A year ago, I started experimenting with sourdough starter. Only a month prior, I had officially changed my major from Chemical Engineering to Food Science, but was stuck in my engineering math and science classes until the end of the quarter. Longing for some food science exposure, I turned to my trusty friend, the internet.
Within weeks, I had jars bubbling over with sourdough starter, egg yolks curing in the fridge, and macarons in the oven on a weekly basis. School took the back burner that quarter, as my days were filled with tending to breads and selling macarons in mini takeout boxes at the coffee house on campus. Eventually, school forced its way back into my life, and I found myself unable to keep up with my sourdough starter (or as I affectionately called them, my “yeast babies”) and let it die, then made it again, then let it die–a marker of my laziness and something I am not proud of.
So what is a sourdough starter??
Before the days of freeze dried saccharomyces cerevisiae, breads were leavened with what we refer to today as ‘sourdough starters’. These starters take advantage of the yeast spores and bacteria in the world around us to harness a living, breathing leavening agent and require only two ingredients: flour and water.
While some recipes call for fruit juices or other sweeteners to feed the yeasts, the sugar derived from the starchy endosperm (in the grain) should be plenty. Simply combine flour and water in a 1:1 ratio, mix until no lumps remain, cover with a towel or other porous material and let the yeast come to you! By mixing the two ingredients, you are providing food, water and shelter for these micro organisms, so be sure to provide new food and water daily by dumping out half the starter, and replenishing it with more flour and water. In 5-8 days, your starter will become an ecosystem unto itself driven by two head honchos: lactobacillus sanfranciscensis and candida milleri. These two bacteria and yeast, respectively, live in symbiosis–candida milleri consuming all sugars except maltose and l. sanfracsicensis consuming solely maltose. The bacteria in starters produce acid that gives sourdough is characteristic tang, while yeasts produce CO2 that leaven, or rise, the bread.
It’s a wonderful feeling, culturing your own starter. After a week of tending to your once-lifeless paste that has now blossomed into a living body, you, too, will be referring to the starter as your “yeast babies”. As soon as I had an actively dividing culture, I started incorporating my yeast babies into any leavened recipe. The New York Times has a great selection of recipes modified for sourdough starters here as well as an incredibly relevant article on the rise of sourdough starter “pets” in the US that came out at the height of my sourdough craze, reflecting my life almost too well.
Where do sourdough croissants come in??
I have been wanting to try sourdough croissants from the moment my starter became active. Before I knew it, however, summer had rolled around. At the time I lived in an exposed, poorly insulated apartment with a no-AC policy in a climate that stays 90-100F for a good 4 months out of the year. I then went to India for a month and essentially spent 5 months sweating. If you know anything about croissant making, proper lamination (layering butter into the dough) was not going to fly in those conditions. I watched a YouTube video on croissant making by a woman from Florida who circumvented the heat by waking up at 5 AM to laminate her dough. I admired her commitment but decided to wait until December instead.
I followed this recipe by “From the Grapevine”, an Israeli cooking blog, to make these croissants.
Since this was my first attempt making croissants in general, I was very pleased with how they turned out. From the cross section, you can clearly see the layers of laminated dough. The layers were not as separated as I had hoped , but I think it was a combination of the weaker rising power of the non-commercial starter and my impatience while proofing. I definitely recommend letting the dough rise at room temperature/slightly warmer for over the hour suggested, especially if your starter is slow acting.
Since the croissants are not proofed as long as a sourdough bread, the sour flavor was mild yet added wonderful complexity. These croissants, especially when coupled with a sweet jam or chocolate filling, were the perfect balance of sour, buttery, and sweet.
I am working on adapting the recipe to give rise characteristic of commercial yeast-risen croissants, but until then, the linked recipe works very well.
Until next time… start some starter for me 🙂