So I looked up what I could possibly be doing so wrong – by the 6th week of using a starter, it should have some solid sour flavor, damnit! Turns out sourdough is a technique, not a guarantee of sourdough flavor. Sucky. Also, that amazing San Francisco Sourdough flavor? Created through adding various chemicals and not using the sourdough starter process at all. Sneaky bastards.
I did find some techniques to amp up the sour flavor, however. One is to have a stiffer starter. Most of (ok, both) of the starter recipes I looked up called for refreshing the starter with equal parts flour and water; to get a better sour flavor, you should use at least a 3-to-2 flour-to-water ratio. Also, use some rye flour in the starter because it takes the bacteria longer to work on it, which increases the sourness through creation of more...bacteria-sweat? Ok, I admit, I don't remember the exact reason it works better that way, and I'm way too lazy to look it up. Finally, the wise voices of the internet said to increase the rise times all around; like good barbecue, low-n-slow gets the best results.
This is where I really have trouble – I suck at time management. I mean well, really I do, but I'll usually start by thinking “Hey, I should make some sourdough buns for dinner tonight,” then two hours later actually starting them. Unfortunately, using the base recipe, that still means that at a MINIMUM, the buns won't be done for 9.5 hours*. And, when I only let things rise for the minimum time (which is always, because Zoey for some reason objects to eating dinner at 10:30), I end up with dense buns/bread that is a disappointment all around.
This weekend, I vowed to be different. Better. I would plan ahead. I would let the bread rise until doubled/to the height I wanted, regardless of how long it took. Friday night, I started the process – I took a cup of starter, added flour and water to it, and left it on the counter to get ripe. Fermented. Sour. Whatever. In the morning, it looked good – nice and bubbly and ready to go. So far, I was about 10-11 hours into the process (although only about five minutes of that required any effort on my part).
I added more flour, kneaded it (thanks to my Kitchenaid, that involved next-to-no effort, other than adding a little flour now and again. I love that thing), and let it rise for 3 ½ hours or so. Having it ready to start this process first thing in the morning was a good plan. Total time investment: 15 hours (active effort time: 15 minutes).
Finally (I am not a patient person) it rose enough to punch it down and shape the loaves. Then I had to let it rise for ANOTHER five stinking hours. This is not a process for people with patience issues. One website suggested letting the shaped loaves rise in the fridge for 12-18 hours. I do not have a three day attention span for a single batch of bread. The a five hour rise will have to do. Total time investment: 20 hours (active effort time: 17 minutes).
After what felt like twelve eternities, the bread was ready to bake – for an hour. The smell of baking bread is one of the finest things known to man. I don't care how much a person has just eaten, the smell of freshly baked bread will make them drool. I'm pretty sure it's hardwired into the subconscious.
See the steam? That's because I cut it before I probably should have. There's that lack of patience again...
The bread turned out pretty well – it definitely had more of a sour flavor, although not as much as I hoped. It also had a better texture, although it probably could have used one more hour of rise time, believe it or not. Was it worth the 21 hour time investment? Probably. This is only the first loaf I've made since first adding rye flour and decreasing the amount of water when refreshing the starter; I expect the sour flavor will increase a bit more with further refreshing. I have high hopes for the next batch.
*This can be shortened if you use a recipe that calls for extra yeast added. Real sourdough, however, doesn't need extra yeast, just extra time and patience.