium, where the beer wort is innoculated with local microflora from the night air (including wild yeasts and lactic acid bacteria)

    I'd like to relate my experiences in starting and maintaining sourdough cultures and in baking with them, to help demystify the process a bit if I can. It all centers on the mix of microbes that make up any given sourdough 'culture.' The most significant of those that have been identified include wild yeasts such as Candida milleri (reclassified from Saccharomyces exigus) and a veritable grab-bag of Lactobacillus species (including the famous Lactobacillus sanfrancisco). There is an interaction between the yeast and the lactobacilli concerning metabolism of the available starch fractions (enzymes from the yeast make maltose available to the lactobacilli, which require it and in turn provide a bit of glucose to the yeast).

    It turns out that many of these microbes are naturally present in rye grain. As a result, some quite viable sourdough cultures can be created directly from organically produced rye flour. These microorganisms ferment sugars in the dough to form acidic compounds including lactic acid and acetic acid, whence the sourness comes.


Starting a Starter

    There are innumerable methods and formulations for "starting a starter," including schemes involving potatoes, fresh wine grapes (for the wild yeasts growing on their skins), leaving the starter open to the air to capture passing microbes, etc.

    Here's a simple method for starting a viable sourdough culture of your own with out resorting to any odd ingredients or unsanitary techniques. Procure some organically produced rye flour, such as the organic dark rye flour from the Bob's Red Mill brand that is available at Whole Foods markets and other natural foods stores (besides, it makes great rye bread). Begin with one cup of the rye flour, and 3/4 cup of purified water. You should avoid using tap water since the chlorine or chloramine in the water figures to hamper the growth of the microbes you are trying to activate. Whisk the flour and water together until a thick batter is formed. Put the batter in a clean plastic or glass container, cover loosely, and allow to sit for several hours or overnight at room temperature. After twelve hours or so, repeat this process but use bread flour or all-purpose flour this time and for all subsequent feedings, using the same ratio of flour to water. What you are looking for is enough activity in the starter to produce bubbles of gas distributed throughout the batter. Continue to feed it until you see this activity developing in the starter.

    If the volume of starter is getting too big before you see the bubble activity, you may find it necessary to discard half the starter prior to feeding it at 12 hour intervals. It is a generally true that successive 12-hour feedings will eventually produce an active starter. The ratio of 1 cup of flour to 3/4 cup of water (by volume) duplicates the ratio of 1 part flour to 1 part water by weight and these proportions are felt to be ideal for the growth of the microorganisms in the starter medium . The volume of the feeding can be doubled at each feeding if the starter is sufficiently active. The parallels here with growing up a yeast starter for brewing are obvious.


Maintaining a Starter

    The starter can be maintained simply by refrigerating it in a snap-top plastic container. Feeding it once a week helps to maintain its viability. Follow the 12-hour rule and leave the starter out at room temperature right after feeding so that it can activate appropriately. Feeding the starter with this ratio of flour to water and letting it ferment at room temperatures should encourage the natural microorganisms to become active and increase their fermenting mass. You will often find that a stored starter develops some gray-colored liquid on top. This is known colloquially as the "hootch" and I recommend that you pour it off the top and discard it before you begin feeding your starter (others may disagree). In any event, the appearance of the hootch is a good sign that the starter needs feeding.

    Some starters tend toward the lactic type of acidity, and some toward the acetic (or vinegar) type. There is some information to suggest that starters of a wetter consistency grown in a cooler environment will favor the lactic flavors, and the opposite conditions will lead to more alcohol production and eventually vinegar character (as vinegar results from the fermentation of alcohol). I tend to prefer the lactic flavors as a bit more refined, but this is all a question of your individual taste.

    It is even possible to dry some starter by spreading it on a baking sheet and allowing it to dry, then breaking it up and freezing it in double-wrapped plastic bags. This provides a handy way to ship some to a friend or maintain longer-terms stocks of your starter.


Making Sourdough Bread

    Working with your starter is relatively easy in making bread. However, I've found that the key word is one that most homebrewers hate: PATIENCE! If you are used to working with cultured bread yeast, you are likely to find that the sourdough culture will work more slowly unless you have fed it often enough to bring it to a very active condition. If you plan ahead and are patient, you can get very good results using your sourdough starter as the only leavening source for your bread (and of course the great sour flavor that results!). The added benefit of a patient approach to allow sufficient rising and proofing time for the dough is the additional flavor that results from such long contact time between the starter and the other dough ingredients.

    If you have a bread machine or a powerful stand mixer, it is easy to mix up some dough for bread using your sourdough culture. It's actually trickier to do it entirely by hand unless you have already developed a feel for the best texture for bread dough. One rule of thumb to remember is that 3 cups of white flour (bread flour or all-purpose) and one cup of water will produce a 1 pound loaf of bread, a fairly standard size. Put some of the starter in the pan of the bread machine or mixer (always remember to reserve some starter to store for the next batch!). Add the water and then the flour according to the above bread dough ratio and gently mix (you can use the dough cycle on the bread machine) for a minute or so. Add additional flour, a couple of tablespoons at a time and allowing the dough to mix for 30 seconds or so in between additions, until the dough starts to hang together and cling to the paddle or dough hook and away from the sides of the bowl or pan. The key is to add enough additional flour in a gradual fashion to make this happen, but not add so much that the dough is too thick and dry. The opposite is dough that is too runny or sticky. You can let the machine continue to knead the dough for a few minutes, but overall you shouldn't need more than 10 minutes of kneading to get the basic dough to set up.

    Now the dough must rise, and this is where the patience really comes in. The sourdough culture is likely to raise the dough more slowly than cultured yeast will, so you can use either the bread pan in your bread machine as the 'proofing' chamber, or a large plastic snap-top container if you are making the dough in your mixer. Use of the oil sprays now available in spray cans is really handy here, as you can spray the interior of the container before placing the dough in it (this helps keep the dough from adhering to the sides of the container) and you can spray the top of the dough after its in the container (to keep it from drying out). As with growing the starter, allow the dough to rise at room temperature loosely covered, until at least doubled in volume - this may take several hours, but it's worth the wait.

    The next step is either an additional rise, or proofing the dough into its final shape. An additional rise will give a more tender texture and closer grain (smaller gas holes) to the bread, which you may or may not want. If desired, punch down the dough to degas it a bit, and allow it to rise again until at least doubled. If you elect to skip the second rise, either shape the loaves free-form or place the dough in a loaf pan. Spray the exposed dough surface with oil spray and allow the loaves to rise, or 'proof,' while you are heating the oven. In a bread machine, you can bake the loaf on the bake cycle once it has risen to your satisfaction.

    Most approaches to baking yeasted or sourdough breads in the oven call for oven temperatures of 400 to 450 degrees F. (thoroughly preheated) and 30 to 35 minutes of baking time. Metal loaf pans tend to conduct heat and as a consequence the lower end of this heat range should be used for them so that the bread does not burn. When placed in the oven prior to preheating, baking stones or pizza stones are helpful in absorbing and re-radiating heat for a big burst of heat when the loaves are first placed in the oven. Early humidity during baking helps to develop a nice chewy crust, particularly on free-form loaves - consider placing an old cast-iron fry pan on the lower oven rack before preheating, and pour a little hot water into it when the loaves first go in for a big burst of steam to go with all that heat. Also, a water-filled spray bottle can be used to mist water briefly into the oven at 30-second intervals during the first 3 minutes or so to keep the humidity high.

    The finished loaves should have a sufficiently hard crust and an interior balanced in its relative moisture content to yield a 'hollow' sensation when you tap on the crust after baking. Allow them to cool, out of the pans, on racks, for at least an hour (yes, you must fight temptation to tear into the warm bread!) for the best texture to develop.

    And when your sourdough bread is ready, pour yourself a good beer and enjoy them together!


Want to make your own beer at home? Get started on the right foot. Check out the Falcon's sponsoring shop, The Home Beer, Wine, Cheesemaking Shop. John Daume, proprietor, has been serving the home brewing and winemaking needs of Angelenos since 1972, over 30 years! (Falcon Members receive a 10% discount on supplies)
Looking for older Falcons' information?, The Westval Maltose Falcons Webpage (Locally cached) (The Original Falcon's Roost, prior to 1999)
Looking for a home wine making club in the Los Angeles area? Check out our sister club, The Cellarmasters, over 30 and still stomping grapes.