SOUTHWEST HARBOR–This is a story about a sourdough starter named Fred and how he inspired a few people to make bread.
Created in January by Raney Bench, Fred came to life in fits and starts.
“We heat with a wood stove and it gets cold at night and starters don’t like that,” said Bench.
They can be sensitive organisms. Made simply of water and flour, a starter comes to life once these two combined ingredients take on natural yeast and bacteria from the air and begin to ferment. It takes an average of five days to create if temperatures can remain at a balmy 72 degrees.
“If you really want it to be active, you have to feed it twice a day,” said Bench, explaining the more a starter is fed, the more it grows. “My starter’s name is Fred. I’ve given him to three people.”
When government officials recommended staying home to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and the school district closed its campuses, people began looking for something to pass the time. Breadmaking seems to have risen in the ranks for those who enjoy cooking.
Tremont teen Erin Hollis remembers being seven years old and in the kitchen helping her grandmother. Now a 13-year-old student who has shifted to schooling at home, she enjoys experimenting with new recipes in between study sessions.
“I’ve been trying to make things with some starter Raney got me,” said Hollis about her portion of Fred, which she named Leslie. “I’ve made sourdough and I’m going to try English muffins.”
Making bread with a starter instead of yeast can also consist of some trial and error in learning to read the dough correctly.
“It’s a tricky process; it takes a lot of time,” added Hollis, who bakes other goodies like croissants, bagels and cinnamon rolls using traditional methods. “You have to practice quite a lot.”
Bench, who has mostly been baking boules with her starter, had to throw away a couple of the first loaves she made.
“It just wasn’t active enough and it came out like a solid, glutenous brick,” she said, adding that she has been consulting the subreddit, Breadit, frequently to learn about the process. “You don’t knead sourdough. You pull it to allow bubbles to develop. You go to bed and you wake up in the morning and it’s a big bowl of bubbles.”
Hydration level has a lot to do with how a loaf comes out also, according to Bench and Ryan Lamon, chef and co-owner of Peter Trout’s Tavern in Southwest Harbor. Lamon got a portion of Fred, as well, a couple of weeks ago after Old Dog Baking Company, the tavern’s bread supplier, decided to close during the pandemic.
“We have about two gallons of starter now,” said Lamon, who named his starter Trina. “As our starter’s developed a little more character, she’s been stellar.”
Time is also key with a good sourdough.
“You have to really plan ahead,” said Bench, who is normally very social when not staying at home in response to the pandemic. “If I wanted to bring a loaf to an event, I had to plan two days ahead.”
Running a restaurant, Lamon tends to stock up when he makes a batch of sourdough.
“It’s about a two-day process,” he explained on the phone with the Islander last week. “I worked our dough yesterday. I’ve got four loaves going in (the oven) today… They freeze wonderfully.”
If a starter is being used frequently, it can be left out at room temperature, but it needs to be fed twice a day. For the not-so-frequent baker, keeping a starter in the refrigerator retards the fermenting process and only requires feeding once a week. At a certain point, when the starter has processed, or eaten, all the sugars in the flour it was fed, it can be split in order to help it remain robust. Often, the weaker portion that is split off can be used to cook with as well.
“Alex and I are surviving off sourdough pizza that we’ve had to pull off the starter,” said Lamon about tavern co-owner and life partner, Alexandra Loftus.
Bench has two boys and a husband who enjoy her experiments.
“Especially right when it comes out of the oven,” she said, adding they were particularly excited about a cheddar jalapeno loaf she was preparing. “I’ve tried sourdough crackers.”
With supplies being limited at the local supermarket, Bench said she is terrified of not having enough flour. Because fewer restaurants are open, bulk supply of flour is more available and has been offered by friends in the industry.
“I just started baking a lot of breads recently,” said Hollis, who is always looking online for new recipes. “There’s too much waiting. I just didn’t have the patience. A starter is a whole new level. With the sourdough it takes four times as long as it would with a regular dough.”