Friday, April 19, 2013

Sourdough thrives at Wild Oven Bakehouse in Juneau, Alaska

Sourdough thrives at Wild Oven Bakehouse in Juneau, Alaska

A February day's offerings at Wild Oven Bakehouse, Juneau, Alaska. [Photo, Teri Carns, 2013.]

Wild Oven Bakehouse in Juneau, Alaska is home to naturally yeasted breads of uncommon deliciousness. Daniel Martin, founder and chief baker, talked in a recent email about his house starters and the techniques behind the satisfying foccacias, hearty peasant breads, and traditional Chinook sourdoughs.

"A woman in Juneau gave me my starter. It was in moderately decent condition compared to the neglected starters in most people's refrigerators, and I brought it into vigorous health in about a week.

If you want to produce a starter with good yeast activity you have to 'build' it, not just 'feed' it. The microorganisms in sourdough (wild yeast and lactobacteria) grow exponentially:  1 cell makes 2 cells makes 4 cells makes 8 etc.  This will happen every couple of hours in an active, room-temperature starter, so if you want to provide enough food for the organisms you have a to build your starter exponentially.

Here's a rough example of how we would build our starter in the evening (6pm) to be ready to make bread with at 6am: 1 lb.  active sourdough  +  4 lbs. whole-wheat flour  +  4 lbs. water   =   9 lbs. of finished starter. We mix the starter with cool water (about 50 degrees) and in a warm bakery, the starter is about 70 degrees by 6a.m. That should give you a sense of how much room you need to allow for the wild organisms to thrive.

Absolutely anybody can grow their own starter from flour and water and nurture it into vitality in a month or less. That it means that everyone on the planet can harness microorganisms to make sourdough bread (and other fermented foods) without any proprietary knowledge or materials and with no additional cost.  Fermentation is free. I make bread with Wild Sourdough Culture because I believe such bread is superior in flavor, nutrition and keeping quality to rapidly risen, vapid american-style yeast breads.

The ideal loaf is a hearth-baked bread with a dark brown crust color which freely emanates the peculiarly intoxicating bread-aroma which is absent or subdued in breads with under-baked, pale crusts and which is often overwhelmed by the dead-yeast aroma of typical yeasted breads.  The crumb (that is, everything inside the crust) should reveal lots of medium and large sized holes.  This is achieved by an adequately proofed, very wet dough and facilitated by the use of sourdough.

Kalamata olive and rosemary loaves from Wild Oven Bakehouse. [Marilyn Holmes photo, 2010.]
Photo of many loaves of bread in the kitchen

The flavor should be mildly sour, with no yeasty taste whatsoever, and rich in the complex, indescribable flavors only attainable by proper use of wild sourdough culture.  The bread will be chewy.  I prefer the more tender texture achieved by use of whole grain flours.  Such breads will also keep way better, as long as adequate (as in "lots") of water is used in the dough.

Get your hands dirty (dough hooks are for sissies).  You will develop a feel for the bread more readily by hand-mixing.

Use a drier starter and a wetter dough.  If your starter is like pancake batter it's too wet.  Mix your starter so that it is like a very very wet dough.  Use your hands and a bowl or small bucket to mix.  Whole-grain flour mixes way more easily and has more flavor and nutrition.  It also ferments more quickly--naturally, it has more life in it.

About wet dough:  your dough should be so wet that it wants to stick to everything--your hands, counter top, etc.  It will be hard to work with and shape and you will only get comfortable doing so by making many, many loaves.  I was probably on my 300th loaf before I stopped wanting to pull my hair out.   Remember this: if it's easy to work with, add more water.

Some other tips:

Build your starter twice a day if you are using it daily and don't refrigerate it for more than a week without a build.  Build a stagnate starter at least three times before using it.  If you don't see lots of yeast activity (i.e. gas bubbles), give it more time and more builds.

You can use wheat, white, spelt and rye pretty interchangeably in your starter based on what the flour composition of your final product should be. The different flours will ferment at different rates so keep that in mind. From most to least active you have:

whole rye
whole wheat/whole spelt

Get a cast-iron non-enameled lidded dutch oven or "combo cooker"  and learn how to use it. You will get phenomenal results.

Buy this book: "Tartine Bread" by Chad Robertson.  He is as dedicated and accomplished an artisan baker as exists in this country.  And damn he makes some sexy bread."

Daniel Martin pulls loaves of kalamata bread with olives and rosemary from the oven. [Photo by Marilyn Holmes, 2010.]

Wild Oven Bakehouse is tucked in below the Observatory Bookshop at the corner of North Franklin and Third (299 N. Franklin). [Photo by Teri Carns, 2013.]

Contact Wild Oven Bakehouse at, or (907) 321-6836

To learn how flour and water becomes
WILD OVEN bread,
check out the facebook album "Behind the Bread."

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