Thursday, March 4, 2010

The Truth About "Friendship Bread" and Starters

About 4 years ago I got it in my head that baking bread wasn't challenging enough for me.

Those little packets of "active dry yeast" just made it TOO easy. So I decided to make bread the old-fashioned way... and since most would argue that I was already making bread the old-fashioned way (without a bread machine), I mean the REALLY old-fashioned way!

And so my first sour dough starter was born-- literally.

A little warm water and flour sitting out on the counter for a couple of weeks and I was the proud new mama of my own little colony of Whoos.

Pretty cool.

Very shortly thereafter, one of my clients brought me a bag of glue. And if you've ever had a "friend" bring you Amish Friendship Bread starter, then you know that "bag of glue" is about the most appropriate description you can get!

My little ziplock baggie of glue came with a sheet of instructions that, had I followed it, would surely have lead to certain heartbreak for my dogs, who LOVE Amish Friendship Bread.
Fortunately, I had already joined the rather obscure-- although elite-- group of baking nerds who dedicate a small portion of their refrigerator space to at least one container of sourdough starter-- so I immediately memorized the Friendship bread starter "foods" and then threw away the instructions. (Kept the recipe though.)

I poured my glue into a container with a lid, made sure it had been fed, and put it in the refrigerator.

4 years later, I still have both my starters and the dogs still get Friendship bread now and then. While the client who gave me my starter long ago got fed up with the allegedly high maintenance starter and did away with hers.

Meanwhile, in those same 4 years, I have been offered new friendship starter by many slightly desperate folks who have run out of "friends" to pawn off baggies of glue on. Eventually it seems that everyone grows weary of having a bag of glue sitting on their counter, having to knead it for 3 days in a row, feed it, knead it, feed it, separate into 5 portions, bake one, give away 4.

Eventually everyone either ends up baking 5 batches of friendship bread and calling it done, or pouring the starter down the drain.

Here's the scoop: You don't have to be a slave to your starter.

For one thing, get it out of the ziplock bag. Yeesh! A ziplock bag is just not the most convenient way to keep a starter.

Put it in a Rubbermade container, or Tupperware, or one of those semi-disposable Ziplock or Gladware things. Something with a lid.

Also, you don't have to feed it 1 cup each of sugar, flour, and milk. Just as long as you feed it equal parts of each.

And keep it in the fridge. If you put it in the refrigerator, you can forget about it for a month at a time! Just take it out at least once a month, feed it, stir it really well, and stick it back in the fridge if you're not going to bake a batch!

Here's my routine:

1. Take starters out of fridge.

2. Feed starters. --If I am not going to bake bread, I pour half the starter out. Yup, down the drain. Then I increase the remaining starter by one cup. That means I feed my starter 1/3 cup sugar, 1/3 cup flour, and 1/3 milk. Stir it up, put the lid on the container and put it back in the fridge.

If I AM going to bake a batch, then I DON'T pour any out. I feed the starter, mix it up, wait for it to come up to room temp. As it does this, the yeast and bacteria start to wake up-- the eat and procreate and the starter gets all frothy and bubbly. That's when it's ready to bake with.
Amish Friendship bread is a quick bread-- like banana bread-- it mostly relies on the baking soda to make it rise. Like cake. I don't really know what purpose the starter serves, other than flavor. But it's hella tasty anyway!

Point is, that's what starter is. It's a naturally cultivated yeast culture. That's what sourdough bread is-- bread that is made without commercial yeast. I know most of us all associate "sourdough" with a specific flavor-- primarily San Francisco sourdough. Not all sourdoughs taste like San Fran's though-- and it turns out that San Francisco sourdough has a very specific flavor because the yeast spores that it's starter uses really only live in San Francisco. It would be difficult to take a San Fran starter out of the Bay Area and manage to keep that specific culture pure. So, if you're ever out and about and taste a sourdough bread that doesn't taste the way you think it should-- remember, sourdough isn't a flavor, it's a method.

So-- a few things you should know about your Amish Friendship starter:

1. Don't use metal. Don't put it in a metal bowl, don't stir it with metal implements. For some reason, metal is not friendly to starter. I'm not sure if it kills the yeast or kills the bacteria that live in symbiosis with the yeast-- and every so often I come across a sourdough baker who insists they use metal without problem-- but why risk it?

2. It's good for more than that recipe you got with it. I LOVE making my traditional sourdough bread recipe with the Amish Friendship starter. It makes a very sweet bread, great for making cinnamon rolls and pancakes with! MMMMMMMM.

3. If your friends really want their own starter, take it out of the fridge and feed it, pour a cup of starter into a new container for your friend, print out the recipe and instructions for feeding and storing. THEN BAKE THEM A LOAF OF BREAD! I can't believe it's become the tradition to just give your friends and neighbors a bag of glue and a sheet of high-maintenance instructions! Especially if the person you are giving starter to hasn't actually tasted the bread! Be a good friend and actually give them the finished product so they know why it's worth it to take care of that glue and convince them that it really is a show of friendship.