Tuesday 2 May 2017

GF sourdough tutorial, part 1

A young starter, just starting out in life.
If you were following along last year when I tried making the pasta madre from an Italian GF cookbook...it was a bit of a disaster. Though it promised to be a yeast-rich traditional leaven and even got off to a promising start, I ended up with a nearly inert paste that provided neither leavening nor character and soon spoiled altogether. I still wonder if a good portion of the fault may be with differences in flours rather than the recipe itself. For one thing, milling is different - the Italian recipe, as I mentioned, calls for a grade of fine maize flour that isn’t really a thing in the US. What’s more, the rice flour I used was on the gritty side as well (a fact that wasn’t clear until I tried baking with it). For another thing, the grain varieties have different characteristics: I brought up differences between different types of rice in the pasta madre post, and a reader in Italy confirmed that Italian rice flour is likely to be from short-grain rice. (The only reason I didn’t use short-grain flour in the first place was because I was worried flour I ground myself would be too coarse - so much for that!) I honestly don’t know if the resulting difference in amylopectin ratio was enough to make any difference in this case. Perhaps someday I’ll have the patience to try again with short-grain rice flour and the proper grind/variety of fine polenta flour (if I can obtain it). 

For the time being, though, I eventually returned to a more conventional approach to making sourdough as I’ve been doing for the past few years. My posts from the pasta madre saga do contain a lot of good information about sourdough chemistry, so they’re still worth a read - see part 1, 2, and 3 - but now I’m going to teach you how to make the starter I've been using recently. Just to be clear, this is far from the only way to make a starter! But, it’s more streamlined than some of the other starters I’ve made in the past, and I’ve found this one to be quite reliable and is consistently ready in about a week. 

You may use just about any starch-rich, whole-grain (or blend with at least half whole-grain) flour(s) to make a sourdough starter. The simplest, most economical option for most people will probably be brown rice or a mixture of brown and white rice, both of which I’ve used successfully in this formula, but more suggestions are below. I am able to grind my own short-grain brown rice flour (see note above), which I’ve been getting good results with, but I know other people have also used standard brown rice for sourdough starter with no issue. The pasta madre used a blend of rice and maize/corn, and I have used this same blend for the following sourdough as well. In the past I have made sourdough with buckwheat, fine cornmeal, and also with cooked potatoes and sweet potatoes (however, these last two are not flour, which complicates things due to unpredictable moisture content and other factors - for today we’ll stick with flours). Others have had success with quinoa, millet, sorghum, amaranth, teff, and more.

Keep in mind that each flour will have its own somewhat different fermentation signature - this is due to the natural surface flora of the grain/seed as well as differences in chemical composition of the flour supporting different organisms. Also keep in mind that you must use a starch-rich flour (grains and pseudocereals) - almost anything will ferment, but starchy flours are needed to support the distinct community of bacteria and yeast that defines a sourdough. I also recommend using whole grain because the fiber and trace minerals help support a diverse sourdough community.

Stir together 50 grams of brown rice flour or other GF whole-grain starchy flour (see above) and 50 g water in a glass jar. (Please use filtered or bottled water - chlorinated tap water will kill some of the fragile sourdough organisms.)
Optional addition: a small teaspoon of raw honey can help get the fermentation going by contributing some free sugars and possibly also some enzymes. This is a tip I got from the pasta madre formula which I have found to be helpful.
Stir at 12 hours, again at 24 hours, and again at 36 hours. In other words, if you start it at 8 pm, stir it at 8 am the next morning, 8pm that night, and 8am the following morning. Don’t add or remove anything for now, just stick with the stirring. It probably won’t seem like it’s doing anything yet, but there are in fact all kinds of organisms in there that are slowly but surely beginning to ferment: stirring redistributes nutrients, introduces fresh oxygen, and helps prevent mold spores from getting a chance to grow.

At 48 hours, you will (finally!) do something different - Come back in 2 days to learn what to do next and how to get a mature starter! (Also, for a sneak peek of where we’re going with this, see here!)

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