Audrey Tales: Misbehaving Sourdough

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If you follow us on Instagram, you’ve already met Audrey, our sourdough starter. With her assistance, we (and by “we”, I mean “he” because he’s the baker and I’m the fermenter..though, technically, sourdough is a ferment, too) have delicious, fresh, additive-free loaves of bread for our morning toast+cream cheese+alfalfa sprouts and our meatloaf sandwiches. We consider Audrey a treasured pet, and we try to ensure her health and happiness so she’ll continue to help us make great bread.

Sometimes, however, Audrey is unhappy. Not “hooch on top because she hasn’t been fed” unhappy, but more of the “I don’t like the flour you’re feeding me” unhappy or “it’s too cold in here so I’m slowing down” unhappy. We have pretty extreme fluctuations in temperature where we live, and Audrey is sensitive to it. She’s also sensitive to all of the other microbes in her surroundings, and I often have many other types of ferments in relatively close proximity to her; starters like sourdough are susceptible to “cross contamination” from other cultures. Speculatively, we think that she may have once been contaminated by some yeast or bacteria she didn’t like because it changed the way she smelled – a change in the culture’s microbial composition can manifest as an alteration in its aroma. Fortunately, she was back to her old self in no time…perhaps a bit analogous to a person catching a bug and shaking it off in short order. In any case, she went back to smelling like her old, fragrantly pungent, sour self.

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Today was bread-making day, so Mr. fMf prepared the loaf as he normally does, before we went out to do morning animal chores (breakfast, cleaning, egg collection, etc.). The last loaf, while it turned out well, had a stickier-than-ideal dough and took about 3 hours to rise…a fairly fast rise compared to the sluggish rises – proofing box notwithstanding – that we were seeing a couple of months ago. Today’s loaf was less sticky and just had that look when it went into the loaf pan to rise. When we returned, it had risen past the point where we’d typically put it into the oven to bake and was almost out of the pan! A shorter rise, certainly, and when the loaf baked, it didn’t try to explode out the side or develop large fissures that make slicing it difficult. This loaf rose perfectly during baking: straight up, resulting in a tall loaf that will be just right for sandwiches. So what factors were involved in creating today’s loaf?

The weather is warmer today and has been warmer than usual since yesterday so, in turn, the kitchen has been warmer and probably more humid (thanks to the precipitation from a couple of days ago that’s still on the ground) – Audrey responds well in this type of environment. She’s been very active in her jar and has reacted quickly and favorably to her daily feedings, which has included different flour. An active starter creates a fast-rising dough, like today’s. While this seems like a simple enough goal – keep the starter active – it can actually be trickier than it sounds. Sometimes ferments are just finicky. Does that mean Audrey is a diva? Probably. And while no one wants to work with a diva, they are often real superstars – like Audrey. So if Audrey wants some rye flour for a change, we’ll get it for her. Extra feedings? No problem. We just want those pretty, lofty loaves that we know she can make…when she’s happy.

Do you have temperamental cultures like Audrey? Tell us about them in the comments!

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