Successful Sourdough

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

We've tried to make a sourdough starter in the past, but couldn't quite keep it going. I'm not sure what got in the way, maybe it was three kids or an overambitious garden, but we weren't too successful.

A couple months ago, our friend Volker from Brant Flour Mills introduced us to Bread Matters, a new book dedicated to the issues surrounding modern wheat and how you can make healthier bread at home. With the onset of winter and a few short minutes to spare, we were inspired to finally dive back into sourdough.

Sourdough is simply bread that is leavened without adding commercial yeast. In fact, the only thing added to the flour to get it moving is water. There is wild yeast all around us, and making sourdough is simply a matter of creating an environment that allows it to thrive.

When you look at a grape, it's usually covered in a dusty coating. This "bloom" contains a lot of wild yeast, which would hitch a ride into any juice made from that grape. The yeast would give it what it needs to ferment into into a "wild" wine.

Our last starter involved putting an organic or wild grape into the flour to kickstart the fermentation. This makes some sense, but Bread Matters argues that just like a wine yeast has naturally found and coated each grape, the best yeast for sourdough has already found and coated each grain.

So we started this sourdough successfully and easily without a grape, and without leaving it on an open windowsill to go shopping for yeast in the air.

Our production starter bubbling away after being topped up.

We mixed some whole rye flour and water to begin a four day process to make what is called the "sour". Each day we added a bit more rye flour and warm water to feed the yeasts that were quickly multiplying. The strong-smelling, bubbling mixture was kept on a plant propagation mat during this process to keep it at a constant 30 degrees.

The sour itself isn't added to a dough to make bread, it's simply used to get the culture thriving. It's very strong smelling and only a small scoop of it is added to new flour of your choice and water to make the "production starter". Once you make your first production starter you can discard the sour or put it in the fridge as a backup.

The production starter becomes the soul of your sourdough. It's allowed to ferment and then most is removed, mixed with flour, water and salt to make dough for a loaf of bread. What's left of the production starter is topped up again, and allowed to re-ferment and the next day it's ready to be divided again to make another loaf.

It's a lot like making yogurt. Once made, you don't eat it all, you save a little bit to add to milk to make some more.

The main ingredient that commercial bread producers can't afford, and the one that makes bread healthy and delicious is simply time. Think of anything "instant", it usually comes at the expense of flavour. Fermenting the bread allows yeasts and beneficial bacteria time to break down a lot of the flour, making it easier to digest and helping make more of the nutrients available to your body.

It takes a few days to get everything humming, but after that, maintenance is simple. Yes it takes many hours to ferment the production starter, and then many hours again to let a loaf rise, but they overlap, and only take a minute to prep.

Sourdough turned out to be not as daunting as I once thought, and it's not at all like an extra child as some people suggest. If we are going away and unsure of when we're coming back, I'll just stick the starter in the fridge and forget about it.

We feel lucky to have fresh homemade bread every few days, and we're saving money while we do it. And we look forward to each loaf's unique flavour every morning.

Field Trip: Buying a Pig

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

One of the most memorable Field Trips we've taken was to Karl and Anita Schibli's dairy farm. As we walked down the lane to see the cows, we were introduced to a pig that their son Harry was raising for meat. During a more recent visit to their neighbours, Sosnicki Organics, Jessie Sosnicki told us that she had recently received their own butchered pig from Harry and couldn't brag enough about it. After learning that Harry had ramped up production and now has, at my quick count, just over twenty at various states of maturity, I was quick to put our name on one.

But these aren't the standard pink breed you assume your pork chops come from. They're a heritage breed known as Berkshires. The breed originated in England over two hundred years ago, and because of their exceptional flavour, came to be the pork of choice for the royals. As the twentieth century came along with industrial agriculture and promises of a new and better way of food, the Berkshire's slower growth and fattiness pushed them into the background. They have barely survived as meat marketing boards push fast maturing breeds to bland, ultra-lean extremes. It sometimes seems they're trying to turn a pig into something it is not.

While the most daylight some industrially-raised pigs see in their lives is on the way to the slaughterhouse, Harry's Berkshires spent the summer roaming 10 acres of pasture. They are now in a "smaller" one-acre field that was full of turnips, which they have slowly dug up. They are now topping up on hay silage and a small ration of grain for the winter. The only indoors these guys will ever see in their lives are the small huts Harry built to protect the sows as they feed their piglets, which they are never separated from.

Meat is a huge part of most Canadians' diets, usually the main feature on the dinner plate, yet it's the part with the least understood origins. Try seeing any indication of a cow or any other animal imagery at a fast food chain. The average person is subtly pushed to forget that the meat from their hamburger had any origin in something living. I've seen beautiful, pastoral images on tray-liner paper, and I would put money on the fact that nothing in that $1.69 hamburger ever saw anything that scenic. And if any customer became actively curious, they'd probably be in for a very scary surprise.

I'm not sure how you feel about looking into the face of something you are going to eat while it's still alive. I've written about it before when we visited the cows on the farm next to my parents'. But we're very comfortable with it. In fact we're beginning to feel like it's the best way to rebuild that respect for the animal that you're going to sustain yourself with.

Which is why we try to put a lot of thought into what we eat, especially meat. In the past few years we've made a conscious effort to avoid bringing any untraceable supermarket meat into our house. I'll admit, we've been in a bind and picked something up on the odd occasion, but we can count those times on one hand, and by buying a whole pig for our freezer, we hope to make desperate food days history.

When we leave the butcher in a couple months, we're going to have everything-hams, pork chops, belly for bacon, and even the fat to render into lard for our pie crusts and use as a basic cooking oil. It all sounds very decadent, and I'm sure you're imagining giant pork roasts for dinner each night, but that's not the case. This pig is going to last a very long time.

It's simple. When you have to buy a massive piece of meat to feed a family of five, it's hard to not focus on price. But when meat becomes a smaller player on the plate, you suddenly have room for another nice criteria-quality.

Our Cellar

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Top shelf: heirloom tomato sauce, apple butter, strawberry jam, and a hint of peaches. Bottom shelf: Pickled beets, dill beans, pickled heirloom red peppers, and good old classic dill pickles.

Last summer was a busy time growing nearly everything we ate, and canning everything else. At times we felt like we were going overboard, but now, seeing our modest wire shelving unit lined with jars full of fruit and vegetables is an amazing feeling. We had hopes and plans for building an authentic root cellar, but the summer, a new baby, and a change of career made for some priority shuffling.

Some things we simply canned, like the peaches, pears, grapes and strawberries, but other jars have a deeper connection. We not only canned the pickles, but grew the cucumbers, dill and garlic. The tomato sauce isn't just tomato sauce. Each jar tastes of the different varieties inside, and I can almost tell you the square foot of land that any given jar was canned from.

The deep freezer is very important to preserving. At first, the romantic image of a mason jar sitting on a pantry shelf is the ultimate symbol of preservation, but we're capturing food's freshness better by immediately putting more and more into the freezer.

The thought of a freezer sucking electricity to preserve food initially seemed a little unsustainable, but then I thought of all the up-front energy consumed canning. Hours of boiling over gas and propane doesn't seem too sustainable either. Our freezer is very energy efficient and sits in our cool basement, so it's a small concern.

Which brings me to my new favourite way to preserve-fermentation. By making nature take care of the preservation, we can save all that gas and electricity. The three-gallon crock is aging jalape簽o mash that has by now fermented. The smell coming out of it is incredible. Strong, yet sweet, I can't wait to give it a try. The hard cider is beginning to age and desperately needs to be racked, or put in a new jug to get it off of the sediment that has settled, as you can see, to the bottom.

The final way we're preserving things is by not preserving at all. Some of our potatoes are modestly hidden at the bottom in cardboard boxes to keep as much light out as possible, while still letting them breath. Beside the potatoes sit the garlic, organized by variety and covered with a loose cardboard lid. I black out the nearby window to make sure the light doesn't hurt anything. The rest of the potatoes and carrots are in a cool barn at the farm.

We've already gone through quite a few jars of tomatoes. Each jar is infused with our own basil, which has an otherworldly flavour when it's picked fresh, minutes before it's canned with the tomatoes. After we use a jar, it's run through the dishwasher and put right back on the shelf, upside down, in the box the jar came in, giving us a nice, clean start to next year's canning.

Our hickory nuts are stored in a small bag made recycled from a coffee bag we picked up at Detour. It feels good to use old pop bottles for something much more wholesome-our grape juice.

Trips to the basement are so much better than trips to the supermarket. And to know that it's mostly food that we grew ourselves is even more amazing. Knowledge of the soil, complete confidence in how the food was grown, no BPA lined cans, and control over added sugar and salt are variables we're happy to get rid of.

Spoiled by Christmas

Friday, January 6, 2012

Things have been super busy over the holidays, and we're just getting things back to normal. We planned to post during the holiday break, but had a house full of sick babies so we took the time to just get better and spend time with family.

In my family we do a yearly Christmas gift exchange and this year, with growing families and saving money in mind we declared it a "homemade" Christmas. Everyone became very busy making interesting gifts for each other.

One of my favourite Christmas traditions is the Christmas stocking. The stocking itself was first handmade thanks to my mom, and then we were always so excited to wake up each Christmas morning to see what treasures could be found in them. Magazines, hair elastics, scratch tickets, clementines...  mom always found the best stuff.

I wanted to continue this tradition to my family by making our own Christmas stockings. Last year I made one each for me, Jesse, Elisha and Edith. They were all made with unique materials and finished with a hand embroidered names. The kids love them.  

This year's new addition called for another stocking, and I think it is the nicest stocking yet.

On top of lots of homemade gifts, we were still spoiled and blessed enough to get some kitchen additions that will help us to become a little more self sufficient. We have a KitchenAid mixer, and were so happy to get the pasta set that fits on it. We have a hand-crank pasta roller, but it's definitely a two-person operation needing a dedicated crank operator. These new rollers and cutters will make it much less of a task, and a more common addition to dinnertime.

But that's not the only KitchenAid attachment we received. Mom also got us the ice cream maker attachment. It's a double-walled container kept in the freezer to pull out any time you want to make a treat.

It's nice to get things you use often that work with a preexisting appliance. We love having lots of options in the kitchen, but to have a standalone appliance for every task would quickly fill our tiny house. Even though the KitchenAid attachments are usually more expensive, the consolidation alone is worth it.

Another thing we're getting over is the fear of "used" things. This year is the first year we bought each other presents that were vintage. We had one of those three-handled rabbit wine opener things, and after it broke, we were happy to consolidate it, along with our gross, plastic-handled bottle opener into one nice, old, Italian opener. We're slowly replacing ugly, over designed tools in the kitchen with simple, timeless, all-metal tools that will last forever.

The final thing we got is the Lee Valley steam juicer that we talked about in our grape juice post. We had to leave it behind for a few days for lack of room in the car, so it didn't get its picture taken, but we can't wait to juice lots of fruit with it this summer.

We were definitely spoiled this year, but the part I love about it is that none of the things we got were novelties or over-packaged gadgets. They're all creative tools. To be able to easily make our own organic spelt pasta, or a year's worth of grape juice is a great feeling.

Although, now that I think about it, homemade ice cream will be a welcome novelty.