Last week I wrote with some enthusiasm about my return to baking bread, armed with a natural starter; yeast and flavourful bacteria cultivated daily from flour and water.
Well, it’s been emotional. As planned I fed my starter—Eric—once every two days, expanding his size and also rectifying his hydration, since I mis-measured the first flour:water ratio (updated picture here.) I was happy with the experience, there was notable expansion after feeding, and pockets of gas moving within the gloop to suggest that something was alive in there.
When it came to bake though, things didn’t work out. Using Eric as the base for my dough was entirely ineffectual. Five hours in warm sun resulted in no rise at all, and there was no rise in baking either. A solid, dense lump of baked dough was the disappointing result. For what it was, the flavour was pretty good, so I’ve got confidence in the benefit of the starter, but clearly I still have a lot to learn about the precise process.
To make matters worse, after the weekend’s baking, I came to feed Eric on Tuesday to find he’d developed a rather nasty case of mould. I’ll be scrapping it and beginning anew.
My reaction to the failures of this first bake are twofold, and with the second attempt, these are the things I’m focusing on to improve. First, the relationship between feeding time and the optimal point to use the starter in dough. Very simply, you’re supposed to feed the starter, and then make the dough at the most active point of the digestion cycle—when the starter is most expanded. I fed Eric the night before, but I didn’t time the dough production right. (I was very hungover and I got up very late, thus I think I’d missed the moment.)
Second, the bi-daily feeding cycle is a fine cycle, but the warmth and humidity of my apartment is too much to leave the starter sitting out in the room. I’ve got an array of south facing windows here, and I think that’s too much for to baking once a week at most. Son of Eric will be kept fridge-bound to stay mould-free. He’ll be slower eating as a result, but I think that will be fine with my schedule.
Faced with a failed loaf and a room full of dinner guests, you may wonder what I did to save the day? I fell back on a reasonably quick beer bread recipe, which goes like this:
- 4 cups white, unbleached bread flour
- A 12fl/oz bottle of New Belgium’s excellent ‘Ranger’ IPA (warm)
- A packet of yeast
- Teaspoon of salt
If you’re really having an emergency, you can adapt this with baking powder rather than yeast to get a quicker rise. The texture will differ, and you’ll probably want to bake in a tin, but you’ll still get a yeasty flavour from the beer.
The most important thing when using yeast is to remember to slightly warm the beer before you add it, and certainly don’t mix it cold from the fridge; the yeast needs to be warmed to activate. Mix all of the ingredients into a dough, add more flour until you’re happy with the consistency, and then kneed for 15 minutes. I left it to rise for two hours, I’m sure that more would’ve been better (as would kneading a second time) but when it came to it, the bread rose further still in the oven.
The result was plenty adequate, not too heavy, and the IPA gave an edge to the flavour that I really enjoyed. It’s set me thinking about other beers to bake with. Young’s Double Chocolate Stout and Sam Smith’s Oatmeal Stout both spring to mind, and may be subject of some experimentation this weekend.