When I first thought of a writing a bread blog, I thought I’d begin by talking about my “sourdough starter.” I mentioned it to a few FaceBook friends and many of them asked, “What’s sourdough starter?” Duh… um… uh… er.. This stuff?
Obviously, most of my friends are not bakers. The picture didn’t help. Calling the sourdough starter a “leavening agent” didn’t work either. “A colony of wild yeasts” almost worked, but the caption under the picture mentions alcohol, and one friend wanted to make beer… Clearly I need a better name for the stuff!
Names are important. A name designates how we think of something. When discussing bread, however, there are so very many names that it gets confusing. Bread is eaten all over the world, and every country has their own words that describe different types of bread. In the USA there are the main divisions of “yeast breads” and “quick breads” and under “yeast breads” there’s a subcategory that’s often called “sourdough.” Yet, properly, “sourdough” is actually a specific type of yeast that was native to San Francisco circa 1850, and the strain has been kept alive since that time… “Sourdough” is even patented in California.
So what does one call the culture of yeasts that are used to leaven bread? And it takes a culture, a group of organisms! It’s not just yeasts. It’s also an assortment of bacteria and some fungi that aren’t exactly yeasts (though I think that’s highly debatable. It’s a bit like saying spelt isn’t a type of wheat, which can also get one into a rather heated debate.) What’s the best name for the dough that is made entirely from wild yeasts? To get old dough, one first must have dough. To make that first batch of dough, one must have the means to leaven the dough which means one needs a culture or colony of wild yeasts and everything that grows with wild yeasts… To me, a colony of wild yeasts, that has happily lived in my refrigerator for months, fed, divided, and used to leaven my bread, is sourdough starter. If I toss some dough in a jar just before I shape my bread, saving it for use later in the week, it’s old dough.
I know exactly what I mean, but how do I tell you exactly what I mean — especially since your colony of wild yeasts will be different from my colony of wild yeasts. There are a lot of types of yeast in the world, and, while some are pretty common, most are specific to geographical location. Plus, yeast grows on human skin, though (hopefully) you can’t see it because it isn’t plentiful enough. (If you can see it, you need to see a doctor!) Your gender and race, the water you drink, and the foods you eat will all help determine what you will grow if you start a colony of wild yeasts. The yeasts that are found naturally growing in Italy are quite different from those found in France which is why both the French and the Italians are rightfully proud of their unique breads, even if the breads look very similar. So what should I call this:
that, with the addition of nothing but water, flour and salt, becomes this:
I first got interested in bread when I noticed its’ importance in literature. I was in college, taking a class on medieval lit at the time. Being a nosy sort of person, I wondered how they made bread and searched until I found a very old recipe. The recipe started with “auld doh.” From context I understood that “auld doh” was unbaked dough that was leftover from the previous day’s baking, and stored until it was ready to be used to leaven the next loaves. I also learned an interesting side note: the word “lady” or, in Old English “hlæfdige” literally means the “one who kneads bread.”
That was more than 40 years ago, but I’ve never forgotten those two things: keep some old dough handy, and to be a lady, I need to knead bread.