Beranbaum’s sage sourdough advice

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Rose Levy Beranbaum, author and baker, wrote “The Bread Bible” and has kept her starter Billo alive since 2001.  Photo courtesy of Rose Levy Beranbaum via CKBK

Rose Levy Beranbaum, author and baker, wrote “The Bread Bible” and has kept her starter Billo alive since 2001. Photo courtesy of Rose Levy Beranbaum via CKBK

While many of us are just getting into the tradition of raising our own sourdough starters, there are many bakers out there whose starters have been alive for decades. Rose Levy Beranbaum, author of “The Bread Bible,” has kept her starter Billo alive since she wrote her cookbook in 2001. And this week, I was able to interview her for some of her sage sourdough advice.

Advice No. 1: What to do when you travel

Unsurprisingly, there will come a time in every starter parent’s life when they will have to leave their precious food pet behind for an extended period of time. Considering that starters need regular feedings — either twice a day at room temperature or once a week in the refrigerator — this can be a cause for anxiety. Beranbaum once asked her friend Charles Van Over, the genius behind making bread in a food processor, how she could keep her starter alive while she travelled for recipes.

“He said, ‘Just give it as much flour as you possibly can and it will take what it needs, and then when you come back you can restore it to the consistency you want,’” Beranbaum said. “Which worked. So even when I was away for a month, I still kept it going.”

Advice No. 2: Starter doesn’t have to be used for leavening

Beranbaum said she only feeds Billo once a week, because she doesn’t use him as the only leavening agent in her bread dough. Instead, he acts as a flavoring and a preservative for the bread.

“I really don’t like sourdough bread that’s 100% sour,” Beranbaum said. “I mean, I don’t dislike it, but I much prefer when it’s in the background and gives more flavor and more shelf life without being like a California Sour sour.”

Beranbaum keeps Billo as a stiff starter, or a starter with a dough-like consistency, in order to add it to bread dough without changing the consistency entirely. Thus, she only needs to add salt to balance the flour, rather than having to add more flour to counteract the water-content of a liquid starter.

Advice No. 3: The bacteria in yeast can defend itself

While sourdough starters need daily feedings and immaculately clean mixing utensils when they’re first starting out, they are incredibly good at killing bad bacteria once they’re established. In fact, according to Beranbaum, if you mix natural yeast (sourdough starter) with commercial yeast, it will fight it off. Thus, mature starters tend to be rather hardy and difficult to accidentally kill. Thus, as long as your starter isn’t growing anything or changing colors, it’s probably perfectly healthy and just needs a little more food.

Advice No. 4: How to mix starter into bread dough

Beranbaum said she often mixes her starter into her famous “Ten Grain Loaf.” Since baking bread is completely based on dough percentages — i.e. the percent of water, starter, etc. — the amount of starter mixed into the dough completely depends on how much dough there is. For instance, the “Ten Grain Loaf” recipe produces about 760 grams of dough, to which she adds 75 to 90 grams of sourdough starter and one-eighth of a teaspoon more of salt. Thus the dough is about 10% sourdough starter.

“I just cut [the starter] up and add it to the water in the recipe, and let it sit for a half hour so it integrates evenly,” Beranbaum said.

By allowing it to sit in the water, Beranbaum is able to prevent pockets of sourdough from forming in the bread. Thus producing an evenly-flavored, slightly sour bread loaf.

By following Beranbaum’s advice, and the advice of other successful sourdough parents, you will be able to care for and get the most out of your sourdough starter. Remember, you are your sourdough’s caretaker and without your help, it will never reach its full potential.

“It really is alive,” Beranbaum said. “I mean it’s not life as we think of it with animals and humans, but you really have a sense of it being alive. It hurts not to be able to take care of it like it needs to be, like an infant.”

Related Content:

The Beranbaum Bible: How to become a famous cookbook writer

Raising Ryen: The life and times of my sourdough starter


Rebecca Maher is a senior staff writer for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at rebecca.l.maher@uconn.edu

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