Friday, February 11, 2005


I haven't started activating the yeast cultures Tri-Pliny and Quentino yet. Manager has been ill, and I don't want the cultures contaminated.

She should be non-contagious by this weekend, so I'll start them growing then.

I feel very scientific and motherly over this. Activating a sourdough culture is not rocket science, but it does require some specialized know-how.

Let's start with the incubation chamber. Some people call it a small proofing box, but since the culture will be reborn there, I alternate between calling it an incubation chamber and an artificial womb. In winter, when the weather varies greatly (yesterday, the high was 21º, today started at 42º and should reach near 70º), a special, temperature controlled chamber is needed. Nothing fancy, mind. A large styrofoam ice chest works well, with a low heat source to maintain a steady temperature.

Are any of y'all old enough to remember the old Kenmore play ovens whose heat source was a variable wattage light bulb? It's the same principle, only with much lower temperatures. We don't want to bake Tri-Pliny and Quentino yet, just revive them and get them growing again.

The dried culture gets mixed with flour and water in a wide mouthed quart jar, placed carefully inside the incubator, and fed every 8-12 hours for 3 days. When the babies are fed, they are divided, and the divisions can also be fed up as new babies.

The divided babies aren't old enough to bake with yet. Oh, sure, they'll probably raise the dough, but they'll lack any flavor, and will need extra yeast or other leavening to boost their loft. Pancakes might work with such infantile sourdoughs...maybe.

The choice is to discard the divisions, or make new babies. Until I run out of local friends who want babies (or jars to grow them in), I make babies. The rest, unfortunately, goes into the dogfood. Which they adore, and it is healthy for them.

After a week of steady feedings, they are ready to mature, and allowed to grow undisturbed for several days.

once they've matured, they can be used right away, or stored in the refrigerator.

Most people are under the impression that once you have yeast beasties, you have to bake with htem every week.

This isn't true. Yeast beasties can sit, undisturbed, in the refrigerator for up to 6 months between use. They have to be pampered a bit and coaxed into activity again when they go dormant after such a long time (back to the incubator and daily feedings, but not for days and days as they did when they were born, just for 2-3 days and then they're mature enough to bake with again.

A clear liquid will form on the top if you don't use your yeast beasties daily. Just stir that liquor back into the culture and proceed.

Now, if the liquid turns funky colors (green in particular, but blue's pretty awesomely frightening, too, and that orangey-pink color is just plain nasty!) or the layer of liquid is on the bottom or the middle of the culture, these are indications the culture has been contaminated. Don't throw it away, you can often rescue the culture by "washing" it.

You'll need to set up an intensive care area, where you can wash it every 6-8 hours the first day, and twice more the next day. All the divisions from thsi will have to be discarded. Don't feed these "babies" to the dogs. When the yeast beastie starts activating again, and doesn't produce any more off-colored or bad smelling effluvia, your culture can be used again. It usually takes about 3 days of intensive care and another 2-3 days of general care.

Each sourdough culture and their babies have a distinctive flavor, which is why places famous for their sourdoughs (like San Francisco) jealously guard their cultures.

We don't currently have a San Francisco sourdough, but we do have yeast beasties from Canada, Germany, France, the Red Sea, Egypt, and Oregon, as well as the two new ones from Italy.

The oldest one is from Egypt, from a culture that dates back to pre-Christian times. He's named Onuri-Ufa, which means "bringer back of the distant flour".

Heike is the sourdough I brought back from Germany, she was divided off the villager baker's which was at least 300 years old, and then I have Somerlyn, given to me by a chance meeting of a fellow sourdougher at a Friends of the Library Book Sale - she's from Nevada, and then there's Penelope, from a friend in Oregon.

While Onuri-Ufa is the oldest culture I have, Heike is the one I've personally had the longest. I've been schlepping Penelope all around the world for more than 40 years, a gift from the village baker when I left to begin my journeyman years. Penelope is the one I've had second longest, from when I first came to the States, a gift from a friend in college.

Onuri-Ufa was willed to me by a friend's mother, who didn't trust anyone else with him.

And yes, yeast beasties have gender behaviors.

Heike and Penelope and Somerlyn all are easy to work with, quick to respond, and eager. Their flavors are bold and flirty, and in hand, they are easy to work to a soft elasticity.

Onuri-Ufa is cantankerous and cranky and needs lots of attention (well, wouldn't you if you were more than 2,000 years old?), but more than that, he has a subtle flavor that appears mild but will surprise you by its stamina, and under hand, he feels firmer and more substantial than the girls do. He is the first masculine yeast beastie I've encountered - all the others have clearly been female.

Yes, I know I named the Italian cultures I just got both after boys, but once they're activated, and I know them better, that may change - especially if they're girls.

By the time the Cracked Cauldron opens, I hope we will have a San Francisco culture, as well as ones from Russia, South Africa, New Zealand, Australia, and France.

I haven't heard of any cultures from South America (wouldn't a Brazilian or Peruvian culture be yummy?) or from China or Japan. But if I encounter any, you can be sure, I'll snag them for the Cracked Cauldron.

And maybe, I'll come across another masculine culture to keep Onuri-Ufa company.

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