Our household has been tending a sourdough culture (starter) continuously for a number of years now. In that time, we have expanded our learning by creating different bread based products. Recently, we traveled for three weeks for vacation to Las Cruces, New Mexico, in the Chihuahuan Desert of the southwest. From our travels we discovered great, new things about sourdough baking and the impact that a different environment has on our sourdough culture.
Sourdough baking is more art than science. It is also very fluid and forgiving. If there is one key lesson we have learned over the years of sourdough baking it would be that environmental conditions can change the outcome of baking. During our recent vacation to the desert of New Mexico we discovered many things out of necessity when it comes to baking. In vacations past, we have packed up a jar of starter to facilitate our baking sessions during time away from home. This time, however, we neglected to pack starter which necessitated creating a new sourdough culture from scratch. What would this process be like in the dryness of the Chihauhaun Desert? A different environment, different kitchen, different oven, etc. Here are some things we discovered......
First, we discovered that our sourdough culture took days longer time to come to life and become active enough to support baking projects than here in our resident Minnesota, nearly double the time, because yeast is a moisture-loving organism only a small number of the hardiest wild yeast survive there.
Second, we discovered that the flour available there was very different in terms of texture, gluten content, grain content (all wheat instead of a wheat/barley combination), texture and more. The dough felt much wetter and less active than during home baking sessions.
Third, we have always recognized that the oven has a large impact on results. In Las Cruces, we were negotiating the use of an electric oven as opposed to our natural gas convection oven at home. Our home oven tends to bake cooler than the temperature setting requiring adjustment for baking times. The electric oven tended to bake much hotter and much quicker.
Fourth, rising times were longer than home baking. After rising the consistency of the dough was both spongier and firm at the same time, a paradox. For example, prepped bagels had a hard surface and sank to the bottom of the pot when immersed into boiling water prior to baking. Normally, prepped bagels float on the top of the water and puff up during the process. Bread dough didn't appear to rise at all. However, we were very surprised to find that both the bagels and bread rose a great deal in the oven during baking. The end result yielded wonderful, airy end products.
So, what affect did the introduction of New Mexico starter have for our home baking once we returned from vacation? We transported a jar of our Las Cruces culture back with us and used it here in familiar territory. Since our return we have used both the New Mexico starter and flour in our baking sessions alongside our home starter and flour. In comparison, the New Mexico ingredients have introduced a new sponginess to our baking. Blending the two cultures together has given us a new appreciation for creating a vibrant sourdough culture. As a result, we have discovered a great new baking flour.
In summary, sourdough baking is a very intuitive process. Even with experience, you can find it hard to anticipate results. Getting out and about, blending and introducing new sourdough cultures can expand your results and your learning. Thank you to the natural biota of the Chihauhuan Desert for invigorating our sourdough baking experience. It is always good to get out and try new things!