“I’ve got a lot of friends who say, ‘Hey, you’re a baker? I’ve got a bread machine. I used it once!’ Yeah, thanks man, we can relate.”
Sometimes I imagine yeast only blows in on the spring breeze. And so, it seems, do the bakers. They come in talking of the wild and ebullient yeast, growing all around us and living underneath our fingernails. This has been my experience with the spring sourdough classes, either at Murray’s, 92nd Street Y, or The French Culinary Institute. This year The Brooklyn Kitchen decided to celebrate bread for the month of March. Portland native, Watson Fellowship winner, and world traveler Nathan Leamy arrived in New York two months ago, praising the simplicity, patience, and Zen-like practice of baking sourdough. Nathan’s fellowship sent him around the world (i.e.: Mexico, India, France, Italy, and Egypt) in a year to document the changes of farming staple crops due to industry and politics. While I have listened to a couple of these classes now, I enjoyed Nathan’s friendly, frank, and practical approach to baking loaves. My takeaway? Bake, a lot. Taste, a lot. Mess up, a lot. A lot of fun is to be had.
If Brooklyn Kitchen does another set with Nathan, check him out. Or you can read my notes below. I have omitted the recipe but give a healthy description and those ever-elusive baker’s tips.
On Wednesday at 6:30pm a dozen of us congregated around the cash register and properly sized New York kitchen (read: totally tiny) in The Brooklyn Kitchen. Just enough room for one person to make a couple loaves of bread. Promptly at 6:35 Nathan grinned, folded his arms, and waited for a lull in the conversation to begin with the bread lesson. We all turned our heads to examine the bags of King Arthur’s Flour lined up (according to gluten content), which The Brooklyn Kitchen, our baker, and myself all seem to agree are both accessible and excellent.
Nathan began with some words on yeast. Real bakers love wild yeast for it’s temperamental personality and its diverse flavors. They strive to build a life-long relationship with one or more starters. “Treat it like a baby. That you eat,” Nathan wrote in our helpful two-page cheat sheet. So yea, the starter is a like a child, born through a process of letting water and flour sit on the counter for a week, exposed to a little air. Millions of single-celled fungi form, needing just the right amount of TLC to grow into fat, crusty, airy loaves for consumption.
The problem for newbies is, math and technique change depending on the environment, strain of yeast, and well, the art of it all. Sounds a little like parenting, huh? Pan to our crowd of mostly eager, nervous 20-to-30something women, notebooks and scrunched up noses, jotting down anything that could be construed as actual fact or a glimpse of tried-and-true technique. The baker, of course, is rarely pinned down. Their sentences are full of vague but friendly phrases like “Eh…” and “Well, it depends” and “You just try it, mess up early, and work it out.” Sounds like a programmer to me.
Working with living, breathing materials means a lot of trial and error, patience, and some seriously deranged-looking loaves. Totally intimidated? Well, here the baker will remind you not to worry. Your starter is a gooey mess that can regenerate from even a teaspoonful (according to Leamy). Even better, your dough likes it when you play rough, drop it on its head a couple times for a good burp, slice it with a razor, and bake it in the hottest oven possible. Nathan says, “If you treat your yeast right, it will live on.” Doesn’t sound difficult, right?
If you’ve paid just enough attention to the needs of your yeast, you are rewarded with a crusty outer shell that tastes of caramel wheat. It has a porous inner crumb of all the fluffy yeastiness and just the right amount of holes to allow you to drown that baby in oil, butter, cheese, or anything messy enough to need a good carb to get it from hand to mouth.
The story of bread is different all over the world, and yet our fascination with yeast remains the same. I have been to a couple of classes now, but have yet to roll my sleeves up and dive in. Well, this spring will be different. I have my starter on the counter. I’m curious and in the mood to make a mess. Besides, my mother has been baking bread since she was running around barefooted in the 70s. It must be in my blood.
Why make starter instead of buying conventional yeast? Wild yeast, while unruly, has a great deal more flavor. Once cultivated, it becomes both consistent and bland. Since when are predictable, bland things any fun to eat?
Nathan Leamy Tips on Starters
“Treat it like a baby. That you eat. Fed it two to three times a day with equal weights of water and flour, keep it in a warm place, store it in a close container. If you’re out for a couple of days, stick it in the fridge. If mold appears, remove with a spoon. A healthy sourdough starter should smell foul – but a good foul. Withhold food from your starter 8 to 12 hours before baking with it to ensure the starter will be primed to work.”
- One technique for getting a starter going is to place washed, organic grapes in a cheese cloth inside the water and flour mixture
- Take out the seal in a mason jar if you’re going to use it to store yeast; it needs to release it’s carbon dioxide or the bottle will explode
- To put a starter to sleep, spread it out on a cookie sheet to dry it out; to revive it, just add in equal parts to weight water and flour
- If you want to give your baking a rest, just put the yeast in the fridge in its container and its metabolism will slow waaaay down
- Yeast starts to smell awesome before it dies
Nathan Leamy Tips on Dough
“When deflating your dough, don’t punch it down. Instead throw it on your counter surface. Punching it will apply pressure unevenly and will destroy many of your precious air pockets. The poke test is your guide to make sure each step is done. A light jab should slowly and slightly be returned. If the dough bounces back quickly it needs more time – if the dough doesn’t move at all or collapses, it has been proofing too long. Temperature is your greatest enemy and your greatest ally. All resting time in a recipe will change dramatically depending on ambient and ingredient temperature. Humidity can greatly change the amounts of water you need.”
- Don’t store dough a in a stainless bowl because it’s a heat conductor, and will make the dough too hot or cold
- Very tiny amounts of commercial yeast will eventually behave like sourdough
- When using frozen flour, use hotter water to get an average
- Don’t put your dough in the fridge for more than 24 hours or it will eat itself and commit yeasty harakiri; cover it with a cloth
- Make sure the dough gets up to 60 after it’s been in the fridge; then you can put it in the oven
- Every 10 seconds you leave the door open you’re losing 75 degrees of heat