Saturday, October 10, 2009

Sourdough Biscuits

Remember the guessing game?
Did you guess Sourdough?

What follows is opinion--an essay, if you like, about sourdough. How to "start" it, how to use it, and why it's a family tradition I have kept. You are welcome to try it my way and see what you think. I'd love to hear how it turns out.

Sourdough may come from a simpler time and tending a sourdough jug may seem old-fashioned or impractical. It's so much easier to grab a loaf of bread from the store on the way home from work (if you still have work to go to). Trouble is, you can't grab a pan of hot sourdough biscuits on your way home. Biscuits...light and airy, crusty on the outside, soft on the inside and able to soak up as much butter and/or molasses as you care to slather on. Biscuits... sturdy enough to slice and toast or hold some nice sandwich fixings for tomorrow's lunch. Biscuits...whose short time in the oven fills the house with a fragrance that, better than any plug-in or candle, says, "Welcome. Welcome. Now, you're home."

These days, it's the daily trip to the market that seems impractical, and people are rediscovering the ways of grandparents who came through harder times with nothing but pride in the fact that even when there was no money, there was always something good to eat. "Times were hard, but we never went hungry". These are the country folk; those who grew gardens, and canned, preserved and pickled everything imaginable; who saved up to pay cash money for what they needed, or did without; who "put by" something for winter, or in case things got even worse. They wore things out or fixed them up and still had enough to share with their neighbors. I hope you never experience times as hard as those some of our parents and most of our grandparents lived through. Still, there is much to be learned from them and how they survived the lean years. More than that, some traditions are just worth keeping, even when times are relatively easy.

There may be as many ways to make sourdough as there are people who love this magical concoction, and tempers can flare hotter than the oven required to bake it. I am not here to join the fray by saying my way is the only way, or even the best way, only to share tips and tricks for an easy, economical way to make some good bread. Most of the tips are ways to keep the sourdough from tasting really sour, so if you like your bread to bite back, this may not be the way you want to do it.

Some will say you must obtain a start from someone else--these are usually the same people who'd like to sell you one. Others say you must use potato water and capture live bacteria--good luck with that. With all the antibacterial products we use these days, friendly bacteria can be hard to find.

Good sourdough is both art and science. The science has to do with time, temperature, carbon dioxide, mother yeasts budding baby daughters, and alcohol; the art is learned as you go. I can give you basic instructions and estimates of amounts, but exact measurements that work every time come with experience and trial and error. What I'm giving you is the start---the recipe for a starter and a place to start experimenting on your own. The ingredients are simple and inexpensive. Chances are, you already have them at hand. Sourdough, unlike regular yeast dough, is not labor intensive. Five minutes prep time, 10 minutes baking time, and only a spoon and a pan to wash. All that is really required of you is love, patience, and a spirit of adventure.

What You Need

  • a crock, aka a "sourdough jug"

I have tried keeping sourdough in many types of containers: plastic ice cream buckets, wine chilling buckets, half-gallon wide-mouth mason jars, but never with as much success as some type of stoneware crockery. The sourdough jug we had when I was growing up looked something like this:

These are hard to find and pricey. They are considered "vintage" or "antique" and the prices reflect that status. The one I use looks more like a cookie jar and was purchased at a thrift shop for around two dollars. My "cookie jar" solution is a temporary fix. I'm still on the lookout for a "real" one. There is something about stoneware, the thicker the better, that helps maintain an even, cool temperature. You need a lid, or a plate to put over the top, just to keep the starter clean. You won't want a tight-fitting lid, because there are some serious chemical reactions taking place inside that need to breathe; just something to keep out critters (tame or otherwise) and dust.

The crock my mother used must have been a gallon size-nice if you can find one and good for a large family or a small, hard-working one. The one I use now is just over 5 inches high with a diameter of 7 inches. It holds about 2 quarts and has been known to overflow. For that reason, I put a pie tin under it. The recipes that follow are what work with a crock of this size. A larger one would be better, but it will do for now. The yield is about 6 large biscuits a day, depending. If you have a larger container and a large family, you can augment the recipes. ( If you just want to try it, but not invest in anything special to keep it in, try your old crock pot if you don't use it much-one with a removable crock would be best. )

    You will also need:
  • a sturdy wooden spoon

My mom had one carved from an Arizona ironwood tree. Nice, but not necessary. Just don't get the short, light-weight kind, because you'll be stirring some pretty stiff dough; and no, your fancy Bosch mixer will not be necessary or even useful (except maybe for the pancake batter--more about that later).

For the starter, you will need

  • flour

  • water

  • sugar

  • yeast.

I use regular, unbleached, all-purpose flour. You can try other flours such as whole wheat, and see what you think. I buy flour in 25 or even 50 pound bags. It's cheaper that way, and if you decide to maintain a sourdough jug, you'll be using about 3 cups of flour nearly every day, and the little 5 pound bags won't go very far. The water is straight from the tap. I buy yeast in the 2 pound bag, but one envelope of yeast will get your starter started.

When to start your starter? I don't put mine in the fridge, so in the hot summer months, I bake regular bread and count the days until autumn. Once the days have cooled to a high of 50 or 60, then it's time. As for time of day: if you want biscuits by evening, start the starter early in the morning. If you're OK with waiting until the next evening, then afternoon or evening is fine.

Make the Starter

Into the crock, measure

  • 1 cup cool water (not ice-cold, just cool as it comes from the tap)

  • Add a packet or 1 Tablespoon of yeast and

  • 1 teaspoon of sugar.

Stir to dissolve the sugar. If you're accustomed to working with yeast, you may wonder why the water is cool instead of lukewarm. One secret to sourdough is to let it work slowly. Begin with warm water, and your jug will be running over before you know it.

Stir in

  • 2 cups of flour

That's it. Put the lid on, put it in a relatively cool spot: not by the radiator, heat vent or fireplace; but by the backdoor, in the basement, in an unheated room, you get the idea. Surely every house has a cool spot. That's the place to keep your sourdough jug. It doesn't need to be "cold", just not overly warm.

Now go knit something and don't worry about it. It will do it's thing while you're doing yours. Later, when you start to think about what to have for dinner, you can check on it. It should look something like this:

It will have at least doubled in size and be sort of bubbly.

Making Biscuits

About an hour before you're ready to eat, it's time to make the biscuits.

You will need:

  • small pan (Mine is about 7 x 10 and a bit on the heavy side.)

  • measuring spoon

  • your wooden spoon

  • more flour

  • baking powder

  • sugar

  • salt

  • shortening

First, fork about a teaspoon of shortening into the pan and put it in the oven, 350 degrees. Watch it closely, you just want the shortening to melt. Hot oil will smoke and can even catch fire. As soon as the shortening melts, remove the pan and turn off the oven. Meanwhile, spread about 1 cup of flour on your board or counter top. With the wooden spoon, dump out about 2 cups of starter.

Measuring the starter is a messy proposition because it's sticky and small amounts harden if you don't clean up quickly. It's easier to eye-ball the amount of starter left in the jug. About a half-cup of starter will remain.

Measure 1 Tablespoon of sugar, 2 teaspoons of baking powder, and 1/2 teaspoon of salt--right onto the dough.

Gently gather the sides to the middle. With a very light, soft touch at first, begin kneading the dough. It will be sticky, so gently work a little flour in-- kneading first with the finger tips and then with the heels of your hands as more flour is incorporated. This is not the major kneading job required of regular yeast dough where you are instructed to "knead for 10 minutes until smooth and elastic". You are just kneading to work in the sugar, salt, baking powder and enough flour to make the dough easy to handle. By the time you've worked in all the flour from the board, it should be a soft, but workable dough.

For each biscuit, use your thumb and forefinger to squeeze off a bit of dough somewhere in size between a golf ball and a lemon, or about 1/6 of the dough. Cup your hands slightly and work the dough into a nice, smooth ball by pressing the dough between the palms while quickly rubbing in circles with the top hand. Dip each one into the melted shortening and flip it over.

Now cover them up with a clean cloth and let them rise. The stove top is a good place to do this as it should still be nice and warm after melting the shortening.

The starter needs to be mixed back.

Add a cup of cool water --

and about 2 cups of flour--

Stir it well, taking care to push any starter from the sides of the crock back down into the mixture. Cover and return the starter to its cool spot and it will be ready and waiting for you tomorrow.

Now you can go about preparing the rest of your dinner or get back to knitting while the biscuits rise. In about an hour, they will have doubled in size.

Preheat the oven to 450 degrees. Bake the biscuits for about 10 minutes or until golden brown.

They will be crusty while they are hot and will soften as they cool.
If there are any left (ha ha) wait until they cool completely and store in a plastic bag.

You can do more than make biscuits. I'll write more later about hotcakes and pizza and all manner of "yumminess".


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