Sourdough is a Fickle Bitch, Part 1

To me, a kitchen is just a big chemistry set, a scattered mix of ingredients just waiting to become something unique and tasty.” Vaughn

My friend, Vaughn Montgomery, is living the good life in Southern Utah. Retired from the hectic restaurant business, he enjoys the great outdoors, experimenting in the kitchen, and hanging out with friends. He’s the quintessential family man and a generous patron of local arts. He graciously agreed to share his method on making a great loaf of sourdough bread (from starter to finish).

Part 1: Building a starter

One thing I love is a thick slice of sourdough bread with a smathering of yellow stuff, not that overrated gear lube endorsed by the muscular guy with the beautiful hair, I’m talking real butter!  And the lingering taste of sourness is the prize for a nice loaf, although you might want a breath mint before you get in the face of an unfortunate non-sourdough participant.

I’ve spent a large portion of my working life owning and operating restaurants and bakeries. With a streak of luck I escaped, and I streaked happily away from my captivity of the kitchen, only to be drawn back to the kitchen by my creative desires. To me, a kitchen is just a big chemistry set, a scattered mix of ingredients just waiting to become something unique and tasty. I ran a bakery for a few years — it was too easy. I just hired the college kids, they followed the directions and out came the donuts while I stayed in bed. I got bored and decided to add some specialty breads to the display case. Had I known it was a trap, I would have never started down that path, but now I’m up to my eyes in squishy dough, metaphorically of course… I’m in pretty good shape for a bread eater.

Like I alluded to earlier, I’m an all-natural kind of guy, and I’ve been intrigued with three simple ingredients: Water, flour and salt. With these simple ingredients you can either make wonderfully smelling and tasting loaves of bread, or a parking block that looks like a biscotti and keeps your car from rolling backwards while you change the tire. I’ve made both.

I think anybody can open a package of Red Star yeast and make flour go fluffy, but the quest with a real sourdough is to gather the yeast particles that naturally float through the air.”

Sourdough is usually named by its region, for example, the famous San Francisco Sourdough has the strain of yeast that’s naturally floating in the air after being stirred up from Bay to Breakers.

If you live outside the rainbow region like I do, you’ll have to rely on natural yeast from a few sources:  The first is the yeast that’s naturally found on the wheat and ground into the flour, that is, unless your flour has been stripped of its personality and designed to make Wonder bread.  Try to find natural white flour, I personally like Wheat Montana as it’s locally available.

The second source of natural yeast is what’s been collected on the fruit.  I like organic plums, grapes and other smooth skinned fruit.  As the fruit hangs on the tree, the yeast particles stick to them and form a white chalky surface.  I prefer organic fruit, so that I’m not making a pesticide cocktail.

Making a starter is pretty simple:

  1. Take the unwashed fruit (about a dozen grapes or 3 to 4 plums) and drop them into a smooth blend of 1 cup water mixed with 1 cup flour.
  2. Let the fruit sit for a few days in the mixture on the counter at room temperature.
  3. After a few days, pull out the fruit before it gets too fruity, and a great portion of the yeast should have transferred to the slurry.
  4. To feed the starter, add a couple tablespoons of flour and about the same amount of water and stir. Do this twice a day for the rest of your natural life.

As time progresses, it will start to get bubbly. Believe me, this is a good thing; you’re getting fermentation.  It may take a few weeks to months to get a good starter.  Keep it covered with a loose lid or cheesecloth to keep the flies out.  When it’s active, it will overflow the container. (Photo above.)

Vaughn and wife, Sharon

Flying over Southern Utah


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