As usual, when confronted with two obvious choices, it's the third choice that pays.- Seth Godin
Store-bought bread makes me crazy. Seriously. The last time Malamute and I went on a store-bought artisan bread binge, I felt like I was losing my mind. I got more depressed and my panic attacks worsened. We were discouraged and drowning our sorrows in artisan bread and hummus, but it ended up making things worse.
I've had problems with wheat for a long time. My mood becomes dismal (as I've mentioned) and my skin breaks out in rashes and acne. I've tried going gluten-free, and that certainly helped some, but there were downsides to it as well. For one thing, bread making became more difficult. Gluten is what holds bread together and makes it have that delicious, crusty-on-the-outside, chewy-on-the-inside consistency. That was a lot harder to come by without using wheat flour, which was very sad because I LOVE artisan bread. (Especially the heel of the loaf.) Another problem was that most gluten free bread recipes required the use of commercial yeast, which gave Malamute problems. Also, gluten free breads and flours are more expensive.
So after a wild ride on the crazy train, we were faced with two choices: buy wheat bread from the store, or cough up the money to go gluten free and sacrifice that delicious bready quality of a good wheat loaf. But we were starting to get smart, and as Seth Godin recommends, we chose the third option and thus began my adventures in sourdough bread making.
The first thing we did (since we had a little money) was to get a grain grinder. Turns out that a lot of what made me so crazy with wheat bread wasn't so much the gluten as the fact that whole wheat flour goes bad when it sits for very long (i.e. in a bag on a store shelf). The oils go rancid very soon after being ground. That's why most whole wheat flour tastes so weird. So we coughed up the money for a Blendtec Kitchen Mill and it has been one of the BEST investments we have ever made. My problems with wheat have disappeared and the flour tastes better. Freshly ground wheat has a sweet taste. In fact, the first time my dad tried a piece of my whole wheat sourdough bread, he asked if there was honey in it. (There wasn't. The ingredients for sourdough are amazingly simple; just starter, flour, water, and a little salt.)
Making authentic sourdough is an entirely different process than making your usual loaf of bread with commercial yeast. Sourdough uses wild yeast in a starter culture for leavening. A starter culture is basically water and flour that has fermented for a few days. Also, when you make sourdough bread, it is a multi-day process. The conditions also have to be just right. If you add too much water to your starter or your bread dough sits at too cool a temperature, it will die like a Giga Pet. (Remember those?) Some people make a proofing box, but I haven't wanted to take the time to figure it out, so I've gotten creative. In the summer I proofed (let sit) my dough and starter in the garage because it got to be 80 degrees or more in there, as opposed to the house which was kept cooler, especially overnight.
My summer loaves were some of my best. During the summer Malamute (who is a Bay Area native) told me over and over that my bread tasted just like the sourdough loaves he had had in San Francisco. Now that it's winter and the garage is freezing, I've taken to putting my dough in a cooler and packing it in with blankets and then putting the cooler upstairs where it gets warmer. My idea was that if you can put an ice pack in a cooler and have it keep stuff cool, you could put a warming agent in and have it keep things warm. And time and again, it has worked. =)
If making your own sourdough sounds like an arduous process, don't be too intimidated. There is a learning curve and you will probably be pulling your hair out at first. Learning to make your own sourdough bread is very much like having sex: you can read books about the mechanics of it, people can give you advice and tell you about their experiences, but the only way to learn is by actually doing it. The good news is that if you just keep trying and being creative, it can be done. If you're interested in making your own sourdough, I highly suggest hopping on to Sourdoughs International's website and getting some info. They also sell a variety of sourdough starters from all over the world, most for about $15. Some have milder or stronger sour flavors, so you can get one that suits your taste. Or you can find a friend who makes sourdough and ask her for some of her starter. Sourdough starter is the gift that keeps on giving- as long as you make sure to keep feeding it flour and water and don't let it get too hot. (Like a Giga Pet.) I have the South African culture starter; it is supposed to be especially good for freshly ground flour.
Making sourdough bread is totally worth it. (And you have not lived until you have had pizza with a sourdough crust!) But I have to sign off now since I need to feed a batch of bread dough for the last time before letting it rise and then baking it into delicious sourdough bread loaves.