Beyond Sourdough – or, Is Instant Yeast Really That Bad?

Our Next Door Neighbors – Mom and Her Week-old

Breakfast! Yes, You’re Right – This Has Nothing To Do With This Post

Hey, … hey you, bread-maker – yeah, you!  I want to talk about sourdough for a few minutes – and maybe get your input too.  OK?

Currently, I’m on a sourdough hiatus – this happens to me frequently; I just get tired of the same tastes, and I’ve got to have something different.  I don’t think I’m alone in that, but maybe I am – I don’t even like going down the same road twice – a personality quirk I think.  Whatever – I’m currently baking my breads with instant yeast, and I’ll continue until I begin getting tired of that taste – and I’ll switch back to sourdough.

At the risk of offending a few of you -nothing new, huh?- let me discuss a few of sourdough’s negatives – first, there’s the maintenance issue.  And I’ll argue this point til I die, the more frequently you feed, the more consistent, viable and reliable is your starter – I suspect that commercial sourdough bakers are feeding multiple times a day – and that gets old fast.  OK, I’m done with that.

There’s a very obvious mystique with sourdough – and I suspect that sourdough’s mystique is what draws many new advocate bakers – the taste may also play into it, but for me, the taste part fades soon – I personally like sourdough’s ability to resist molding -especially nice in Oregon’s moist, warm climate- but I’ve always questioned the supposed benefit of sourdough as a fermented food, primarily because it is baked, thereby killing all the supposed beneficial bacteria – and I think I’m right on that.

There, that’s why I’ve put my sourdough in the fridge for awhile – and it makes me feel better to have a justification – humor me, please.

But of course my curiosity continues as always, and I’ve been experimenting with my instant yeast, to see if I might be able to improve on the known frailties of using instant yeast.  Principle among those frailties of instant yeast is the lack of flavor, but it need not be a problem – only if we fall victim to speed -and I speak not of drugs- is this a problem – for with a little planning and scheduling, we can build great flavor into our bread – even with yeast.  All you really need is to remember to put a preferment together the night before you plan to bake – voila, amazing flavor!

Now, preferment is a term that confuses a lot of bakers, but it simply means a mix of flour, water, and leavening -yeast or starter- that is allowed to sit and ferment, before you actually put the final dough together – if you put together the whole dough formula, and then let it rest for many hours, that’s technically not a preferment, but rather a fermentation.

OK, all that is simply to say that I’ve been playing around with my instant yeast to make some breads with preferments – and they’ve all had tons of flavor.  BTW, have you ever smelled the bowl containing a preferment after it has rested all night and done its magic?  It’s simply heavenly -quite different than a sourdough preferment- and immediately you know your final bread with be loaded with flavor.

So much for idle chatter – I want to share a new bread I’ve found that uses a yeast preferment, and has the added flavor components of rosemary, olives, and walnuts – and those components combine to make a simply wonderful bread.  This bread has an interesting pedigree – it was born in Berkeley’s Acme Bread Company as something called Herb Slabs, and then adapted by Maggie Glezer in her book, Artisan Baking Across America – however, I came by it via a further adaptation by Winnie Abramson from her blog, Healthy Green Kitchen – it was Winnie who turned the slabs into loaves and added the olives and walnuts – nice job, Winnie.  I of course could not resist making my own change or two, but I shall point those out below with [these brackets].

Rosemary Bread with Walnuts and Olives
(adapted from the recipe for Acme’s Herb Slabs in Artisan Baking Across America by Maggie Glezer, and by Winnie Abramson, [and my notes or adaptations]
Makes 2 loaves

This bread starts with a “poolish” [same as a preferment]. A poolish is a type of starter that contains just a bit of yeast. In this case, it is a very tiny amount. Start your poolish in the evening so it can ferment while you are sleeping, then plan to make the bread the next day. Make sure to read the recipe through so you have an idea of when you’ll need to be available to work on the bread. It’s not a ton of hands on time that is needed, but it’s probably best make this day when you are generally home (weekend day, perhaps).

Make the Poolish [Preferment]:
1/16 tsp instant yeast [my adaptation – this is the equivalent of two healthy pinches – or check Winnie’s recipe for her instruction]
1/4 cup warm water
2 cups unbleached organic all-purpose flour
1 1/3 cups lukewarm water

Whisk the yeast and the 1/4 cup water together. Allow to stand for 5 minutes. Mix the yeast water with the remaining lukewarm water and the flour. You will end up with a “very gloppy batter”.

Cover with plastic wrap or a damp cloth and let it ferment at room temperature for 12 hours overnight, or until its bubbles are popping and the top is starting to foam.

Make the Bread:
3 cups organic unbleached all-purpose flour
1 Tb. salt
1 Tb. fresh rosemary leaves, chopped [with the added olives and walnuts, you may want more rosemary]
1/4 tsp. instant yeast
3/4 cup lukewarm water
2 Tb. olive oil
Fermented poolish [preferment]
1 cup mixed olives, pitted and chopped [I used a Galeta type black olive and tried to leave them in halves for effect – a salty olive will work best]
1 cup walnuts, toasted in a 325 degree oven for 10 minutes [or until you smell them], then cooled and chopped

Using a stand mixer, combine the flour, salt, rosemary and yeast in the mixing bowl. Add the water and oil to the poolish, stir to loosen it, and pour it into the flour mixture. Using the dough hook, mix on low speed until a rough dough forms. Cover and let it rest for 10 minutes.

After the dough has rested, add the olives and continue to mix until it is very smooth (about 5 minutes). If the dough seems too wet, add a few Tbs of white flour and continue mixing.

Take the dough out of the mixing bowl onto a floured surface, flatten it out with your hands, and sprinkle it with the walnuts [do this in increments, otherwise you risk the walnuts concentrating in one area]. Knead the bread by hand until all of the walnuts are incorporated.

Wash and dry your mixing bowl. Rub it with olive oil, place your bread dough in, and cover with plastic wrap or a damp cloth. Let it ferment until light and doubled in bulk, about 6 hours [seems too long to me – mine only took 2 hours].

After the dough has risen, punch it down and divide into two equal portions. Knead each ball a bit more, and then “round the loaves” (translation: cup your hands around the dough and rotate it in circles until a smooth ball forms”). Place your dough balls onto an oiled cookie sheet (or one that is lined with parchment paper and has been sprinkled with cornmeal) [I formed into batards, and that worked too].

Allow to rise for about 1 hour; [preheat the oven to 400° F at the same time].

Slash the loaves 3-4 times with a serrated knife before you put them in the oven, and allow to bake for 30-40 minutes [mine took 50 minutes to get there], or until well-browned and hollow sounding when you knock on the bottom. Allow to cool for 20-30 minutes on a wire rack before slicing.

Alternatively, if you have a baking stone and don’t mind baking your loaves separately, place the stone in the oven before you heat it and clear all racks above the one you are using. When the oven is hot, sprinkle the baking stone with cornmeal, slash the top of your loaf, and place on top of your baking stone. Bake for 30-40 [or more] minutes. Repeat with the other loaf.

[My Notes: This is a very wet dough – it never cleared the bowl during mixing – I freely used flour on the board during the kneading/forming stages. I also subbed 1 cup of whole wheat flour for 1 cup of white flour – bread was quite delicious, but had a tight texture – I could have let the final proof go longer, or Winnie’s 6 hour first proofing may be more correct. I formed these into fat batards which worked nicely.]

Surprisingly, this one makes a great breakfast toast, but best when slathered with butter and honey – it’s the sweet/salt/nutty crunch with herbal overtones that sends your taste buds into ecstasy – but behind all that you’ll still sense the flavor boast the prefermentation brings to this bread.  Even if you don’t decide to try this one, use a preferment in your next yeast loaf – you’ll love the difference.


About drfugawe

I'm a guy with enough time to do as I please, and that my resources allow. The problem(s) are: I have 100s of interests; I have a short attention span; I have instant expectations; I'm lazy; and I'm broke. But I'm OK with all that, 'cause otherwise I'd be so busy, I'd be dead in a year.
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20 Responses to Beyond Sourdough – or, Is Instant Yeast Really That Bad?

  1. Glenda says:

    Hi Doc, your bread looks fantastic, as always.
    I do get a bit despondent with sourdough breadmaking. Sometimes, my loaves look fantastic and other times very sad and it is hard to say what I have done differently. Then there is the issue of ciabatta. Buggered if I know what I am doing wrong. I think my wheat starter is losing its oomph. I can’t think why else I am getting perfect pizza bases rather than a nice ciabatta. And to make things worse, I am getting a bit sick and tired of my favourite loaf. What a crisis, hey? I am interested in your theory about starters. I feed my once a week: the rye starter is as robust as you could want but the wheat starter has never been as strong as the rye. As to instant yeast, I have never used it. I use dried yeast. Much the same, I imagine.

    • drfugawe says:

      Ooo Glenda, you’re pitching me some lobs here – shall I hit ’em hard? First let me say that there’s no bible on this subject – just a lot of opinion. Celia and I don’t agree on this – and she’s a damn good sourdough baker, but frankly I never bake with a sourdough starter unless it has had at least 3 days of daily refreshment at room temp first – and I NEVER will ask a refrigerated starter to immediately do a job. Yes, rye flour makes a more aggressive starter, and therefore is quicker back to full strength, but because rye is so quick to respond, it sometimes looks aggressive when it really isn’t. The pizza issue is that pizza really isn’t asking very much of the leavening, so it looks OK even when the same starter might have trouble with a ciabatta.

      I leave my starters out at room temp, both because it’s a reminder to me to feed them (I don’t always feed them daily if I’m not baking that day, but they only go in the fridge when I don’t plan on using them for awhile – like now.), and because starters like room temp better than they do fridge temps, ie., they are healthier and happier out of the fridge. This means sometimes I have a starter on the counter with a hard yellow crust on top (looks quite nasty) but there’s nothing wrong with it – it’s just overworked and is begging to be fed – I just throw away the crust and a lot of the stuff underneath, and use a little of the stuff at the very bottom of the container to start it going again – and with 3 days of daily feedings, it’ll be strong and healthy again.

      Hey, there’s nothing easy about taking proper care of a sourdough starter – most of us, me included, try to cut corners, and we pay. I also think we over bake when our starters are doing well, and therefore we get tired of the sd taste – like you and I are now.

      Comparatively, there’s no practical difference between instant yeast and regular yeast – but instant yeast does not require a ‘test proofing’ and regular does. Also, instant yeast can be added to your dry flour and mixed in, instead of having to treat it delicately along with the wet ingredients – just easier to work with. I’ll never use the old kind ever again.

      There! Thanks for the lobs.

      • Doc dear, we don’t disagree. We just do things differently. 🙂 I have a particularly robust starter (from Theresa at Northwest Sourdough) and it responds beautifully with a couple of feeds after being in the fridge for a week or two. I never ever use it cold or without feeding though – no point in that, I’d just end up with a house brick.

        We bake with sourdough both for the taste and the convenience – last night I knocked up a simple sourdough, gave it literally a 30 second knead, left it on the bench all night, and this morning baked two huge loaves. We’ve never tired of SD – we’ve eaten it daily for coming on six years, and no-one here will eat yeasted bread unless it’s stuffed with butter and chocolate or in a pizza. 🙂

        The other reason I keep the starter in the fridge is that I don’t want the bread to be too sour. I know that really “good” sourdough is supposed to be very sour, but for our daily eating, we don’t really want that. I really have a very laid back attitude to it all – I feed the starter once a week or so if I remember, always give it two feed at room temp before using, and knead as little as possible. I have no doubt your starter fed daily would be healthier than mine, but after 6 years, my little Priscilla is quite settled into her groove. 🙂

        • Oops, I nearly forgot the big reason we bake sourdough. Lower GI. I come from a family with a history of late onset diabetes, so I’m always on the lookout for lower GI foods. I also found that the boys were less hungry at school on SD than on yeasted rolls. x

          • drfugawe says:

            OK, it’s coming back to me now – but I always thought that doing things differently was a form of disagreeing!

          • Disagreeing is when I think I’m right and you’re wrong. In this case, I think we’re both right, so I’m not disagreeing with you. Then again, you might think I’m wrong, in which case you’re disagreeing with me. Which is fine. 😉

            • drfugawe says:

              Ha, ha, I love it! OK, I must concede you the point, my dear – ha, beautiful. Are you a lawyer in your spare time?

              On another issue, if you noticed my previous reply, I had lost the ability to reply to your ‘threaded’ reply because my settings were either set incorrectly, or had mysteriously re-set themselves – whatever, I changed it. Sorry for the confusion.

              • No confusion, dear Doc, and it is always such a pleasure to chat with you! You came up in conversation the other day – someone mentioned Oregon, and I said, “That’s not how you pronounce it. You have to say, ‘I can kill you with a knife, OR A GUN, my friend Doc says so’…” Needless to say, they did look at me very strangely.. 😀

                • drfugawe says:

                  Well, Celia, consider yourself lucky if you manage to teach a few Aussies the correct pronunciation, because outside of Oregon itself, almost no US citizens know how – in fact, it’s now a national joke, but even that doesn’t seem to get the message across – it’s like the rest of America thinks we who live here don’t know how the name of our own state is properly pronounced – Really!

  2. sjburntsteve says:

    I think we are in agreement on sourdough. All I would throw in is that as long as I am in the mood for Rye – my sourdough gets fed regularly. The two were made for each other.

    As long as you confessed your thoughts on sourdough, let’s all agree that some of these super wet doughs just need more flour. When we end up adding another cup just to handle the dough, why not just add it in the bowl?
    I dunno, maybe I am just grumpy today…

    Looks like a nice bread to try, doc, nice post.

    • drfugawe says:

      Hey Steve,
      Nothing wrong with grumpy – the world needs more of us grumpy guys! Yeah, I think the baking world has a current thing for big holes, and so wet doughs – but the amount of flour is always going to be an adjustable element, given varying climate moisture and flour moisture, etc – but you make a good point and I never feel bad anymore when I have to add more flour – as I did on this one.

  3. Glenda says:

    Hey Doc, I am going to try Celia’s Ciabatta. When I was in Sydney she, very generously, gave me 2 bags of fine durum semolina flour. I can’t buy it in Perth. The durum flour that I can get is too coarse. I have to put it through my Vitamix a few times before I can use it.
    I am also going to try (again) Daniel Leader’s Altamura bread.

    You will know how they go (if they don’t appear on my blog it will be because they are just too sad).

    • drfugawe says:

      I’m happy to see you haven’t given up on the ciabatta, and offer my best wishes on your next go – I have the same problem with the semolina I can buy here – what the hell do they do with that course stuff?

  4. Joanna says:

    Aint no one way to do this bread thang and the variables are endless, so frustrating when you start out and presumably the art of the pro baker producing quality sourdough day in day out is to be able to fine tune their processes for temperature, humidity, variation in flour etc. If I baked every day I would leave my sourdoughs out on the worktop but I don’t so I put them in the fridge, if I bake again within the week they are fine for my purposes after two 10 hour apart feeds. If they have sat in Fridge Purgatory for longer then they need more, so I tend to take them out and feed them once a week regardless and then we are all happy. I wash their containers out every month or so or if they are looking crusty and that keeps them perky too.

    But like Celia I am happy to agree to disagree or whatever you guys concluded xx to you all 🙂

  5. nerd says:

    I appreciate, lead to I found exactly what I used to be having a look for.
    You’ve ended my four day lengthy hunt! God Bless you man. Have a nice day. Bye

  6. drfugawe says:

    Nice to hear! Thanks for letting me know. Good baking amigo.

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