Sourdough starter show and tell was a thing well before collective lockdowns. There’s a modern impulse to Instagram bubbling or overflowing jars of starter from which perfectly shaped, scored and coloured loaves are birthed; their home bakers cooing about the perfect crumb.
It borders on smug, devotees telling you that starters can be over a century old, while some of us see sourdough akin to houseplants: a nice idea but ultimately something else to kill. So is a packet of dry yeast a cheat, or the preserve of true home bakers?
“I personally don’t know anybody who’s currently got a sourdough starter on the go, but I suppose that means nothing,” says Stephanie Alexander.
Considering the place that Alexander occupies within the consciousness of Australian cooks, it certainly means something. The prolific food writer and restaurateur wouldn’t discourage the making and tending of a starter, having done it herself, but says she“wouldn’t dream of making it anymore”. This is “because we have wonderful bakers who are doing it for me.” The proliferation of high quality sourdough bakeries is an advance of past decades, she says.
A sourdough starter is essentially fermented flour and water which harnesses good bacteria and wild yeast to achieve its rise. The chew and tang, as well as purported prebiotic and probiotic properties, are what we all seemingly love over the fluffy white sliced bread many of us grew up with.
Alexander’s Kitchen Garden Foundation introduces children to dry yeast. Classroom time constraints mean making a starter is out. Instead, “you can make a tortilla without any yeast or you can make an Indian bread with a little bit, or you could make a different sort a flat bread that has yeast,” says Alexander. “We introduce the whole idea of what yeast does and they do like to see things double – like a flat bread dough that might not take very long to actually do a bit of puffing.”
Regardless of age, if you’re motivated to bake it’s easy to find a recipe from the internet “or The Cook’s Companion”, Alexander says, laughing at her not-so-subtle plug. “It’s going to tell you to use instant dried yeast and that’s how you’re going to start off. You’re going to find that product in every supermarket, you’ve got a choice of flour, you can buy lovely seeds. You’ll end up being able to make a very delicious loaf of bread, even if it’s the very first time you’ve tried it.”
“There are always some breads that just fit [with dry yeast] because they’re traditionally made with those,” says Rodney Dunn, known for his Tasmania-based Agrarian Kitchen cooking school and latterly his eatery of the same name. There’s no cheat, he says, in switching between sourdough and dried yeast, as he does.
“People think fresh is always best but the thing that I would say is, great, if you’ve got that source where you know the yeast is really fresh, but I think the threat is we don’t always know how long it’s been kept and therefore how healthy it is. Dried yeast you’ve got that little assurance that it’s going to still be potent.”
Dunn says he’s a big fan of using small amounts of dried yeast and giving it more time to develop flavour as it rises, “still proving it overnight before you bake it the next day.”
With any baking he says it’s about schedule. “People go to work but you can make a schedule for yourself that fits into before and after and it doesn’t have to be this massive chore.”
While a nod from Alexander and Dunn to dry yeast should assuage any thoughts of a cheat, a sourdough starter project should not be abandoned down the sink if you plan to revert to powder. Instead, use the remnants for potato cakes (or potato scallops, if you’re that way inclined).
A famous dish of Dunn’s New Norfolk eatery, his potato cakes use surplus starter, saving it from the pig’s trough. “You just take the batter, add more flour, thin it out with enough water to make it the consistency of thin cream, let it start to ferment, maybe for an hour or two, and then you can just dredge, dip and fry.”
Stephanie Alexander’s grissini
These crunch breadsticks are irresistible. Serve then just as they are with pre-dinner drinks and maybe with a bowl of olives, or as an accompaniment to antipasti, or wrap a very thin slice of prosciutto crudo around each one and serve as an appetiser.
125g unbleached strong flour
½ teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon yeast
scant pinch of sugar
65 ml water
½ cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 clove garlic
1 teaspoon fennel seeds, coarsely crushed
Combine flour, salt, yeast, sugar, olive oil and water and knead well until smooth. Put into a lightly greased bowl and cover with a tea towel. Stand bowl in a draught free place and allow to double in size (30 minutes to one hour, depending on air temperature). Knock back gently and allow to double in size again, about 15 minutes.
Preheat oven to 180C. Break off pieces of dough the size of a walnut and roll each piece into a thin sausage about 25 cm long.
Pour extra-virgin olive oil into a shallow dish and add garlic and fennel seeds.
Drag grissini lightly through this bath and transfer to a baking tray. Work quickly.
Space grissini well apart on tray. Sprinkle with sea salt and bake for 10 minutes.
Shake tray to turn grissini and bake for a further 10-15 minutes until golden and crisp. Cool on a wire rack and eat whole still warm or serve room temperature.
Recipe taken from The Cook’s Companion by Stephanie Alexander