In the Living Kitchen

Musings, memories, meals in the making.

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Beginner’s Bread

I am currently on day 5 of a 21 day detox.  Can you guess one of the foods I have chosen not to eat for three+ weeks?  Bread, lovely bread.  (I haven’t given up carbohydrates though!  Make no mistake about that!)  So, while I am in the midst of detoxing my entire life, I thought I could unload this post, which I started weeks ago after I got my hands on a much much appreciated sourdough starter from a friend.

I love reading cookbooks, so I know that sourdough bread is not seen in the real world as the easiest bread ever.  There are actual, conflicting schools of thought on the subject of making the “perfect loaf” of sourdough bread.  Not to mention the insanely precise bread baking books, that insist everyone weigh every ingredient and follow their instructions TO THE LETTER.

Well, let me just say that the first wild yeast bread was probably an accident, so how hard can it be?  Besides, precision is meaningless to the inexperienced baker who has never felt a good dough in their hands, or seen what nicely risen dough looks like.  Just so you know, all those inexperienced bakers out there, sourdough bread is much easier to make than commercial yeast bread.  Yes I said it!  Much easier, and much tastier.

Sourdough cultures are natural yeast and bacterial colonies that thrive in a wet flour mixture.  As long as they are treated right these colonies can live hundreds of years.  Every starter has its own unique characteristics that show themselves in the flavor, texture and crumb of the bread.

So why doesn’t everyone make sourdough bread?   Despite the ease of making bread with a sourdough culture, the time factor is a major issue.  For example, when I make sourdough bread, I schedule my life around the dough’s needs for three days.  It’s like tending to children, pets, or any other living organism.  Bad things could happen if the dough is left unattended.  Well, one bad thing, over-proofing.

I have a very simple method for making a very splendid bread.  This method is not scientific, it’s not really detailed, and it doesn’t even explain all the know-how that I actually do know-how.  (Because in reality, I think that there is real value in precision.  Weighing ingredients in bread making is actually extremely important, but we all have to start somewhere, right?)

I use a liquid starter.  A liquid starter has a pretty much equal ratio of flour to water.  Some people prefer a stiff starter, which is more like bread dough in consistency.

Here is my beginner’s method for sourdough bread.  This is my version of pecan raisin bread.  There’s nothing in it but flour, water, salt, starter, pecans and raisins.  The water that is used to soak the raisins is also used as the water in the dough.  This gives the bread a wonderful tan color and also adds a sweet tang that compliments the sourdough flavor.

It has taken me a while to truly appreciate simple recipes, but this one makes it easy.  A truly decadent, simple bread.


A standing mixer (always optional when making bread); baking stone; baking sheet; parchment paper; spray bottle; cloth, or banneton or colander lined with a floured cloth


1 scant cup “proofed” liquid starter (see below)

3 1/2 cups flour (2 1/2 cups bread flour, 1 cup whole wheat)

1-1 1/3 cups water

2 tsp sea salt

1 cup raisins

1 cup chopped, toasted pecans

Begin “proofing” the starter 6-8 hour before mixing the dough:

Start with the sourdough culture.  Take it from the refrigerator, or where ever it is, and “proof” it.  Mix 1 cup of flour and 1 cup of water into about 1 cup of starter.  When the starter has risen and is bubbly and foamy on top, about 6-8 hours later, it is ready to be mixed into the dough.  Remove one cup for the dough and set aside.  Place the remainder in a clean container and refrigerate.  This is the starter for future use.

6-8 hour prior to mixing the dough soak the raisins in hot water.  The soaking water will be used as the liquid in the dough as well.

Mix the dough:

Drain the raisins, reserving the liquid.  Place the liquid in a measuring cup.  If it measures less than 1 cup, add a sufficient amount of water to equal 1 cup.

In the bowl of a standing mixer (or a food processor fitted with a dough blade) measure the flour.  Add the salt, starter and most of the 1 cup of water.  Stir with a wooden spoon.  If it is dry or has lots of flour that cannot mix in, gradually add more water, 1 or 2 tablespoons at a time until the dough is hydrated.  Turn the mixer on low for about 1 minute, then increase the speed to medium for five to ten minutes.  The dough should come together, be wet but not too sticky, and mix quite easily.  It should stick to the sides of the bowl a bit at first, yet hold together and come off the sides of the bowl as the mixer turns. (Side note: You can see the strands of gluten forming too.  They are visible as the dough is moving through the mixer, as it sticks and pulls away from the sides of the bowl.)

When the dough has been adequately mixed, it should be soft and smooth and not too sticky.  You should be able to handle it easily with a light dusting of flour.

Turn the dough onto a lightly floured surface.  Form it into a rectangle.  Sprinkle the raisins and pecans on top.

Fold the edges on one side to a point and fold the dough over onto itself, taking care not to lose many raisins or pecans.  Continue to work the dough until it begins to stick to itself.  (The moist raisins will make keep the dough from sticking to itself, just work with it and it will come together.)  Once the dough has come together, shape it into a ball and place it into an oiled bowl to rise.  Cover with a damp cloth and set in a warm spot.

Let the dough rise for 6-8 hours, until doubled.

Shape the dough and let it rise. Once the dough has doubled, turn it onto a lightly floured surface and shape it into two loaves.  Split the dough in half.  Working with one piece at a time, form the dough into a rectangle, fold the corners like an envelope, and roll the dough tightly on itself, sealing the seam at the bottom with your fingertips.  Place the shaped loaves in a place to rise* for 3-5 hours.

*Okay, there are some pretty great things you can buy to let your shaped dough rise in. I highly recommend most of them, but don't own any of them (yet). So I improvise with a seriously well floured, heavy cotton cloth, with objects at the ends to allow the dough to hold its nice shape.

Towards the end of the rising period, about one-hour before baking, preheat the oven to 450 degrees, with a baking stone situated on the bottom rack.

Once the it has almost doubled, slash the dough with a sharp knife or razor blade down the center.  Transfer the loaves to a baking sheet lined with a mat or a piece of parchment paper.  Place in the oven, spritz water into the oven several times, and close the door.  Bake at 450 for 5 minutes, then turn the heat down to 400.  Bake for about 25 more minutes, spraying with water one or two times if you feel like it.

When the loaves are brown, crusty and dark all over, they are most likely done.  You can also tap the bottom of the dough (Pick it up with an oven mitt!), if it sounds hollow, it is done.

Now for the hardest part.  Let the bread cool completely before slicing.

Some notes:

The biggest problem area is over-proofing the dough.  That’s when the dough rises for too long or has been placed in a spot that is too warm and thus makes the yeast go crazy.  When dough has over-proofed, it not only has too much air in it but is also very difficult to handle. It will absolutely deflate when placed in the oven, which is not a desirable effect to say the least.  I always just reshape the dough and see if it has enough umph to rise again.

The other issue is getting the dough into the oven.  Even if the dough has not over-proofed, it can still deflate, so take care when placing the finished dough into the oven and wait for my next bread post that will address some of the issues with a more structured approach.


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The Onions Have Sprouted

Glorious sprouted onion seeds.  I think I actually put too many seeds in each row.  Oh well, live and learn.

Here are the tiny celeriac seeds.  So tiny!  2,500 seeds in less than a tablespoon!

We finally moved the manure into the greenhouse, so its time start the temperature sensitive seeds.  More on that later.  For now, here is some more seed starting porn.

They look bare, but there's a lot of life going on in there.

Of course, no greenhouse experience would be complete without some instant gratification.  Soon-to-be-pea-shoots (above) and radish sprouts (below) for fresh eating.

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SOBArley Pale Ale

Erin has mentioned a few times that she has a burgeoning interest in beer.  I (Sam) have to say that most of this interest is a direct result of my talking her ear off about the various aspects of beer making that I am taken with on a near daily basis.  She told me that I could write a post about beer making, and today, since she is off in Albany at a USDA education program for beginning women farmers and I am home making beer, I thought I ought to give it a try.

SOBArley Pale Ale.

This beer is very exciting for two reasons, (a) it is the first beer that I am making from a recipe of my own creation and (b) it is the first time that I am making something using ingredients that I have never tasted before in beer.  It is also the riskiest beer I have ever brewed.  It could end up being terrible!

In case you were not able to decode the pun in the name of this beer, it is an IPA style beer that is brewed with a heavy dose of kasha, aka soba, aka toasted buckwheat groats.  Kasha has a delicious nutty, smokey flavor that I have thought would do well in beer since the first time I brewed anything.  To make the recipe I looked through my beer recipe books and then looked in my box of beer ingredients and then improvised.  Here is the recipe:

Combine 3# of pale malted barley, 2# of Soba and .25# Crystal malt.

bring 2 gallons of water up to 150 degrees.  Add grains and maintain temperature for 90 minutes.

Strain grains through a mesh strainer, collecting the fluid (now called Wort) in a large vessel.

Add another 2 gallons of 150 degree water to the grains and let sit for 15 minutes.  Then strain again, allowing time for as much of the wort to drip out as out have the patience for.

Add 4 1/2#’s of extra light malt extract to the wort that you have collected.  (This should be about 3 gallons since much of the liquid was absorbed by the grain.)  Bring to a boil carefully.  It is difficult to get the malt extract to dissolve fully, as it has a tendency to clump.  Watch the pot closely, perhaps even use a thermometer, because when it comes to a boil it will foam up powerfully, spilling all over your stove and making a sticky mess.  It may foam up several times before it settles into a comfortable boil.

Add your bittering hops.  I used 1/2 oz  Spalt and 1/2 oz Amarillo hops but you could probably do better with a full ounce of something like Cascade.  Boil for 45-50 minutes then add flavor hops.  I used 1/4 oz Spalt and 3/4 oz Cascade.  Boil for another 10 minutes then add aroma hops.  I used 1/4 oz Spalt, 1/2 oz Amarillo and 1/4 oz Cascade.  (I used these hops because I had them in my fridge and needed to use them.  The Spalt hops are really not the best for this beer because they are not that bitter, that flavorful or that aromatic.)

Combine the hot wort with enough cold water to raise the total volume to 5 gallons.  Allow the wort to cool until it is about 80 degrees.  If you have some fancy wort cooling device, use it.  I don’t, so I either set it outside in the cold, set it outside in the pond (this is fun because it floats) or bury it in snow.  no matter how you shake it, however, if you want this to go quickly you need a fancy wort cooler.

Add the yeast, here an American ale yeast.  Seal the fermenting vessel with an airlock and let it sit at a constant indoor temperature for about 5-7 days.  It should start to bubble pretty aggressively within 24 hours, then gradually slow down.  Siphon into a secondary fermentation vessel after fermentation has slowed.  Let it all settle for another week to 10 days before bottling with 1 1/4 cup malt extract.

I have to wait another 6 weeks until I get to taste this stuff.  I hope that it will have a not too subtle toasty, nutty flavor, medium bitterness, full hop flavor and a nice big aroma.  The big question for me is how well the toasty Soba will go with the IPA style, and will it do anything weird to the overall flavor?

A few notes about what is happening during the process of brewing for those readers who may be uninitiated.  These bits of information should help you to appreciate any beer you drink.  I know these bits have made Erin willing to drink beer from time to time.

1.  Beer is made from grains that have been sprouted – in beer parlance, malted.  Malting changes the biochemical makeup of the grains.  A wide variety of enzymes are produced in the malting process.  These enzymes, when heated to various temperatures (all hovering around 150 degrees), convert the complex carbohydrates in the grain into various sugars and proteins.  Some of these sugars ferment into Alcohol, some do not.  The sugars that do not convert help to give beer a thicker, fuller feel in the mouth.  Those that do, help give the beer a higher alcohol content.  They also leave some residual sweetness to the beer.  The protein is necessary in order for the yeast to stay healthy while they do the work of converting the fermentable sugars into alcohol.

2.  The process of heating the malted grains so that the various enzymes can convert the starches in the grains is called “mashing.”  In the beginning of the SOBArley Pale Ale recipe, malted grains are mashed with unmalted Soba.  In most malted grain there is more enzyme than is necessary to convert the starches in the malted grain.  This extra enzyme can be harnessed to convert the carbohydrates in unmalted grains.  This is what I was hoping to achieve.  In this recipe there is not enough enzyme to convert all the carbohydrates so there will be some extra carbohydrates that should make the beer thicker.

3.  Hops will do different things to beer depending on how long they are allowed to boil in the wort.  The longer the hops are allowed to boil in the wort, the greater the amount of bitterness they will lend to the final product.  The less time the hops spend in the boiling wort the greater the amount of aroma they will lend to the final product.  Bitterness is totally in the mouth, aroma totally in the nose, flavor is somewhere in between.  When thinking about hops and how they affect the taste of beer, it is helpful for me to imagine a line that runs from the back of the tongue where we experience bitterness, through the tip of the tongue, all the way to the nose.  In this metaphor the amount of time the hops spend in the boil is analagous to the line and it is the variable that is manipulated to achieve more or less of the different characteristics of hops.  There are some beers on the market that exploit the full range of this spectrum, most notably Dogfish Head Brewery’s 60, 90 and 120 minute IPA’s.  These beers have hops added to them continuously throughout the boiling process.  I sometimes like to imitate this process in miniature during the last ten minutes of so of the boil, adding my flavor and aroma hops in small doses every minute or so.

4.  Like all the other fermented foods that Erin has discussed here, homebrewed beer is a living food.  Most store bought beer is pasteurized before bottling.  This allows for more shelf stability and less flavor variability over time.  Homebrewed beer is not pasterurized.  There are living yeasts, albeit mostly dormant, in the bottle that continue to ferment any sugars that are available.  The yeast, and the CO2 they produce while metabolizing, are what cause homebrewed beer to carbonate.  They are also a big part of the reason why homebrewed beer is sensitive to temperature and light in storage.  Homebrewed beer, because it is unfiltered, is also rich in B complex vitamins.  These help our bodies metabollize alcohol and stay hydrated while drinking.