Appetizers
June 29, 2012
A few thoughts on sourdough starter, old-fashioned values, etc.

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The next two restaurants I am reviewing - Juno's Kitchen in East Sacramento and, a week later, Masullo Pizza in Land Park - have several things in common. They employ old-world techniques to prepare their food, and both places insist on using excellent ingredients. Beyond that, both places maintain a sourdough starter - Mark Helms of Juno's uses his to bake bread, and Robert Masullo's starter is the foundation for the Neapolitan-style dough for his pizzas. The starter is a key component of both businesses.

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A starter, or natural leaven, is an amazing thing, a bubbly, soupy mix of flour, water, naturally occurring yeast and bacteria. As a bread-baking (and occasionally pizza-making) hobbyist, I have maintained a starter for about a decade, feeding it a regular diet of flour and water to keep it alive and active and ready to use.

Doing this is part of the routine of making bread the old-fashioned way, with more flavor, texture and character than breads made with commercial yeast. It's very satisfying and a tad time-consuming - but keeping a starter alive is not nearly as daunting as some of my would-be baker friends assume (more on that in a minute). There are a few ways to feed a starter, and all of them work in one way or another. Basically, you are perpetuating this lively concoction by using a portion to make the dough for your bread, feeding some with flour and water for next time and, yes, discarding some that isn't needed. The book "Tartine" by Chad Robertson, based on the breads made at the renowned Tartine Bakery in San Francisco, calls for using as little as a tablespoon of active-culture starter to use with the next feeding of flour and water. Nancy Silverton's "Breads from The La Brea Bakery" book, based on the heralded bakery in Los Angeles, calls for 18 ounces of starter in the feeding. That's quite a discrepancy, and it's based somewhat on how you want the finished product to perform.

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A starter is a living thing. The mixture looks similar to pancake batter. "Every sourdough starter will expand as the multiplying yeast produces more and more carbon dioxide," writes Daniel Leader in his excellent book "Local Breads." He goes on to say, "When you break the surface, an aroma will rise from the starter to tell you that it is ready. It will be musty, fruity and earthy but not unpleasantly overpowering." If you allow your highly active starter to sit out at room temperature for a few days (in the fridge it is somewhat dormant), the aroma can be very pungent. A few times, I have taken the lid off my container only to have the very acidic aroma burst upward and nearly burn my eyes and flare my nostrils. A starter in that condition would make interesting but probably horrible bread, so it needs to be tamed with a feeding or two to soften the rough edges, reduce the acidity and get everything in balance. The starter can actually survive quite nicely without a feeding for two weeks or more in the refrigerator.

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Because you have to discard some of your starter from time to time, it is very easy to give some away to friends who want to get into baking - or who THINK they want to get into baking. I've given my starter to several people who asked over the years, but no one has actually baked any bread with it, to the best of my knowledge.

Similar to sourdough bread is levain, also known as "pain au levain." Writes Nancy Silverton: "Levain is simply the French word for "leaven," but to bakers it refers to the French "old dough" system in which a nugget from each day's dough is held back and used as the leavening in the next day's baking." In other words, this is a very cool, soulful, time-honored way of baking - practically magical. No commercial yeast, no starter, no unnatural manipulations of any kind.

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In some ways, this is my favorite process. I have followed Silverton's levain formula for several years, snipping off a 1.25-ounce piece of raw dough before shaping the loaves I am about to bake, setting aside this little ball in the fridge for a day, then taking it out and building it back up. You feed it a small amount of water and flour, let it sit and bubble and expand; then you feed it again, and again over several hours until you have enough to make more loaves. The airy, stretching appearance you see in my photograph is called "webbing," a clear sign that this levain is healthy and strong.
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With levain, there's no waste. It takes time, attention, a good bit of precision and, thus, plenty of patience. Levain takes two or three days from start to finish - from little piece of dough to two large loaves hot out of the oven. This bread has three ingredients: flour, water, salt.

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Chefs and bakers like Helms and Masullo (their sandwich and pizza, respectively, pictured above) have to manage time and temperature as they shepherd their starters and their doughs through this process. Masullo's pizza dough takes 48 hours, including a lengthy period in which it ferments and builds more flavor and complex texture. When you visit these places, it's worth pausing to respect and appreciate what they do and how they do it.

Blair Anthony Robertson is The Bee's restaurant critic. Follow him on Twitter, @blarob.

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