Food is an important part of any athlete’s daily routine, and a part that we often overlook sharing much about. There are certainly some pictures we’ve posted of particularly notable edibles on this blog, but in general I don’t believe food has gotten quite its fair share, compared to how much of our daily thoughts and life it occupies. That’s not to really imply that any of the athletes at Craftsbury take the food for granted – we are extremely lucky to be able to eat at the spectacular Craftsbury dining hall for most of the year. This post, I have to warn you, is going to be all about food, and the process of making one particular kind of it – bread!
While I’ve always considered sourdough bread to be among my favorites – along with crusty European baguettes and German pretzel rolls – I’d never made sourdough myself until this summer. On frequent enough occasions in the last few years, I would make oatmeal whole-wheat sandwich bread, baguettes, and various other types by hand, and I have done some experimentation and made complicated-sounding breads just for the sake of trying something new. I’m not a bread machine person, or a person who tends to avoid making things that sound complex. But sourdough… I always stopped before venturing into sourdough… Because even though most of the instructions say “it’s really pretty easy” to create a sourdough starter, and other such reassurances, those statements are usually followed by what seem like long lists of instructions consisting of a different step every day for 4-6 days and then a lot more attention to the sourdough after that.
Note: Before you get too far into this, beware – I am passionate about baking and bread, and cooking explorations in general, and when I’m enthusiastic about something in this way it leads to long descriptions. Scroll ahead to the pictures or skip to a different blog on our site if you’re impatient, otherwise, carry on reading!
This summer, I suppose you could say that I needed a cooking or baking outlet, preferably one that did not result in a profusion of sugary dessert-snacks to feed my team/housemates and myself. I unquestionably love sweet things (yes, thank you for pointing out Pete H, I have a sweet tooth!), but I’ve gone through a time of giving more thought to nutrition and food choices this year, which leads me to gravitate away from excessive sugars if possible. Bread was the perfect choice, because the GRP skiers consume a considerable amount of bread for breakfasts and snacks, and bread is a healthy baking result derived from a process that can include creativity and embellishment. So it was an ideal summer to venture into sourdough bread baking.
What exactly is sourdough, you might ask?
Well, from the standpoint of the basic grocery-store consumer, sourdough bread is typically a crusty, white bread with a particularly tangy taste.
From the standpoint of the baker, or someone who wants to know what makes this type of bread distinctive, it gets a bit more complex. Sourdough bread is baked from a dough that is made with a sourdough starter. It doesn’t have to be a white bread, sourdough breads cover the spectrum from whole wheat to rye to white to a variety of other grains or mixes. A sourdough starter is a way of cultivating natural yeast – rather than using store-bought yeast from a jar or packet, the natural yeast contained within the starter leavens the bread, causing it to rise and develop air pockets. This natural or wild yeast can’t be called on at any minute though – while it is in the air around us, it has to be properly cultivated and encouraged in order to be concentrated enough for use in bread. A starter is typically made from just flour and water, although as I understand it, starters can sometimes contain fruit juice in the early stages. It takes a little while to establish a good population of yeast, but then once the starter is “active” it can be maintained indefinitely for future use, and shared with friends too.
Caitlin’s sourdough starter process:
In mid-May of 2014, when I returned to Craftsbury to start the new training year, I knew I would be at the house where I live in Craftsbury with few interruptions until the fall, and it would be a perfect time to start the process of a sourdough starter. On the recommendation of my teammate Emily, who had made sourdough this winter, I looked on the King Arthur Flour website (one of my favorite recipe sources) for guidance about starting sourdough. Here’s the link to their page about starting sourdough: http://www.kingarthurflour.com/blog/2012/04/05/creating-your-own-sourdough-starter-the-path-to-great-bread/
As the experts at King Arthur attest to, creating a sourdough starter is as much art as science – there are many variations and suggestions out there, but there is room for flexibility within a framework of conditions that will enable the growth of the sourdough yeast and bacteria. I started with 1 cup of rye flour and 1/2 a cup of cool water from the tap. After 24 hours, half of the original was discarded, and I added a new 1 cup of King Arthur “Special” bread flour and 1/2 cup of water to what remained, and mixed everything together. The 3rd day started the twice a day feedings – to add new flour and water is considered “feeding” the starter. Every 12 hours, I’d check on the starter, which was in our kitchen on a shelf, discard half of it and feed it with a new 1 cup of flour and 1/2 cup of water (always “special” bread flour from here out). This is not a process to undertake if you’re particularly short on time, flour, or capacity to remember to do something every 12 hours – luckily I had plenty of everything, with a busy training schedule which fortunately causes me to return to the house frequently.
The starter is supposed to be highly active and ready for baking within about a week. Mine was only slightly active – swelling a little between feedings, with a few bubbles – after about 1.5 or 2 weeks, and I started to get kind of nervous, afraid I might have to start over. At that point I chatted with Emily again, who recommended putting it in a warmer spot to see if that helped the activity level – for a truly active starter, you should expect that it will double in volume from one feeding to the next. I found a spot out of the way, on top of our freezer, and started leaving the container there. Vermont in early summer is moderately warm but not at all hot, and it turned out that was exactly the missing piece – heat! With the starter on the warm freezer top, it became much more active and was soon doubling. Time to bake!
To make a true sourdough bread, you need an active starter, flour, water, salt, and nothing else (other than time)! It’s also possible to make a bread with store-bought yeast supplemented with sourdough starter to give it flavor. And, there are a number of other bread-related items that can be made with sourdough starter, much of it as a way to use the otherwise-discarded starter (what you would throw out when the starter is fed). So I’ve dabbled in many variations, and quite a few shapes too. Below are suggestions based on what I’ve done, and links to the recipes for trying it yourself:
Sourdough bread: in baguette or loaf form, all white flour or 1/6-1/4 whole wheat. It can be “flavored” – mixed with shredded cheddar cheese, mixed with blue cheese and cranberries, with walnuts and cranberries, swirled/wrapped with cheese inside, swirled with apples and cinnamon sugar, and more. See this recipe: http://www.kingarthurflour.com/recipes/extra-tangy-sourdough-bread-recipe (I’ve never used the optional sour-salt – if your sourdough is active it should have plenty of sour flavor as is.) Try out the recipe just plain a few times to get acquainted with it, with only white bread flour because it behaves more predictably, and then make additions as desired! Be warned, this bread does basically take two days – it’s not bad, but does require some serious planning ahead to time all the stages to fit within the other constraints of your day.
Sourdough-yeast hybrid: Try it also with rolled oats and whole wheat flour, cinnamon-cranberry swirl bread, cheese swirl bread, etc. Recipe: http://www.kingarthurflour.com/recipes/rustic-sourdough-bread-recipe (when using rolled oats, I added 1/2 cup of oats per recipe, and 1/2-1 cup of whole wheat flour, each of those in place of the white flour called for. However I also adjust the moisture by adding more flour or water as I knead the bread, since I know approximately what I’m aiming for after having repeated this process a fair number of times.)
With extra starter: sourdough popovers, sourdough waffles or pancakes, both of which are fantastic and quite easy. Recipes: http://www.kingarthurflour.com/recipes/classic-sourdough-waffles-or-pancakes-recipe
In general just check out all of King Arthur Flour’s sourdough recipes here: http://www.kingarthurflour.com/recipes/sourdough/view-all
Oh, and if you’re not quite into all the sourdough complexity, but are inspired to make bread anyway, try this excellent sandwich bread, of course from King Arthur again! This was one of my go-to breads before sourdoughs: http://www.kingarthurflour.com/recipes/vermont-whole-wheat-oatmeal-honey-bread-recipe
Throughout the summer I’ve been quite pleased with the flavor and texture of my sourdough breads, and my housemates surely enjoy them too, as the bread has seemed to disappear about as quickly as I can make it. Particularly if it’s full of melted shreds of Cabot cheddar cheese! I actually really like the opportunity to experiment on flavors and additions, which is facilitated by how quickly each batch gets consumed. And, a side benefit of making all these batches of bread… hand-kneading… when I was younger my mom always tried to convince me that I should knead more bread to make my arms stronger. They’re stronger this year, which happens to be a good thing for ski racing! Whether from kneading or from an improved strength training program, who knows, maybe some of both!
When I left for fall training camps these past few months, I put my sourdough in a jar with a lid, gave it one last feeding, then popped it straight into the refrigerator. It actually keeps for a while, and just needs to be taken out and fed a few times before it’s nicely active again – I took out the jar 4 days ago, having just returned from Park City (see Liz’s previous post for tales of our training activities there) and it’s definitely active and ready for bread-making by now. In fact last night I made sourdough popovers to go with dinner, and don’t tell my housemates, or else there could be a stampede, but there may be fresh bread this evening.
Thanks for reading!!