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18. What about Nancy Silverton's latest book?

Subject: 18. What about Nancy Silverton's latest book?

or 'Stalking the Wild Yeast'

Ringo is, I think, a fine drummer, my household plumbing is a masterpiece, and all those ice-skaters on TV twirl great. The less you know about some craft, the less critical you are about its practice.

Of course, the more you know, the more judgmental you are. I've been working at sourdough bread baking for a decade; and it has taken me that long to fight through the misleading sourdough lore. Separating useful techniques from superstitious ritual has been tough. Standard bread books are either full of falsehoods ('Beard on Bread' is a particularly bad example) or misleading and hazy.

So I finally get it right, right enough to be able to teach others, and what happens? Nancy Silverton publishes 'Breads from the La Brea Bakery', (Villard, 260 pages, $30), a book that really gets it right, is clearly written and has an abundance of clever recipes that I wouldn't have come up with in another 10 years.

Her sourdough creations cover an enormous range: Country White, Challah, Walnut Bread, Olive Bread, Chocolate-Sour Cherry, Pretzels, Raisin Brioche, Focaccia, Normandy Rye, Izzy's New York Rye, Whole-Wheat Boule, Potato-Dill and on and on. This is not just a great book on sourdough, it is the only book -- an artisanal well of information and guidance in the craft of great bread baking. When much store-bought bread is factory whipped wheat candy, when bread machines are a commodity item, when real bakers are only just beginning to make a comeback in some urban areas (and even in Carrboro), it is solace to possess such a valuable 'vade mecum'.

It is sad though that we need such a book. In a well-ordered world, good bread is no further away than the nearest baker. Only in recent years have we in Triangle had good bread available at all. Even in Paris, where bread and pastry is traditionally left to the professional, a glossy magazine recently lamented the decline of decent bread and the rise, so to speak, of factory breads sold in "bakeries"; more astoundingly, it heretically offered instruction on how to make good bread in the Parisian home.

Although Silverton's directions are clear and superbly organized, the multi-step, 2-3 day procedures may at first look overwhelming. (See page 58 for Silverton's hints on time-efficient ways to make bread.) After a few practice loaves things will get simpler, and you be rewarded with great bread. Leavened bread is a simple food that has been around since at least Egyptian times, and its basics are simple. That's what makes the achievement of great bread such a fascinating exercise. Flour, water, salt, beasts (bacilli+yeast) and time are bread's basic ingredients.

Salt is crucial for both taste and texture. Good quality sea salt is a nice luxury. High quality flour makes a surprising difference. For basic bread baking (sourdough or otherwise), a good all-purpose, unbleached, unadulterated flour is called for. In the Triangle area, the most easily available high-quality flours are King Arthur (Hannaford's has it at a reasonable price) and Lindley Mills flour, a local product carried by both Wellspring and Weaver Street.

Beasts. I say beasts because the defining characteristic of a sourdough bread is that its leavening is a symbiotic culture of lactobacilli and wild yeast. "Wild yeast bread" might be a better name, since "sourdough" has led some to think that the sourer the better; like those who rank peppers or Indian restaurants by how hot they are. Bread made from a flour, water and commercial yeast slurry, let to mature for two hours to a day, is not sourdough. That technique and its variants is called in France 'poolish', in Italy 'biga', and, in American, 'the sponge method'. It is a very very good way to make bread. It is not sourdough.

Sourdough cultures contain wild yeasts and certain friendly, i.e., symbiotic, lactobacilli. The symbiosis is manifold and complicated: the bacilli produce lactic acid (a 3.5-4.2 pH environment) that its companion yeast can thrive in, but in which commercial yeast dies; produce antibiotic agents that are hostile to other organisms; and metabolize maltose, which wild yeast cannot. The biochemistry is quite complicated and a far cry from the oversimplified picture of yeast as a mere belcher of gases. If that's all yeast, or sourdough cultures did, then there would be a lot more good bread around than there is!

It is possible to make your own sourdough culture. The underlying idea is to start with flour and water and, one way or another, let it sit until a stable culture develops and then feed it into health. The Silverton book has good, though intimidatingly long, instructions. It is much simpler and surer to buy a culture from a reputable source; it is fortunate that there is one. An obsessive guy named Ed Wood travelled the world collecting old sourdough cultures from multi-generational bakeries and worked out a way of drying them for resuscitation. Sourdoughs International (PO Box 670, Cascade, Idaho 83611, (208)382-4828, fax: (208)382-3129])carries cultures from France, Austria, Bahrain, Russia, San Francisco, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Yukon.

SIDEBAR

The basic bread process

Preparation, Mixing, Kneading, Fermentation part one (first rise), Fermentation part 2 (proofing), Baking, Letting Cool.

The above sequence is, of course, a standard bread making sequence. The sourdough part is buried in "Preparation". Sourdough starters are built up in stages. For home baking, where the culture may go a week or two between uses, this is particularly important. (In traditional bakeries the 'chef', a lump of dough from the day's bake, starts the next day's starter.).

The stored 'chef' is taken out of the refrigerator and coaxed back into life with a series of additions of water and flour, roughly doubling the amount each time. The staged feeding keeps the increase in yeast and bacilli in correct proportion. Then the dough is made from a portion of now vigorous starter.

One item that people used to commercial yeast might overlook is temperature control. The starter and dough are best at under 80 degrees F. Your flour will be at room temperature and kneading will add about 10 degrees. There is also about twice as much flour as water, so your cold (dechlorinated) tap water will almost never be too cold! And in the summer, you will need ice cubes.

Kneading develops the gluten (gluten is a protein in the endosperm of wheat which, given the right conditions, forms itself into long elastic strands that give bread its cellular structure -- the "pockets" that hold the gases that give baking bread its loft) and introduces the necessary oxygen. After rising in baskets, free-form loaves are turned onto peels and slid onto hot stones in the oven. All breads need to rest, uncut, after coming out of the oven. There is still stuff happening in there.

A well made sourdough will keep from 4 days to a week on the counter, wrapped in a towel or in a paper bag. Refrigerator temperatures hasten staling, and plastic promotes mold and destroys crust.

-David

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