"World Sourdoughs from Antiquity," Ed Wood

Pros: Delicious breads; very handy information
Cons: You need to feed the beasties often!
Rating: 4 out of 5

First posted 8/1/2000

For those of you not familiar with sourdough yet, it’s the way people made bread before packets of freeze-dried yeasts became commercially available. You keep a little “starter” in a crock or jar in the fridge. When you want to make bread you take it out, feed it, and proof it. After a few hours you take a little out to put back in the jar, and use the rest to make bread. No other yeast necessary.

Ed Wood, the man who wrote “World Sourdoughs from Antiquity,” also owns a company called “Sourdoughs International,” from which you can get freeze-dried starters from various countries. I don’t particularly recommend doing this. They aren’t very lively starters, and it takes a lot of work to get them from simple reconstitution to active, lively, bread-worthy yeast (at least in my experience). We got our current starter from the King Arthur Flour Company, and oh boy, is it active! We make nervous jokes about how it’s going to grow out of its jar and take over the world. Nervous, I say, because sometimes we worry we might be right. It’s a very strong and active starter that can produce wonderful fluffy loaves of bread. Very, very big loaves of bread. Sometimes we have to lower the rack in our oven so the loaves don’t grow into the temperature probe.

Ancient Times

Mr. Wood tells us quite a bit about the history of sourdough. Chapter 1 is about a “National Geographic” project he participated in with the goal of reproducing the first leavened breads – in Giza, Egypt. An ancient bakery had been unearthed. Ancient types of flour were researched and chased down. The flour was irradiated to kill off wild yeasties. A replica of the bakery was built. In short, a great adventure was had by all.

Science

Mr. Wood goes on to talk about the science of sourdough. Lactobacilli are discussed, and the history of commercial yeast. Various possible ingredients are discussed. You’ll even find pictures of the Egyptian experiment.

Next come directions for prepping and proofing the culture. This step comes just before using the actual recipes. You see, you need to prepare for your bread-making the night before (for morning bread-making) or the morning of (for night bread-making).

The long pages look a little daunting, but they aren’t, really. Once you’ve done it once or twice you won’t even need to read the book any more. Our sourdough culture is so active that we often don’t bother to prep it now and go straight to proofing it. This simply consists of mixing warm water and flour into the culture, covering it, and letting it sit for a number of hours. Then we take a little culture back out and put it in the jar. What’s left serves as the culture for the recipes.

The chapter also goes on to discuss problems you can have with the culture. For example, mold might grow on the surface. Apparently this is quite common as flour comes with molds in it. This happened to us once, and we dubiously followed the directions in the book. Apparently the yeasts in their fully active and well-balanced state can kill off any mold. So you scrape out all the mold you can, then proof the starter several times until it’s all better again. Not only did the mold die, but we had a super-active culture for a few weeks that made twice the normal number of loaves of bread.

With some cultures you really should proof them at least once a week even if you aren’t going to make bread. Our culture is strong enough that even if we accidentally skip one or two weeks it works just fine. If you left yours for a few weeks, then proof your culture an extra time before the proof from which you plan to make bread. It’ll probably recover. If not, more culture from King Arthur Flour is cheap (by the way, someone once tried to tell me that I shouldn’t be recommending KAF’s culture because it was grown from commercial yeasts, not actual sourdough culture. This isn’t true. From their own catalog description: “Our Classic New England Sourdough Starter is descended from ancestors that have been bubbling away right here in New England for over 250 years!”).

Proofing Boxes

Mr. Wood talks about proofing boxes. Basically, styrofoam coolers turned upside-down with a low-wattage bulb hung in them. If you have a warm kitchen, like we do, this isn’t necessary. We have a stove with a pilot light under the top, so when it’s cold we put the culture in a large bowl to proof, cover it with a towel, put it on a plate to distribute the heat evenly, and set it on top of the stove.

Recipes

The recipes come in two sections – regular and bread machine. The regular recipes are wonderful. The first recipe, a fairly generic one termed “World Bread,” is the perfect one to experiment with. Add spices. Add flavoring oils. Add nuts or dried fruit. We’ve found that if you replace the milk with soy milk you get a super-crusty bread.

The French Bread is fantastic – crusty and flavorful. Once you’ve had sourdough regularly you won’t want to go back to normal bread. The Date Bread is sweet and delicious. You’ll find such diverse flavors as Challah, Cheese Bread, and Onion Olive Bread. Even the Malt Beer Bread delivers fantastic taste. For an unusual bread, try the sourdough Gingerbread. You’ll even find pizza dough, crumpets, rolls and muffins. The Sourdough Biscuits are a little chewier than your average buttermilk biscuit, but the flavor can’t be beat. You’ll even find Hot Dog Buns and Hamburger Buns.

Next you’ll find a number of recipes from around the world: Saluf, Mafrooda, Hilbeh, Psomi, Khubz Saj, Mannaeesh, and more. Then you’ll even find sourdough pancakes of various varieties!

Our only problem was with the bread machine recipes, but this might be because we have such a hyperactive starter. We have a bread machine that does large (2 pound) loaves, and yet when we tried to use a recipe for large bread machine loaves, the loaf rose up too far, stuck to the roof of the bread machine, and failed to bake all the way through. Ah well. If this happens to you, just saw off the not-totally-baked top and serve upside-down. While your guests may notice, they’ll probably be too polite to say anything. Hopefully.

In short, this is a really fun book with lots of great recipes. Hopefully it’ll have the same effect for you that it did for us. Which is to say, you’ll go from making bread machine bread (because after all, it’s so easy) to making handmade bread (because after all, it’s so easy).

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