Now, who's on first?
All this being said, I had quite a lot of fun and education whilst hanging out with the humble Dylan of Sourdough Monkey Wrangler. A student of the live yeast culture, this man has come far in his self-education of all things involving bread flour. And he's neat and clean to boot.
Is there someone in your community you want to learn from? Maybe pick up a new skill? What stops you from calling them? Do you feel like they need to be paid for their time? Do you have anything to barter?
In my profession we have open doors for barter. I can give my time to just about any chef in whose kitchen I want to learn. We call this a "trail" or a stagiere.
In March, Dylan came to one of my classes, and afterwards brought me some sourdough inspired gifts. Very lucky for me there was a generous bag of homemade English muffins. I could not have been happier!
I love English muffins.
Dylan's English muffin recipe is based on one he found at Nicole's Baking Bites. He adapts his to include favorite locally grown and milled whole wheat flour from Full Belly Farm, as well as milk instead of water.
Milk is a traditional addition to English muffins, as well as Crumpets, which are basically English muffins, but griddled on only one side. In bread, milk becomes a softener. It feeds the yeast an alternative, tastier sugar, and the butterfat relaxes the crumb for a more pliable mouth feel.
When one bakes bread, a baked good of few ingredients, one must really know what each ingredient does, can do and is doing. Yeast, obviously, helps things rise. But the more you use, the faster bread goes stale. (The same goes for baking powder.) Flour and water combine to bind bread. But inherent in most flours is gluten. Gluten is protein, in its simplest terms, and, once "activated," is the structure builder, the 2X4's of bread doughs. Without gluten, there is no barn to raise. This, as we well know in Northern California, does not mean bread cannot be made without gluten. Tall, light bread, though, cannot be made without gluten.
Sugar, even the sugar that exists in the starch of the flour, feeds the yeast. Yeast is an animal, albeit a small single-celled one. (Ask the vegans if yeast is an animal they won't eat, and you will get a myriad of answers.) It eats sugar and emits gas (carbon dioxide), creating the bubbles that will, hours later, become the holes, or the nooks & crannies, in your bread. When flour has enough protein in it, the bubbles will keep their shape as they encircle the gas.
In bread, everything after yeast, flour, and water is dessert. Fat, in any form, is a softener. I'm not talking Wonder Bread here; I'm talking a palatable mouth feel. Think matzoh compared to challah, or French bread compared to brioche. Most people would rather make bread pudding or French toast with brioche, rather than ciabatta.
Flavorings are just that.
When working with natural starters one can develop far more flavor in bread. This is a funny sentence if you've not made bread. The concept is that the longer it takes to "proof" bread, or make it rise, the better the overall end result will be. Yeast does not like to be rushed. In turn, if you give it all the atmospheric elements it loves: humidity, mild warmth, time, it gives you rewards tenfold.
Bread tastes best when all you taste is bread. It's why Tartine's bread has such a following, even though it has more restrictions than a reservation at The French Laundry.
I have never been the type of person to have and keep a natural starter around. Dylan has a worm farm in his kitchen for easy apartment composting. I guerilla compost. Dylan rides his bike, I drive. Dylan feeds his starters on a schedule, I water my plants to keep them looking pretty on my window ledge.
But in the past weeks I've done some natural starter experiments. The recipes he gave me are a 3-day process. Day one you feed the starter and keep it out on the counter. Use a larger bowl than you need and make sure it's not metal. Day two combine starter with milk and flours. Day three add rest of flour, baking soda, salt and sugar, proof and begin muffin production.
English muffin production looks like this:
Knead dough a bit. The longer you knead it, the more likely it will hold it's round shape later and rise evenly. Roll dough out, cut, lay on heavily floured (or cornmeal covered) sheet, proof in a warm-ish, moist place (Dylan puts a measuring cup of very hot water in the oven for a more controlled atmosphere), and griddle until done. "Fork" to open, toast and eat with the best butter you can get your hands on. Have you eaten Clover's new Organic butter line yet? It's the bomb. So to speak.
I wouldn't call this the simplest, most efficient way to get to English muffins, but I will say that all the steps are important and worth it in the end.
Dylan and I use King Arthur bread flour, the blue paper bag. King Arthur has been extremely helpful when it comes to answering my questions about the protein contents and wheat origins of their flours. (Northern wheat is considered "stronger" with higher protein than Southern grown wheat that is considered "softer," White Lily being the best example.) Giusto's is a local company, but I can't seem to get them on the phone to answer questions to save my life. If you long to buy flour in bulk, which is less expensive than paying for the pretty packaging, head over to Rainbow Grocery in SF or Berkeley Bowl in the East Bay.
Most "sourdough" people will share a bit of their starter with you if this is the extra hobby you've been waiting for. For all your spare time.
But even if you take the time to make a starter which you keep alive for a few months in order to make two or three batches of these glorious homemade English muffins, I can guarantee you at least one happy mouth, your own, if not a messianic following. Not to mention the immeasurable learning one acquires from understanding the basics in the relationship between flour, yeast, air and water.