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Lockdown Sourdough

Yes, we’re still on lock-down (for now), and for good reason – the UK is currently the state with the highest number of Corona deaths in Europe. And that’s without properly counting deaths in the community. Inexplicably, despite this dire news, Boris has decided that England is ready to start relaxing lock-down rules from Monday. Apparently this is based on scientific evidence, though listening to the Government’s latest pet scientist (alas poor Ferguson) contort himself on Radio 4 to validate the Government line was like witnessing a vivisection. We all know that this is actually in aid of preventing businesses from suffering even more financial harm. “Gotta live to work, gotta work to live” – and the offshore billionaires laughing all the way to the bank.

Encouraging signs from the Welsh parliament (that feels good!) suggest that lock-down measures will deviate from our neighbour. Menna’s school has even prepared us for schools to be shut till July 24th, not to physically re-open till September 2020!?

As it looks like we are set for at least a few weeks’ more of homeschooling here in Wales, thought I’d share this fun and ultimately tasty home-based science experiment. Unfortunately, both flour and yeast are currently on short supply so you need to keep your eye out for flour (unless you’re Faye or the Mammoth Hunter who’ve managed to keep up a steady supply of the white stuff, so far). 200 g plain flour should suffice to create the starter. 250g (preferably) strong bread flour to make a small loaf.

Make a sourdough starter with your little ones…

Not many adults, let alone children realise that it is possible for each and every one of us to make delicious bread without resorting to any commercial products or synthetic chemicals. During this activity, I hope to show you that it is easy and rewarding to create a natural yeast culture (called a sourdough) by capturing the correct microorganisms from our everyday environment. Having successfully created a sourdough culture, you’ll be able to keep it going for months and years and use it to leaven your own homemade loaf, to help out with yeast and bread shortages we are currently witnessing in the shops.

The science (could help with your homeschooling regime):

The chemical changes that occur during the development of a sourdough culture are easy to follow and visualize (for example, changes in odour, acidification of the pH and production of CO2 (bubbles)). The biological processes occurring include the colonization/consumption of the rich feeding medium (flour paste) by beneficial bacteria and yeasts and the setting up of a symbiotic relationship between these two organisms

Educational benefits:

Children taking part will be introduced to many principles of microbiology – for example, the metabolism of prokaryotes and eukaryotes, fermentation, resource limitation and symbiosis. They will learn that microbes in our environment can be beneficial as well as pathogenic and that it is possible to harness the biology of microorganisms for useful purposes. This will hopefully give them an insight into how science is a vital part of food technology, something that has a major impact on our lives.

In addition to the scientific component, this activity will hopefully also get the whole family to start thinking about the origin of the food they eat. For example, a good way to introduce the whole activity might be to discuss the provenance and history of bread. It will be possible to discuss and compare the characteristics and health benefits of different types of bread – for example, white bread versus wholemeal or rye. Such a discussion could help children and adults to make informed healthy choices about their eating habits in the future.

Sources of “natural” yeasts

You hopefully have your bag of plain flour ready to have a go at making your sourdough starter – where do we get these magical natural yeasts and bacteria to colonise your starter? The good news is that such micro-organisms are all around you in your environment, but the easiest source is in the flour you use!. The less refined and treated (blanched) your flour, the more yeast will be present but I’ve succeeded in the past with simply leaving bog-standard plain flour paste exposed to air (loosely covered) on a counter-top at room temperature. To be honest, though this works, it is quite a lengthy process – sometimes also the “wrong” bugs are captured which makes for a smelly, useless waste of time and flour.

It’s much safer and quicker to seed your sourdough with the micro-organisms you want from the start which is what I do now whenever I want to create a starter. Good sources are: the skins of grapes and other fruit, potato skins and even dried fruit. To liberate the natural yeasts I soak the source 24-48h in a cup of clean warm water – I then drain the water and use that to create my initial flour paste for sourdough starter creation. I have created several tasty and strong starters from our own apples using this method however the best ever starter I’ve created is the one we are using now and this was created from the yeast captured from a bottle of conditioned Welsh ale. Bottle conditioned beer contains an active yeast culture anyway allowing continued fermentation to increase the alcohol content and improve flavour after bottling. This is quite an advanced technique that deserves a whole new article of its own and if you want to find out more this is a great place to start:

Schedule for sourdough starter creation:

So you have your flour and source of natural yeast, now it’s time to create your starter. The creation of a sourdough culture potent enough to leaven a loaf of bread takes approximately 1 week, with progressive changes that can be monitored every two days. The first day consists of setting up the culture by simply mixing natural unbleached flour with water (preferably infused with natural yeasts from the sources above). This is left, covered in a warm place so that the natural bacteria (lactobacillus) and yeasts can begin to colonize. After 3 days, the culture requires “feeding” with more flour (25g at least) and fresh water. It is then left to continue to develop. When the culture has become bubbly and doubles in size within 2 hours after a feed (indicating that there is a sufficient number of yeast cells) it will finally be ready to use for leavening your first loaf of bread.

The actual bread-making

process takes longer than with commercial dried yeast so you need an overnight fermentation to create a sponge followed by one day of intermittent activity that involves making the dough, kneading it, leaving it to rise, shaping the loaves and baking the bread. I’ll cover these steps, as well as other delicious ways to use your sourdough starter (once you’ve made sourdough pancakes, you’ll never go back!) in my next blog – happy sourdough starter creation for now!

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