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Our 'Cool Season' Annual Gardening Report Card 2021

Snap Peas on Vine
Sugar snap peas on the vine.

By Lisa Brunette

Last year we got a very late start on our vegetable gardening, so we didn't enjoy much of a cool season, outside of some arugula and a heaping supply of chervil. But this year, I was determined to plan things better. Armed with this extremely helpful vegetable planting calendar from Gateway Greening, I updated my sowing schedule, shifting everything earlier.

For those of you new to the idea, the "cool season" is the first planting season of the year, in early spring here in the Midwest, when you can sow seeds and seedlings for vegetables that like cooler temperatures. A lot of people wait until May or June and plant everything in one go, but you can make better use of your space if you stagger your plantings in successions, starting with the early cool season vegetables in March, continuing with warm season vegetables in May, and then sowing a fall crop to last through the first gleanings of winter.

Early Spring Seeds
Southern Exposure Seed Exchange is my new go-to for seeds.

The other change I made was in where I source my seeds. Last year I'd scored most of our seeds at the Missouri Botanical Garden Shop, using our 30% member discount to purchase seeds put out by Botanical Interests. I supplemented that with seeds from Seed Savers Exchange. But this year I took advantage of Gateway Greening's super-duper seed offerings, getting them for $1 and $1.50 a packet, an even better deal than I'd had with the botanical garden member discount. I also purchased more than half our seeds from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange. Because SESE operates out of Virginia, they're much more focused on plants that do well in hot, humid conditions, a better fit for our zone 6a/7 needs than Seed Savers, which is in northern Iowa, and Botanical Interests, which is more of a mass-market outlet.

What stayed the same: I still don't have an indoor location to grow seedlings that will stay warm enough, get enough sunlight, and stand up to the cat's tendency to dig in the dirt. So again, we sowed seeds directly into the ground.

Last year I graded us a C for our spring food gardening; this year, I'm upgrading us to a solid B - maybe even a B+? You decide. Let me break it down for you by harvested crop, in order of when they went into the garden.

Spring Food 21
An open-faced sammy made with herbed cottage cheese on a bed of arugula, topped with violets.

Arugula

Remarkably, we're still getting arugula from that one packet of seeds sown last spring. Remember my tarp method? I repeated it again with the fall 2020 crop and got a third harvest this year already. So by using a simple tarp, I've turned otherwise annual arugula into a kind of self-seeding perennial. It was a great food to pair with the edible violets, blooming at the same time in March and April.

Peas

The first planting in earnest this spring was peas, and I opted for two kinds, both from SESE: 'Sugar Snap Tall' snap peas and 'Green Arrow Dwarf' English shelling peas. These vining plants need support, and that's where our free supply of bamboo from a neighbor came in handy.

Pea Tripod w: Anthony
Anthony, setting up the bamboo tripod supports.

I'd never built a pea trellis before, but I know the tiny pea tendrils need a rather slender something-or-other to grab onto. So we wound the bamboo poles with twine.

Pea Trellis
Winding the twine.

This method worked, but I don't know that we'd do it that way again. It was time-consuming to build and used a LOT of twine. If you have any great ideas for low-cost pea trellises, tell us in the comments below.

In 2020, the rabbits ate the peas as soon they emerged from the ground, way too tempting a treat early in the spring when there are not as many other choices. So this time, we fenced in the peas. I scored a set of modular fence panels on clearance at Menard's; these have stakes that fit into the ground, and the fences can be easily lifted up and moved wherever you need them. They're attractive, too, with a hummingbird-and-flower motif. The chicken wire sections in the panels proved to be a perfect climbing surface for pea vines.

Pea Trellis with Fence
The trellis, surrounded by fencing to keep out rabbits. The added benefit is that the fence also acted as a vine support.

We put the peas in the ground on March 6 and harvested them in late May and for most of June. Our pea harvest was pretty phenomenal, with a high germination rate and productive vines. First we ate some of the shoots, as they can replace beef kidney pills as part of my treatment for MCAS. By the end of May, we had an excellent crop of both snap and shelling peas. They tasted better than any peas we've ever bought from a grocery store! We will definitely grow them again, probably even doubling up on the quantity. While my friend Claire over at Living Low in the Lou doesn't rate peas highly, saying they take up a lot of space for the amount of food they produce, we grew them really close together and had both high germination and yield. It's enough to put them back on our list for 2022.

Peas on Vine
An English shelling pea, ripening in the sun.
Pea Flowers
Pea flowers.
Shelling Peas
Shelling peas is a meditative and satisfying activity.

We did have one area of abject failure related to peas. I made the mistake of putting in black-eyed peas at the same time as the peas above, and none of them germinated, probably because the soil was still too cold. Later, I learned they're not a classic Southern dish for nothing; black-eyed peas (and crowder peas) like it hot and humid. Next time, we wait till May for those.

Lettuce

Whoa, lettuce! We had a bumper crop this year, with all three varieties from SESE thriving: 'Jericho' romaine, 'Bronze Arrow' loose leaf, and 'Crawford' bibb. It was actually too much lettuce for the two of us - I don't think I've ever eaten so much salad in my life - so we ended up giving away a lot to friends and family. All three varieties we sowed as seeds directly into the soil on March 13 and began harvesting in early May. We put them in right next to the peas, a good companion plant.

Lettuce Going In
A row of lettuce, next to the peas.

In case you had any doubt about this, rabbits love lettuce. So it behooved us to enclose them in the fenced area. While we enjoy the rabbit family we're fostering through wildlife conservation habitats, we do have to set boundaries. There's plenty else for them to eat without snacking on our food plants.

Teacup
We can't help it. We named this one Teacup.

But rabbits and people can coexist; it's a matter of finding out what the rabbits like to eat that isn't your food plant, giving them plenty of it, and then cordoning off your tasty veggies. Yay, modular fencing!

Peas and Lettuce
Lettuce and peas, fenced.

As the pop star Prince once sang, "Sometimes it snows in April." We had a freak snowstorm late that month, and many a leaf withered. So there is that risk in putting in the seeds as early as mid-March. But the Jericho and Bronze Arrow were virtually unfazed by this setback and indeed seemed to strengthen in response to the sudden burst of chill. 

We likely won't grow the bibb again, though. It didn't yield as much for the space it takes up, it withered the most during the cold snap, and even though it sprang back no problem, those dead leaves were still wrapped into the bibb head, making harvesting more of a challenge. The bibb also bolted; whereas, the other two lettuces did not.

Spring Veggies Sprouting 21
From left to right: Beets, carrots, lettuce, peas.

Beets and Carrots

On the other side of the lettuce, we planted rows of beets and carrots, which also need protection from rabbits. We sowed these seeds on March 20, easily moving the fence line over a space to accommodate the new row. The carrots are a variety called 'New Kuroda,' and they come from Gateway Greening. GG staff grow the carrots in their demonstration garden and save the seeds to sell to the public each year. The New Kurodas also had a high germination rate, a good yield, and are quite tasty.

Carrots
The 'New Kuroda' variety is tasty and attractive. We also eat the greens; they're great chopped up in rice.

The beets, however, haven't done well. I might have to throw in the towel, as this is my third failed attempt at beets. Or maybe I'll try a SESE variety next year; these were an inexpensive Ferry-Morse seed packet I got in the Gateway Greening super sale - called 'Tall Top Early Wonder.' The only wondering I did about them was why they didn't come in better!

Kale 21
Kale growing in a strip on the side of our house.

Kale

Kale was one of our few triumphs last year, and some of those same plants continue to produce to this day. Also on March 20 of this year, we sowed a new row along the side of our house. It took off and is still producing. This was SESE's 'Premier' kale.

Cabbage Patch Obelisk
An obelisk, in the middle of our cabbage patch, because it's too heavy to move.

Green Cabbage

We unearthed an obelisk of sorts when we dug up the bed for cabbage. It looks like the rebar and concrete foundation for some large structure - perhaps the garage that once stood in the backyard. We recently found out from a neighbor that the garage was destroyed by a fallen tree. That might explain this obelisk and definitely tells us why we're constantly digging up bricks.

We planted cabbage on March 20 as well, a busy day for the garden. It had a high germination rate, seemed to also improve from that late-April snowstorm, and has given us lovely heads of cabbage. 

Cabbage Head 21
'Early Golden Acre' green cabbage.

I read that you can cut the main head once it's grapefruit-sized, leaving the plant and its outer leaves, and more heads will form. I'm happy to report this is very much the case.

More cabbages
After cutting the main head, several more smaller ones form on the laterals.

We sowed 'Early Golden Acre' green cabbage (Ferry-Morse seeds) and harvested our first heads on June 19, with more still forming as of July 17. It's been a steady stream of cabbage dishes and sauerkraut up in here.

Sauerkraut
Anthony's been perfecting his sauerkraut recipe, and I reap the benefits.

Potatoes

On March 27, we put our seed potatoes in the ground after a round of chitting. Chitting is how you prepare them for the garden; first, you cut them into wedges, with each wedge possessing at least one eye. Then you let the cut sides heal over, which protects the seed potato from rot. Once healed over, you plant them.

Potatoes Going In
Seed potatoes going in.

We planted the potatoes on either side of a plot of horseradish, a perennial and good companion, as it's supposed to ward off potato beetle. We ordered half the amount we'd sown last year; after the 'poop potato' incident, I wanted to make sure we have this thing down before investing too heavily. I ordered two varieties from SESE: 'Keuka Gold' and 'Banana' fingerling.

Alas, our yield this year was poor. This could be from a number of factors:

  1. That snowstorm in April withered the plants. Even though they seemed to fully spring back, this might have had an effect.
  2. We didn't realize it, but there was quite a bit of rubble underneath where we'd planted the seed potatoes, from that aforementioned garage destruction. These might have inhibited their growth.
  3. We got really busy this spring running our company (Brunette Games), and we forgot to hill up around the plants.
  4. The potatoes were planted in soil that had been converted from lawn the previous year, so nematodes likely still present ate the potatoes.

This is half our harvest.

Potato harvest
At least it was enough to make a big potato salad for my family's 4th of July party.

I'm still thinking on whether or not we should shift the potatoes back to May... or even just April. Our friend Claire doesn't get started out there in her garden until May, but her location offers cooler temps and very different soil, plus she has a greenhouse where she can start seeds for transplanting; whereas, we sow seeds directly into the soil. Decisions, decisions...

I think we'll start the lettuce, peas, kale, and carrots at the same time next year, as those all worked out great. We can improve on the carrots by being more diligent about thinning them early on, but otherwise, everything was stellar. I'll do some research on beets, and I also want to find something else that can coincide with that early lettuce. It really makes you realize how dependent we are on the fossil fuel system and grocery stores for our modern ideal of the "salad." A lot of salad ingredients - tomatoes and cucumbers, for example - come in much later, when it's too hot (here, at least) for lettuce. So eating with the seasons means your salad won't feature those veggies.

Well, that wraps the 'cool season' annuals. We had great success with arugula, peas, lettuce, kale, carrots, and cabbage. Black-eyed peas, beets, and potatoes challenged us, however, so perhaps we should stay at a solid B. What do you think?

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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.

Sourdough16
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.

Il_794xN.3044449684_b1n5
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.

Il_794xN.2858328219_cnk0
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.

Sourdough22
One of my successfully reactivated cultures, this one made from wheat flour.

Or even this.

Sourdough10
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.
Sourdough14
Fresh starters going into the warm oven for the culture proof.
Sourdough15
Here's the bubbly result.
Sourdough20
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.

Sourdough8
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.

Il_1588xN.3094582850_5fm6
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.

Sourdough26
A finished loaf of sourdough wheat bread (I forgot to slash it, though).
Sourdough9
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

Sourdough11
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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Now's the Perfect Time to Start That Sourdough

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By Lisa Brunette

A sourdough starter is a thing of beauty and seeming magic. All it takes is a bowl of water and flour, and you can 'catch' wild yeast from the atmosphere, claiming it as your own to use in everything from a simple loaf of bread to pancakes and pizza dough. 

If you've never done this before and are relying on commercial yeast packets for your baking projects, you don't know what you're missing. I highly encourage you to give wild sourdough a try. Not only is the flavor and texture far superior, but it's a lot healthier for you, too. As someone who suffers from Mast Cell Activation Syndrome, I can tell you that wild sourdough is pretty much the only bread I can eat without triggering symptoms. Since I love bread, creating my own sourdough has been more than worth the effort to bring bread back into my life. As it turns out, the process is also thoroughly satisfying.

Spring is a great time to start sourdough because the yeast thrives in the mildly warm temperature range of 65 to 85°F (18-29°C). Any colder, and it can be tough to capture that yeast; any hotter, and the flour/water mixture can quickly become acidic. I captured my culture last spring - over a week in late May to early June during relatively mild weather for my region at that time of year. I've nurtured it over the course of the past 12 months, baking with it, letting it go dormant, and then reactivating it to bake again for what I like to call MY YEAR IN SOURDOUGH. Now I can confidently report back to you on what works and what doesn't. This is a four-part series starting with... what else? The start.

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It's something of a miracle that you can stick a flour/water mixture outside and voilá! You've got yourself a sourdough starter. Of course, it's not quite that easy. There's a fair amount of babying, coaxing, feeding, waiting, babying, coaxing, feeding, and waiting some more until the magic happens. 

What didn't work for me? YouTube videos. Unfortunately, in this case, the algorithm's highest-ranking videos all tell you to do things in kind of silly ways, using methods that at best fail to rely on the collective historic wisdom of true sourdough artisans and at worst just don't work at all.

What brought success in spades? Following (and modifying) the advice laid out in Ed and Jean Wood's excellent book, Classic Sourdoughs: A Home Baker's Handbook. We inherited this book from Anthony's mother, A. Grace, when she passed in 2011, and it's just a pity I hadn't cracked it open sooner. We don't get anything in exchange for this endorsement, but here's the book if you want to check it out, with a link to where you can buy it used without involving the almighty 'Zon in the purchase.

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One of the best things about Classic Sourdoughs is that it doesn't present a one-size-fits-all approach but rather educates you on the nature of sourdough so you can adjust and adapt to your own environment. And that's crucial.

I live in a Midwestern river town, and even by late May, our air gets steamy, the humidity index high. But luckily, the temperature stayed under 85°F for that week or so that I successfully captured a sourdough culture. If you're in a more northern area, you might need to create a proofing box, which you can do with a standard Styrofoam cooler and socket light. This is outlined in Classic Sourdoughs, but I have not done it myself.

Another option is to capture the culture in the candle warmth of a (solar) Sun Oven set up inside, which is on my list to try as soon as we can. Cat in the Flock might receive a commission if you purchase a Sun Oven through this link, at no extra cost to you. Sun Oven is doing important work to promote solar energy and bring sun ovens to villages that dearly need them.

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But if you've got a lovely springtime range of 65-85°F (18-29°C), you should have no problem starting your culture. I strongly recommend doing this outside, as indoor air can be drier, less biodiverse, and laden with household contaminants, especially if you don't have the windows open. We tend to wait until the last minute to turn on the A/C, so our windows were open last year in late May, but I started the culture outside anyway. 

STEP 1

Ingredients:

  • 2 cups (280 g) of flour
  • 1 1/2 cups (380 ml) warm water
  • A glass bowl
  • Cheesecloth or another type of screen to cover the bowl
  • Something to use to secure the screen over the bowl

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 once you get to the dough stage, 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.

Vigorously stir the flour and water together, introducing enough air into the mix. A sourdough starter consists of both bacteria and yeast, and they need air to thrive. Don't freak out that I said "bacteria." Some bacteria is good for you, and in this case, it's what gives the sourdough its flavor. The yeast provides texture.

STEP 2

You shouldn't cover the bowl with a lid or plastic or anything else that will prevent the organisms from finding your flour and water. If you're worried about insects getting into it, cover with cheesecloth or another fine-mesh screen. I used a splatter shield held down with a rock to keep both insects and critters out. Now, you wait...

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STEP 3

Give the mixture a good stirring at least twice every 24 hours. During this time I checked it occasionally, eyeing its consistency and sniffing to make sure the odor was right. If the odor heads south, that means it's been taken over by undesirable organisms, and in that case, you'll need to start over. This happened to me once; actually, what happened was I had a great start pretty much right away but didn't understand that's what I had and left it out too long, at which point it went bad.

The mixture should begin to bubble a bit after 2-3 days. At this point, add 1 cup (140 g) of flour and enough water to maintain consistency. I had to repeat these "feedings" a few times before I got a fully active culture on my second round. Let this take the time it takes, even if you go beyond the four or five days recommended in Classic Sourdoughs. As long as the culture's trending toward activity and doesn't look or smell bad, you're on the right track. A fully active culture will look spectacular and alive. To some this means "bubbly," but to others it means "foamy." Here's an example.

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You might experiment with different locations, too. While the photos above show my culture mix sitting on top of a garden table, because it wasn't protected from rain in that location, I eventually moved it to under our back porch, in the walk-down stairway to our basement, where it seemed to thrive, out of both rain and sun.

Once you've got a nice, active culture, you can bake with it immediately, but definitely reserve some of the original for future baking. You can also store it in the fridge to use later. I recommend labeling it as sourdough starter and including the date. This is now your start, your buddy, your friend; it will stick with you through life if you keep feeding it. The Woods recommend doing this every couple of months even if you're not baking, and I concur. I had two starts, one of which I baked with every two months. It's still my winner. The other one went four months' dormant in the fridge, and I opened it this spring to find it had gone bad: black fuzz and a terrible smell. I had to pitch it.

But the good one! Oh, the things I've baked... I'll tell you all about it in a future post.

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