Sourdough Hands

by Miche Genest

Oh, the joy of making sourdough bread at home—building a starter, making a sponge, kneading the dough, shaping a loaf, waiting for it rise, baking it, letting it cool and finally, biting into a slice of freshly made bread slathered with good butter—ooh la la. But one of the special joys is the intimate and complicated relationship sourdough bakers develop with their starters.

It’s like having a pet, bakers say, and indeed, they invent names for their starters, they check their starters into sourdough hotels when they travel, or leave strict instructions for house sitters NOT TO THROW IT OUT. They fret when the starter seems sluggish, they call their fellow bakers for sympathy and advice, they wake up in the middle of the night thinking oh no, I forgot to save a half-cup from the starter before I mixed the sponge!

And they engage in endless debate about the strange and magical organisms living in a jar in their fridge. That wild yeast—is it present in the air, free floating or hanging out on the skin of fruits and vegetables, biding its time until the medium of flour and water comes out of the fridge and then diving in to start feeding? Or is that all a myth, and the yeasts are simply present in the flour? And what of the friendly bacteria, the strains of lactobacillus that enter into a symbiotic relationship with the yeast in the medium of flour and water, creating an acid environment inhospitable to bad bacteria that might spoil it—where does it come from?

Well, it turns out that one of the places both yeast and bacteria come from is the baker’s hands. Ecologist Rob Dunn, author of several books (including Never Out of Season, How Having the Food We Want When We Want It Threatens Our Food Supply and The Future) conducted a controlled sourdough bake-off experiment with 15 bakers from around the world at the Puratos Centre for Bread Flavour in Belgium. Dunn and his fellow ecologist Anne Madden wanted to see if the microbes present on the baker’s hands influenced the bread. And it did. “There was an essence of the baker in the starter the baker made, and that was conveyed in the bread.”

The other thing Dunn’s team discovered was that the baker’s hands looked very much like sourdough starter, that is, up to sixty percent of the microbes on the hands of the bakers were the same bacteria and yeasts found in sourdough starter, compared to three percent on the average human hand. As Dunn said, “…the bakers did influence their starters, but the other way around was true too. The life of baking seems to influence the bakers.” How cool is that? And if the baker’s hands look like sourdough, what do the cheesemaker’s hands look like? The farmer’s? The beekeeper’s?

The full account of the experiment can be found in Dunn’s latest book, Never Home Alone, From Microbes to Millipedes, Camel Crickets and Honeybees, the Natural History of Where We Live.

If the baker’s hands look like sourdough, what do the cheesemaker’s hands look like?

 

Suzanne’s Blog: Local Sourdough Starter

The dough rising on a batch of 100%-local sourdough bread. Photo by Suzanne Crocker.

My three kids have been desperately missing bagels.   And toast.

You might recall that last winter, in anticipation of this, I experimented with sourdough rye and barley bread  – with mixed results.

Our first three months of eating local were entirely grain free.  Then, against many odds, a successful crop of wheat and rye was harvested just as winter started to blanket Dawson with snow.  Shortly thereafter I found a way to grind the grains and the miracle of flour re-entered our diet.

I have no yeast.  But sourdough starter has been around the Dawson area for over one hundred years – introduced during the Klondike Gold Rush.  In fact, there are Yukoners who continue to feed sourdough starter from the Gold Rush days.  With regular feeding, you can keep it indefinitely. Therefore, I decided to classify it as a ‘local’ ingredient.

But I wondered – could you actually make a sourdough starter from scratch, from 100% local Dawson fare?  Bev Gray’s “The Boreal Herbal” held a clue – juniper berries.  I thought I would give it a try.

I started with 1 tbsp of flour from wheat grown at Kokopellie Farm, added to that 1 tbsp of Klondike River water and about 5 dried juniper berries that I had picked in the Fall.  I mixed them all in a small clear glass – so that I could easily see any remote chance of bubbling– a successful sign of fermentation.  I covered the glass loosely and let it sit in a warm place.  I wasn’t very optimistic.  When I checked on it later I was rather shocked to see those wonderful bubbles appearing within the mixture!  Now sourdough starter truly is a local ingredient!

I continued to feed the starter for a few days until it seemed quite active and then proceeded to make a loaf of sourdough bread.  For my first attempt, I decided to be decadent and use only freshly ground wheat flour – no rye.  And it worked!  Beginner’s luck perhaps, as it was the best batch I have made to date.  Subsequent batches have varied between bricks requiring chainsaws to slice them and slightly more palatable varieties.

> View the recipe for sourdough starter

Bread dough is like a living organism and sourdough bread even more so.  Every time I make it, it comes out differently.  It has become a luxury (depending if it is a good batch or a brick batch), not a staple.  But great to know that, even starting the sourdough starter from scratch – a 100 % local Dawson bread is possible!

> See the recipe for Yukon Sourdough Bread

A finished loaf of sourdough bread made with completely-local ingredients. Photo by Suzanne Crocker.

Suzanne’s Blog: Flour Power and the Ol’ Grind

Gerard and Tess grinding fl;our by hand. Photo by Miche Genest.

Despite a very cold November, with several weeks of -35° to -40°C, it looks like it is going to be a long freeze-up for the Yukon River again this year. I am lucky enough to have 25 kg. of wheat grains and 25 kg. of rye grains that were secured from Otto at Kokopellie Farm just before the ferry was pulled.   But Otto’s wonderful grinder is on the other side of the Yukon River.  So, for now, I am left to my own devices.

I tried to grind the grain with a combination of blender and flour sifter.  It took many, many passes.  It was possible to eke out a small amount of flour, but certainly not very efficient.

Although Dawson is small (about 1,500 people), it is the kind of community where you can put out a request for an obscure item, such as flour grinder, on the local Crier Buyer Facebook page and expect to get a response.

I was not disappointed.

Within a day, I was very grateful to receive a call from Louise Piché.  She had a hand crank flour grinder, not yet tried, that she had picked up somewhere or other and I was welcome to borrow it.   A flour grinder is a wonderful thing!   A couple of passes through the grinder along with a bit of an upper body workout and voilà – flour! Flour!!  Flour means the possibility of bread and baking!

We have flour!

Subsequently, I received another call – this time from Becky Sadlier who has an electric flour mill that we could borrow.  However Becky lives on the other side of the Klondike River, now filled with slush.  But Yukoners are never too daunted by the weather.  Loren Sadlier was making one last canoe trip across the Klondike, through the slush, and the grinder could go with him.  I had thought the hand grinder was a gift from the heavens.  The electric grinder was able to make an even finer flour!

There are still a few obstacles to overcome, such as the lack of yeast, baking soda, baking powder and crystalized sugar.  But where there is a will, there is a way. Let the baking experiments begin!  (And let me remember my lesson in grain moderation! )

Miche Genest sent me this wonderful breakfast option, Breakfast Caflouti, which only requires ½ cup of flour and no leavening agent.  It was a tremendous hit in our family – and a very welcome change from our usual fried eggs and mashed potato cakes.

A close look at the hand flour grinder and its handiwork. Photo by Suzanne Crocker.