To break bread is an act of sharing. To tear into crusty, handcrafted bread is an ineluctable element of any dining experience. We serve ‘handmade’ food, and having bread that reflects this philosophy is important to me.
We make several varieties of bread at Walden; my favorite is called pain au levain in France but commonly referred to in the United States as sourdough. Sourdough has a complex fragrance, a crustier crust and a chewiness you can’t get with other dough. To make them, we rely on just four ingredients: flour, water, starter and salt. The trick is in the details – everything from choosing the flour to deciding how much water to add. Our Bread takes three days to mix, proof, shape and bake. That gives the yeast time to develop flavor and the gluten or protein in the bread time to form a web-like structure. The longer it takes to make the bread, the better its complexity.
A starter (we call ours “the baby”) is partial dough that is begun before the bread dough itself is mixed, is the essence of sourdough. Unlike most bread, which rises with the aid of commercial yeast, sourdough bread is made by encouraging the growth of naturally occurring microflora, wild yeast spores and bacteria that live both in the air and in the flour itself, by mixing the flour with water. The concoction turns sour; hence the name.
Part of that starter is used to make the bread; the rest is kept alive by continually adding more flour and water. In this manner, starters can be maintained for years and are often passed on from one bread baker to the next like a baton.
(The starter we have here is 10-years-old it was started with grapes from St Joseph winery in Thompson.)
If a starter is relocated to a new environment, it takes on the characteristics of those surroundings in a few weeks. For example, a starter made from the famous wild yeasts of San Francisco will create a different bread if it’s baked in New York because microbes in the air and the water are dissimilar, just as wines grown in those two regions differ greatly in their flavor profiles. As with wine, these sourdough breads really are a product of their region.
Variables such as elevation and humidity also matter, as do baking methods, which play a major role in achieving proper texture. A bona fide artisan loaf should have an inconsistent cell structure – both large and small “holes” – a necessary counterpoint to lend satisfying mouth-feel. Timing is particularly important as well, I feel the most common mistake bakers make is underbaking. Dark crusts are an important flavor element, fifty percent of flavor is lost if a dark crust is eliminated. The darker the crust is, the more flavorful the bread.