DIY Feed

The Cat in the Flock Farm Goes Platinum!

Lisa and Anthony BCH Platinum
Here we are, proudly showing off our new 'platinum level' yard sign. Photo courtesy Dan Pearson, of the St. Louis Audubon Society.

By Lisa Brunette

Back in the fall of 2018, we signed up for the St. Louis Audubon Society's Bring Conservation Home (BCH) program. A couple of "habitat advisors" came out to survey our garden, and they provided us with a list of recommendations for making it more wildlife- and pollinator-friendly. It was a long list, too: Our one-quarter acre was comprised of mainly invasive plant species run amok, a huge expanse of turf grass, and a smattering of exotic ornamentals that did little to feed native insects and critters. Everyone agreed there was much work to be done.

The BCH program certifies participant gardens in three tiers - silver, gold, and platinum. Most people slowly make their way through the levels, many staying at silver or gold for some time. Less than 2 percent of gardens in the program have achieved platinum status. But ours got there this spring!

That's right; we leapfrogged right over silver and gold and landed on platinum with our very first certification.

Admittedly, due to COVID-19, the BCH advisors could not come out to survey the garden through all of 2020. So we had 2 1/2 years to get to platinum. But our friends at the Audubon Society say it's "amazing" that we've reached the highest level in less than 3 years, a rarity. From their final assessment report:

Your backyard has undergone an astonishing transformation to a wonderland that invites people in to explore its treasures. Congratulations on platinum certification.

BCH Platinum Sign

How did we do it? By following the Audubon Society's recommendations very closely, and supplementing them with a crash-course in permaculture techniques.

BCH's criteria begins with an account of the invasive species present in your garden. When we bought the property, much of the greenery onsite made the Audubon Society's list of "thug" plants:

  • Winter creeper 
  • Japanese honeysuckle, both vining and bush (don't call this one 'honey')
  • Sweet Autumn clematis (not very sweet, as it turns out)
  • Tree of heaven (better to think of it as tree of hell)

Here's a photo to show just how thick and well-established the honeysuckle was. Honeysuckle grew over nearly the entire garden perimeter; this is just one side.

Honeysuckle 2018

It was a painstaking process, but we removed all of the invasive plants. Here's the same spot as above, in mid-removal.

Honeysuckle-be-gone2018

We continue to control invasive species by pulling out any seedlings that try to gain a toehold. All 4 thugs listed above are on our regular weeding rotation. As we removed all of those, another invasive showed up to test us: star of Bethlehem. We didn't know what it was at first, but when we finally ID'd it, out it went as well.

The second set of criteria for achieving conservation status with BCH is to plant native species, and to do so along all four canopy layers in order to get to the platinum level. This dovetailed well with my independent study of permaculture, which also draws on the power of canopy layers to create healthy ecosystems.

Our native layers begin down at your feet, with a lovely ground cover mix of wild violets and geraniums. These rushed in once we suppressed the turf lawn through sheet-mulching. Here's how they looked this past April, now well-established, thriving, and providing a key food source for fritillary butterflies. So much better than grass!

Violets in spring 2021
Our native ground cover mix of violets and geraniums.

The next two layers are in the middle, and that means tall grasses and wildflowers, shrubs, and understory trees. We capitalized on the $1-per seedling offerings of our own Missouri Department of Conservation as well as native plant and seed sales, not to mention outright giveaways, sponsored by Wild Ones St. Louis, the Audubon Society, the World Bird Sanctuary, Missouri Botanical Garden, and Forest ReLeaf.

One of my favorites is the nitrogen-fixing shrub Amorpha fruticosa, or false indigo. I learned from a Gateway Greening lecture back in 2018 that if you add these to your orchard, the nitrogen-fixing ability boosts the health of your fruit trees. We have several distributed amongst our pear, apple, and plum trees. They also attract pollinators in droves, and the purple spikes are lovely.

Amorpha fruticosa 2021
Amorpha fruticosa, or false indigo, is a beneficial native plant for the home orchard.
Bee on false indigo
A brown-belted bumblebee on false indigo.

Of course, the wildflowers are everyone's favorite, whether pollinator or person. Our purple coneflowers, yarrow, milkweed, bee balm, evening primrose, and others are as crucial to our conservation garden as they are beautiful. This 'Balvinrose' yarrow was a rescue from a big-box gardening center. I wasn't sure it would make it, but set down in the right place, and it's thriving.

Balvinrose yarrow

Not only does it thrill with its delicate, lacy leaves and eye-popping fuchsia flowers, but the tiny bees like this metallic sweat bee love it for the pollen and nectar.

Small bee on yarrow

The fourth canopy is tall trees. Ours is comprised of a forest grove of sycamore, oak, tulip poplar, black gum, red cedar, and persimmon, which once mature will range in height from 35 to 125 feet. We planted these in our northeast corner, where they won't shade the sun-loving plants but will provide a natural screen from the neighboring apartment building. Lucky for us, that site is entirely free from power lines.

Tulip poplar in tulips
A tulip poplar, springing up amid tulips.

We also received high marks on the next three criteria in the BCH program:

  1. Wildlife stewardship - We offer bird baths and houses, a bat house, a rock snake habitat, and a brush pile that rabbits have made into their warren. We've planted flowers to specifically feed hummingbirds and pollinators, and we provide habitat for songbirds. Chaco, as you know, is indoor-only, and the birds are all the better for it.

  1. Stormwater management - We installed a French drain, double rain barrels, and a rain garden. Our whole enterprise is organic, with no pesticide use (outside of one application in 2018 to kill invasives) and no outside inputs for fertilizer (we use compost).
  2. Education and volunteerism - Besides my volunteer work as a citizen scientist in the Shutterbee program, we also support all of the organizations you see in the sidebar, and we think of all the gabbing we do about our garden on this blog as education, too.
Rain barrels
My brother Chris scored these rain barrels for us when his neighbor moved last spring and didn't want to take them with him.

Here's a 'before' picture out the back stoop in 2017, when we bought the place.

Back stoop 2018
Nothing but lawn... and more lawn... and maybe some ornamentals, planted in big, fat circles.

And here's a recent photo, from July 2021.

Back stoop 2021
Canopy layers, an orchard, an herb mound, and 77 percent of the property is "naturescaped."

We love our garden, which not only provides food for wildlife and pollinators but feeds us, too - both our bellies and our souls.

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How to Shop Like a Pro at Estate Sales

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Photo by Tima Miroshnichenko from Pexels.

By Anthony Lee

Editor's note: We're thrilled to bring you guest blogger Anthony Lee, owner of Yard Sale Radar. Yard Sale Radar is a hobbyist-owned business that takes the hassle out of finding or advertising yard and estate sales. The website runs like an app and allows people to search for garage/yard/estate sales based on their locations or with a zip code. Save time and money by easily posting your listing and appear to anyone searching their listings for a yard sale in your area.

If you love the thrill of the hunt that comes with thrifting and yard sales but aren’t visiting any estate sales, you are missing out on an opportunity for amazing vintage finds. Estate sales are like yard sales, but instead of just browsing items they’ve set out on their driveway, you’re perusing through the entire property. They’re usually held for a number of unfortunate reasons. Sometimes the sellers have a need to downsize, or the owners may have passed away. Be that as it may, estate sales provide a unique opportunity for people to walk through a home and find really interesting, affordable goods. Lucky for you, we’ve got some great tips to make sure you go through your first estate sale like a seasoned pro. 

Planning Ahead

First things first, planning ahead is essential. This is especially important if you’re going to visit more than one estate sale in a day. There are some amazing resources for estate sale enthusiasts that make preparing your itinerary a breeze. Yard Sale Radar provides tons of information about America’s top estate and yard sale cities like Denver, Seattle, D.C., and more. Our site allows you to find estate sales in any given zip code. We suggest finding the sales you want to go to in your area of preference, plugging them into Google Maps, and planning your trip a day ahead. Try to get there 30-minutes earlier than the sale begins so you can get first dibs.

Remember, cash is king. Professionally managed estate sales are more likely to accept different payment methods such as credit and debit cards. However, most sales operate on a cash-only basis. Having cash on hand may also give you some negotiating leverage for snagging an item on the spot. So definitely plan a stop at the ATM on the way to your first sale. 

Estate sales are also not baby-proofed. These homes likely have stairs, sharp corners, hard floors, and fragile items throughout, so it’s probably best to leave your two- and four-legged little ones at home.

Pro-tip: In addition to the items within them, many of these properties are for sale (sometimes for epic prices). If you are interested in the property, too, see if they have a listing online. Usually, they’ll have photos of the home, and you can use this as a guide to where the items you desire may reside within the home.

Dress the Part

If you’re on the hunt for clothing items, make sure you wear something that makes it easy to try things on and bring your own bag. For instance, sandals so you can easily slip them on and off to try on shoes or shorts and tank tops so you can slip clothes right over for easy try-on’s. Make sure your shoes are comfortable if you plan on visiting several estate sales in one day. These properties are often large and require lots of walking or waiting outside. As for bags, the most common go-tos are Ikea’s hefty, blue totes. These are great to pile in items at estate sales. If planning on purchasing furniture or larger items, don’t forget to pack your measuring tape. 

Getting There

The driveway is usually reserved for sale workers, so make sure you park in the designated area. (If needed, you can pull up your car to load it later). If you see a line of people waiting outside, walk over to the front door to ask a worker how the estate sale is organized. You may have to put your name on a list or take a number and wait. If there’s no line at all, you are welcome to walk right in. 

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Photo by Tima Miroshnichenko from Pexels.

Time to Shop

Kindness goes a long way. Try to make friends with the workers or people running the sale. They can give you great tips and great deals. If you are searching for something specific, like jewelry, high-end bags, or vintage clothing, kindly ask one of them if there is a designated area for those items. Certain items are sometimes sorted into their own sections. Otherwise, go straight to where you think those items might be. 

Remember that estate sales are sometimes being held for unfortunate or tragic reasons. It’s important to remain respectful and compassionate during your visit. This was once someone’s home, and owners may be grieving or have emotional ties to items being sold, so keep that in mind when you’re walking through their homes and handling each item. 

Don’t skip the places you think might have the least desirable items. You can find unexpected gems in unlikely parts of the house like the basement and even utility rooms. Always remember to scan the patio and yard for planters, plants, and patio decor. Everything is fair game unless marked otherwise. 

Don’t rush. Before checking out, take your time doing one more pass through the entire house. You never know what you are going to miss, especially on tables cluttered with items. 

Estate sales are no-refund, as-is sales, so inspect your items carefully. If you’re purchasing electronics, don’t make the rookie mistake of forgetting to test them beforehand. 

Negotiate

The first day of the estate sale always has the most merchandise, but the last day always has the best deals. If you like multiple items, you can try to bargain for some amazing bundle discounts. Always be courteous, don’t haggle, and ask discreetly, “Is this the best price?” or “Do you negotiate?” If you’re rude to estate sale organizers, they can ban you from future sales so think twice before you bicker with them.

Have Fun

Whether you’re looking to upgrade your wardrobe with vintage designer pieces or make your eclectic home decor dreams come true, estate sales are one of the most underrated places for collecting unique and rare finds. You never know what you’re going to uncover. Happy hunting!

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Once You Bake Your Own Sourdough Pizza Crust, You're Ruined for All Other Pizza

Sourdough_pizza2
One of our recent triumphs, baked on a pizza stone.

By Lisa Brunette

Now that I've explained how to make your own sourdough culture, argued for why baking this way is totally the move, and showed you how to bake a basic bread loaf, it's time for the coup de grace: pizza dough.

Your own sourdough pizza crust will be just that, a crust made from flour, water, and salt, with yeast and bacteria from the sourdough starter. It will not contain added chemical substances or highly processed foodstuffs to make it move more efficiently through industrial machines, to artificially soften or rise better, or to "taste" more palatable after all the nutrients have been stripped away, like every convenience pizza you've ever had delivered, eaten in a restaurant, or heated up from a box.

But making pizza dough is actually easier than making bread. You can create a batch ahead of time, freeze it, and then you've got several balls of dough that just need defrosting before you roll them out for your Friday night pizza.

Step 1: Mix the Dough

  • Start with a full activated culture that's already gone through a culture proof, as described in step 1 here in my instructions for making bread.
  • Mix together the culture, 7 c (980 g) flour, 2 1/2 c (600 ml) water, and 1 1/2 tsp salt in a mixing bowl.
  • Knead it for 30 minutes to develop the gluten. I turn it out on a floured surface for this, as kneading it in the bowl is just too awkward.

A note about flour: I've used both unbleached all-purpose white flour and whole wheat flour, as well as a mix of both. You might have to add more water for whole wheat, something you can sense if the dough is too hard and thick instead of a nice doughy mound you can easily knead. For pizza, you can also use pastry flour. In all cases, I prefer organic, non-GMO if I can get it.

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Here I am in my natural habitat, kneading dough.

Step 2: Proof the Dough

  • Next, put the dough back into the bowl, cover it, and proof for just 4 hours at around 80°F (or 27°C). In the winter, I've set the bowl on a heating register to keep it warm, and that works well. In spring, I use the same Himalayan salt-lamp nightlight method I use for proofing cultures, as described in my post on how to make bread, and this works great, too.
Sourdough17
A ball of pizza dough at the start of its first proof.

Step 3: Punch and Proof Again

  • The dough will have risen. Next comes my favorite part: You punch the dough with your fist to knock it back. This move makes you feel like a baking boss!
  • Then divide it into 6 equally sized balls, arrange these on a baking sheet, cover with plastic wrap, and proof for another 4 hours at room temperature.

They'll rise again, forming 6 nice, puffy dough balls. You can use these to make 6 pizzas right away, or freeze 5 for later. I wrap them individually in plastic wrap and then store them in a repurposed mineral salt bag in our basement freezer. 

Sourdough_pizza

The bag is perfect because it's stiff, and the dough balls get held in place like you see above until they can fully freeze. To defrost, just take a ball out of the freezer before you head to work in the morning, and by the time you get home, it's ready.

Step 4: Form the Pizza

Next comes getting the pizza into that classic pizza pie shape. If you bake it on a pizza stone, the stone will need to be preheated, so you'll definitely want to proof instead on a peel or other surface. Sprinkle the proofing surface with coarse-ground flour, semolina, or regular flour to keep it from sticking when you transfer it to the stone. This is really important! We've had quite a few mishaps when the dough stuck to the surface of our cutting board. But if you're baking it on a metal pizza round or cookie sheet, go ahead and form it there. 

  • Press the dough ball with the heel of your hand to flatten it. 
  • Keep pressing until a ridge forms on the edge.
  • Hold the ridge in both hands, lift the dough, and let its weight stretch the crust.
  • Turn, press, and pull until you have a 10-inch circle of crust.
  • Let it sit for 30 minutes to an hour for a final proof.
Pizza dough rolled out
We form the pizza on this peel, sprinkled with coarse-ground whole wheat.

I highly recommend baking it on a pizza stone, like this vintage Pampered Chef stoneware pizza round for sale on the Etsy shop Nonna's Kitchen Table. The pizza never sticks to the stone, it cooks the pizza evenly, and there's little cleanup afterward.

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Image courtesy Nonna's Kitchen Table.

The baking stone gives you a perfect crust bottom, to rival any restaurant. To alleviate the problem with transferring the pizza to the stone, though, we've purchased this awesome peel from the Etsy shop Ziruma. It's a beautiful piece to display in your home kitchen, with its (sustainably harvested) teakwood grain and manta ray shape.

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Image courtesy Ziruma.

Step 5: Bake!

  • Transfer the pizza to the stone or other baking surface, add toppings, and bake for 7-9 minutes at 500°F (260°C).
  • When the edges turn brown, it's ready!
Toppings going on
Pizza toppings going on. This one had garlic scapes, onions, oregano, and mushrooms from our garden, as well as uncured bacon from a local source.

I promise you'll be ruined for all other pizza once you taste your own homemade sourdough crust. And your body will love you for avoiding all that extra food gick in the commercial pizzas.

Finished pizza
The finished pizza.
Slicing pizza
The crispy crust slices easily.

 

Pizza bottom
Here you can see the bottom is done perfectly.

 

Note: This post contains Etsy affiliate links. If you purchase using the links, Cat in the Flock might earn a commission.

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How to Bake Homemade Sourdough Bread

Sourdough24
I love to get my hands in the dough.

By Lisa Brunette

Now that I've explained how to start your own sourdough culture, capturing wild yeast from the air, and argued for why this method of bread making is the best for your health and wellbeing, I'll show you how to make a basic sourdough loaf.

During my month-and-a-half hiatus from this blog, I was worried that I'd lost that lovely spring window when the temperatures are just right for activating (or reactivating) sourdough cultures. The temps here in the Midwest shot up to the 100s last week. But today it's a cool 73°F, and if our Seattle readers weren't under a once-in-a-lifetime heat wave, they'd just now be hitting perfect culture weather here at the end of "Juneuary." Since we also have readers all over the world, I'm sure a good number of you out there are experiencing optimum sourdough culture weather, or else you can create the conditions for it in your home kitchens. I'll also show you some techniques for creating these ideal conditions below.

A classic loaf of sourdough bread begins with a culture. If you don't already have a culture, please see my post on how to create one. If you have a fresh, fully active culture, skip step 1 below and go directly to step 2. If your culture has gone dormant in the fridge, begin with step 1.

Also, it's a good idea to schedule out the steps below to flow over the next few days so that you're giving yourself the right times of day for the kneading and baking. If you don't, you could end up like I did, being forced to stay up until midnight to bake bread because I'd timed it all wrong. Not that fresh-baked bread in the wee hours isn't a wonderful thing, hey, baker's hours and all, but I find it's much more relaxing if I've got it timed more reasonably. For those of us with full-time jobs, baking bread is the perfect 3-day weekend activity.

Step 1: Reactivate Your Culture

Unless you bake every week, your refrigerated culture has likely gone dormant, and dormancy also means it's turned a bit acidic. It will look something like this.

Sourdough12

See how the liquid has sort of separated from the culture matter? You'll need to warm, feed, and remix the culture to get it active enough to use for bread making.

I use Weck jars for my cultures (pictured above), and they work incredibly well because of the rubber gasket and metal clamp seals. If you don't have any Weck jars, let me draw your attention to where you can order them via this Etsy shop, Wild Roots Vintage. But any jar with a good seal will do.

  • While mixing the culture vigorously, add warm water to fill the jar.
  • Reserve a little more than a cup in the jar, and use the rest in something else (another starter, perhaps, or pancakes).
  • Now add 2/3 cup (90 g) unbleached, all-purpose flour to the jar culture and enough water to thicken it to resemble pancake batter (hmm... kind of a pancake theme here). Now the jar's about half full, and I'm not just saying that because I'm an optimist. 
  • Next, proof the culture at 70-75°F (21-24°C) for 2-4 hours. Cover it with a towel to keep pets and insects out. The amount of time depends on how dormant your culture was. Give it additional feedings if it doesn't respond within 2 hours. It should foam and bubble and smell delightfully sour in that unmistakeable sourdough way. Don't be afraid to peek at it, sniff it; get up-close-and-personal with your culture.
  • It's ready when it increases in volume by about 2 inches. I mark the level around the jar with a rubber band when I first feed it to measure how much it bubbles up. If it's not foamy after 4 hours, feed it again, adding 2/3 cup of flour and enough water to maintain that pancake batter consistency.

A note about flour: I've used both unbleached all-purpose white flour and whole wheat flour, as well as a mix of both. You might have to add more water for whole wheat, something you can sense if the dough is too hard and thick instead of a nice doughy mound you can easily knead. In all cases, I prefer organic, non-GMO if I can get it.

If you successfully reactivated it, your culture should look like this.

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One of my successfully reactivated cultures, this one made from wheat flour.

Or even this.

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It's a thing of beauty, ain't it?

Step 2: Proof the Culture

OK, so you're not quite to the point where you can bake bread yet. But yay, you! The culture's active and ready for the first step in bread making, which is the culture proof. I left this step out in one of my bread-making forays, and that was how I came to understand what Paul Hollywood is talking about on The Great British Baking Show when he tells contestants their bread is "underproofed." So don't skip this step!

  • Cut the culture in half again, putting the other half in another jar (why not use it for your second loaf of bread, or pizza dough?).
  • Add that 2/3 c (90 g) of flour again, with enough water for the pancake batter consistency.

Now you're going to proof again, this time for a total of 8-12 hours. Yeah, that's why you have to step this out in advance. For optimum results, I follow the recommendation in Ed and Jean Wood's Classic Sourdoughs, which is to proof at 65-70°F (18-21°C) for the first 2-3 hours and then at 80-85°F (26-29°C) for the final 6-10 hours. HOWEVER, this is not rocket science; getting the precise temperature can be a challenge, so don't stress about it. Here's what I do, and it works well:

  • Proof at room temperature for the first 2-3 hours. This usually gives you that 65-70°F (18-21°C) in winter (maybe you turn the heat down or up, depending; I usually have to turn it up), but I've done it when it's slightly warmer in springtime, and it's fine. If you have the A/C on, you might adjust to fit, but again, I wouldn't worry if it's 5-10 degrees warmer (F). Conversely, if your room temperature happens to be 80-85°F (26-29°C), then take the culture into a cool basement or other cooler space for its first round of proofing.

For the 80-85°F (26-29°C), the Woods recommend a Styrofoam proofing box with a light bulb apparatus, but like I said in my post on making a sourdough starter, if you're not handy with electrical rigs, this might be a bit outside your area. Judging by what happens on The Great British Baking Show, European kitchens are equipped with a wonderful device called a "proofing drawer," but I've never seen one in the States, which is too bad. Instead, I handle this in two different manners, whether it's winter or spring.

  • In winter, I turn my oven on at its lowest setting, let it warm up, turn it off, and proof in there. The oven retains heat for a good while, staying in the right range so that you only have to repeat this process every 2-3 hours. Hat-tip to my mother for this method.
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Fresh starters going into the warm oven for the culture proof.
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Here's the bubbly result.
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Four cultures, under a nightlight...
Sourdough21
...And now tented.

I would not recommend using a regular nightlight, with an exposed bulb, as they can get really hot! My nightlight doesn't get that hot, and the salt lamp portion is very thick. Tented, it's just warm enough to create the perfect proofing environment... and maybe there's something to the fact that these salt lamps are supposed to be therapeutic? In fact, I came up with this idea this spring, and who knows? It might work in the winter, too. But please be careful and use your best judgment. Bread's amazing, but it's not worth burning the house down.

I've never needed as long as 12 hours for the culture proof. It usually looks great within 6-8, but your conditions might need the full 12.

Step 3: Proof the Dough

Now you have a culture you can use in any recipe calling for one. Here's how to make a basic sourdough loaf.

  • Pour 1 c (240 ml) of culture into a large mixing bowl.
  • Mix in 1 tsp salt and 1 c (240 ml) water.
  • Add 3 1/2 c (490 g) of flour, 1 c at a time, mixing until it's too stiff to work this way.
  • Turn it out onto a floured board.
  • Knead in the rest of the flour until the dough is satiny and smooth.

A note on kneading: This is the really fun part. I like to work up a rhythm with my kneading, like this.

  • If things aren't coming together right, you can try adding more flour or water to get that smooth dough consistency.
  • Once it's satiny, place the dough back in the bowl and cover. I use a glass Pyrex bowl with a plastic lid for this; you will want to secure the top with plastic wrap if you don't have a lid.
  • Proof the dough overnight (8-12 hours) at room temperature (70°F or 21°C). Note my house is never this cold unless it's that temperature outside; I've proofed it at 75-80°F, no problem. 

The dough should double in size; that's how you know it's done.

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After the dough proof.
  • Rest the dough for 30 minutes. If it flattens down, you can knead in more flour.
  • Now you can shape the dough. Flatten it a bit, lift a portion from the edge, and pull it into the middle of the loaf, forming an imperfect ball. Then shape it into any form you like.

Step 4: Proof the Loaf

You can bake your loaf in a bread loaf pan or on a baking sheet or ceramic stone. I find the stone is far and away the best, for both bread and pizza. Here's a vintage Pampered Chef baking stone for sale on Etsy, if you're so inclined.

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Image courtesy How Fast Time Flies store on Etsy.
  • If you're using a baking stone, it will need to be preheated before you bake with it, so just place the loaf on some other surface (such as a baking sheet) for the loaf proof. Cover with a kitchen towel, or upturned bowl, and proof for 2-4 hours until it has doubled in bulk.

Step 5: Bake!

Now for the best part, right? There is nothing better than the smell of sourdough bread baking in your oven. 

  • First, slash the surface of the bread dough with a razor blade. This allows expanding gases to escape. Slashing is kind of an art; let's just say I'm still working on this one.

You have two options for baking:

  1. If you're using a loaf pan or baking sheet, put the bread in the oven while it's still cool, and then set the temperature for 375°F (190°C) and bake for 70 minutes.
  2. For the stone, heat the oven to 450°F (230°C), allow the stone to pre-heat in the oven, and then carefully transfer the loaf to the preheated stone. Bake for 40 minutes at 450°F (230°C).

Let the loaf cool on a rack when it's done, and then ENJOY.

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A finished loaf of sourdough wheat bread (I forgot to slash it, though).
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Another one of my finished loaves. You can see I slashed too deeply on the left-most cut. Next time...
2 loaves
Another batch of two loaves. The one on the left is just about perfect!

 

Note: This post contains Etsy affiliate links. If you purchase using the links, Cat in the Flock might earn a commission.

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Why You Should Bake with 'Wild Caught' Sourdough

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The results of a baking spree this spring: whole-wheat sourdough bread and pizza, both made with "wild-caught" yeast.

By Lisa Brunette

After a much longer hiatus than I anticipated, I'm finally back to follow up on my last post on how to create a sourdough starter. This time, I want to argue for why you should bake with homemade sourdough cultures.

First, though, let me be honest: Baking your own sourdough bread takes time, effort, and patience. This is no convenience food, nor should it be. So why bother to go to the trouble? For me, the reason is simple: homemade sourdough is the only bread I can eat without triggering both immediate mast cell reactions and long-term mast cell complications. That's a powerful motivator. But I'm not the only one who's ever struggled with bread - we seem to be in the throes of a cultural backlash against it, judging by the enduring popularity of "gluten-free" alternatives. After a lifetime of trial and error on this issue, I'm going to say that it's not actually the wheat that's the problem; it's all the bad things we add to the wheat.

Think about this: "gluten" allergies are a peculiarly contemporary phenomenon. For ten thousand years, and maybe longer, human beings have eaten wheat gluten, largely without incident, until now. Yes, there have likely always been people with legitimate celiac disease, like my uncle, who can't even eat store-bought, already-shredded cheese because a common ingredient used to keep the shreds from clumping together is some kind of flour or other wheat-gluten product. But this pervasive conviction that so many of us are "gluten intolerant"? It's pretty new and seems to have coincided with the rise of genetically modified foods, mechanized farming dependent on chemical fertilizer, pesticide use for insect and weed control, and the increased introduction of stabilizers, fillers, additives, and preservatives into our food, or even, increasingly, taking the place of our food. 

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A sourdough starter just beginning to bubble. This is how bread was made for most of human history.

One of the best articles written on this subject is Michael Specter's The New Yorker piece from 2014, "Against the Grain." Well-researched, long-form journalism can change your thinking, if not your life, and this one had that effect on me. A few stats from the piece:

  • About 1% of the population suffers from bonafide celiac disease (an extreme intolerance to wheat that can be reliably diagnosed by testing for a marker), and the other 99% "rarely gave gluten much thought" until the 2010s, when gluten intolerance really became a thing.
  • No other food source provides as much nourishment as wheat, and it also provides a full 20% of global calories. 
  • Gluten-free is a big business. Since The New Yorker stats are now a bit dated, here's one from this year: The gluten-free market was estimated at $22 billion in 2019 and is expected to reach $36 billion by 2026, according to Global Newswire.

According to Specter, there are two things going on with wheat that warrant investigation: 1) the incidence of diagnosed, verified celiac disease has quadrupled in the past sixty years, and 2) about 20 million people (and probably more now) do not have celiac disease but associate gluten with their health issues. Scientists do not know why celiac has increased. Nor can they explain the gluten-intolerance phenomenon.

So Specter consulted the research on gluten, and here's what he found: Studies did not conclusively show gluten to be the true trigger of symptoms. Instead, the evidence pointed to a group of foods called FODMAPs as the only real culprit in case studies. In the past seven years, more people attempting to chase down the source of their digestive issues have since shifted over to low-FODMAP diets, but such diets are harder to observe than the gluten-free, and far less popular (or trendy).

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A couple of beautifully active cultures.

So why do people think they feel better because they've adopt a gluten-free diet? Specter offers one possibility:

Cutting back on foods that contain gluten often helps people reduce their consumption of refined carbohydrates, bread, beer, and other highly caloric foods. When followed carefully, those restrictions help people lose weight, particularly if they substitute foods like quinoa and lentils for the starches they had been eating. 

But those who see results from a gluten-free diet are the few who've managed not to succumb to the temptations of today's gluten-free packaged food offerings. Specter makes an excellent point about such grocery-store staples: They ain't health food. I noticed years ago by reading labels that gluten-free food often contains more sugar and fat than their wheat-filled counterparts. A celiac disease specialist interviewed in the piece says, "Often, gluten-free versions of traditional wheat-based foods are actually junk food."

Side note: It's the same with vegetarianism and veganism. People often perceive themselves to feel better after going that route, likely due to some health benefits gained from an improved diet overall. But the pitfall is that a lot of meatless products - especially meat "replacements" - are laden with unhealthy components, or outright stuffed with additives and fillers. And don't get me started on vegetarians who basically load up on cheese and other dairy products to fill the void left when they take out meat, a trap I once fell into myself.

So gluten-free diets are neither scientifically proven to work, nor from a nutritional standpoint are they a good solution. But still: Celiac has increased fourfold, and people report experiencing symptoms associated with wheat products. For Specter, this meant taking a look at how exactly wheat and the products made with it have changed in modern times. He contrasts the traditional way of making bread to today's largely artificial method. For tens of thousands of years, bakers used only water, flour, and the fermentation process to create a sourdough culture, and to that, they added more flour and water, a little salt and kneading, and after baking, they had their precious loaf. Today, the standard is much less, shall we say, organic:

In place of hydration, fermentation, and kneading, manufacturers save time by relying on artificial additives and huge industrial mixers to ram together the essential proteins that form gluten.

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Fostering wild yeast cultures can be a highly satisfying activity.

One of the components frequently added to wheat products is vital wheat gluten. Most commercial bread available in grocery stores today - and yes, that includes your favorite ridiculously overpriced brand of organic, whole-grain, non-GMO whatever loaf, has had loads of vital wheat gluten added to it. Described by one blogger as "your normal wheat flour... on steroids," it's basically wheat with everything else removed, or only the gluten. Specter rightly questions whether the gluten-intolerance problem stems from all this extra gluten we're ingesting, the effects of which have never been properly studied.

But I want to stay with that mention of artificial additives and huge industrial mixers to expand the problem beyond just vital wheat gluten. 

As I mentioned in my post on how to create a sourdough culture, my go-to resource is Ed and Jean Wood's Classic Sourdoughs: A Home Baker's Handbook. In the introduction, the Woods hit on the crux of the problem with today's bread:

Within just the last hundred years, there have been monumental changes to what we call bread, and these changes are mostly for the worse. Not only do huge baking machines now dominate the production of bread, the baking industry adds a plethora of chemicals to flour and dough to change their physical characteristics and improve their 'machinability.' These include surface-active agents (surfactants) to help doughs go through machinery without sticking or tearing, other chemicals to soften the final bread texture or strengthen the dough by modifying the gluten, and a host of emulsifiers just to improve the mixing characteristics or increase shelf life. All of these additives have one thing in common: no, or very limited, nutritional value. At least one of them, potassium bromate, has been banned worldwide as a potential carcinogen.

In centralized industrial bakeries, large baking conglomerates produce packaged breads and refrigerated or frozen dough for distribution to retail stores and local bakeries. The distribution of industrial bread doughs means that even if a bread is baked fresh at a local bakery, it often still contains all the additives and chemicals included by the wholesale producers to grease its progress through the massive machinery - and none of the beneficial microflora that make bread taste like bread. And this is not only an American story: the deterioration of bread quality is a worldwide phenomenon, occurring in the European heartlands of great bread.

So you might ask yourself: Are you really "allergic to" or "intolerant of" wheat, or is your body trying to tell you something about all the things in your bread besides wheat? As someone who's gone gluten-free a few times in my life, I can tell you, it's probably not the answer, at least not long-term. 

Of course, if you don't want to eat wheat, don't eat wheat. If you feel better without it, by all means, avoid it. I just think you need to take a good, hard look at what you're really eating, with our without wheat in your diet, how it makes you feel, and why. And if you miss bread and want to find a way to bring it back into your life in a much more positive, nourishing way, then I say go out and capture yourself some wild yeast. Bread's not called the staff of life for nothing, you know.

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