by Chef Jenn Farmer
The Autumn harvest seems to be in full swing, and one of my favorite things to gather are grapes, in particular, wild grapes. They smell divine and, though very tart, have a depth of flavor that is incomparable. My mother recently asked me for some grape recipes. She was tired of making jelly, and juice and wanted to try something new. She was thinking of dehydrating them or leaving them on sheet pans covered with cheese cloth in the sun to make raisins. I thought they were both excellent ideas, but I decided to take a different tactic. Then it dawned on me: sourdough bread. The early settlers used wild grapes, heavy with natural yeasts, to leaven their breads. San Francisco, California, is famous for sourdough bread. Wine country is right next door. This is not a just a coincidence, but the yeast from the local grapes makes lovely sourdough starter. The settlers to the area found this out early on—historians know that ’49ers of the gold rush considered sourdough bread a staple. An interesting fact, San Francisco had 63 bakeries by 1854, which is pretty significant considering the population was around 40,000 people at that time.
Autumn is definitely the time to make your own sourdough starter, since there is a lot of natural yeast in the air and grapes ripen in the fall too also. Just collect them from an area that is away from roadsides or other places that might have pollutants or pesticides since the grapes will not be washed. The white stuff on the outside of the grape is natural yeast, so if you wash the grapes you will remove the most important ingredient to this recipe. There are several methods for making sourdough starter. If you are an impatient person this may not be an experiment you should try, since it does not always turn out properly. I have had to throw out my fair share of starters and begin again. Usually just trying grapes from a different location does the trick. The results are very rewarding, and the starter can live for a very long time if it is kept refrigerated and is fed weekly.
Don’t forget to feed “her” or she (the starter) will die. One way I remembered to feed it, was to make pancakes or bread on the same day every week as a routine, then I was guaranteed to remember to feed it. It does get increasingly sour with age, so keep that in mind. If you are a very ambitious (and what I would consider a “crazy” baker), you can leave the starter out at room temperature, and feed it every 4-6 hours to create very big batches of breads (this is how some professional bakeries keep up with the demand, and I have read that some commercial bakeries do the same). If the starter gets funky, gets a funny color, or does not smell clean yet sour, throw it out and start again. Always give it a stir before beginning, since natural alcohols form on the top and separate out.
WILD GRAPE SOURDOUGH STARTER 1
- 1 pound grapes, stemmed and picked over
- 1 cup whole wheat flour
- Nantucket water-do not use chlorinated or chemically treated water
- Unbleached Bread Flour (for later in process)
Crush up the grapes into a very clean medium sized mixing bowl. Cover the bowl with cheese cloth. Allow the grapes and juice to ferment at room temperature for 3 days. There should be bubbles in the grape juice, which is good (any green mold, is bad). Strain the liquid well, and discard the skins and seeds. Return the mixture to a bowl. Stir in one cup of flour. Allow to sit again at room temperature for 24 hours. Measure out one cup of starter, this is all you need, so you discard the rest. Place the cup of starter into a glass or ceramic container with a lid, 1 quart is about perfect. Stir in a little less than 1 cup bread flour and one cup of water. It should look like thick batter. Add more flour if too thin, or water if too thick. Cover with the lid, but very loosely. Again let stand at room temperature for 24 hours. Repeat this sequence the next day. The mixture should be starting to bubble. Repeat over the course of the next two days. You may need to discard some mixture every day. The starter should be very active by this time, and will require refrigeration and weekly feedings, or regular feedings (4-6 hours as stated above). Double the starter each time, so 1 cup starter requires 1 cup flour and one cup water. Use in any recipe calling for sourdough starter.
WILD GRAPE STARTER 2
This is a completely different method for making a starter. Instead of fermenting the juice to “grow” the yeast, this recipe transfers the yeast from the skin of the grape to the flour.
- 1 cup freshly picked wild grapes with lots of white yeast on them
- 2 cups unbleached all- purpose flour
- Nantucket water (do not use chlorinated or chemically treated water)
- One tablespoon sugar or molasses (Don’t use honey unless it’s pasteurized. Natural organisms can work against you in this already somewhat unpredictable process)
Put the 2 cups of flour into a clean glass or ceramic bowl. Add the grapes, carefully burying them in the flour- keep the skins intact if possible. Cover bowl with plastic wrap to keep other yeasts out. Let it sit overnight. Remove the grapes carefully the next day, and stir in 2 cups of lukewarm water. Add the sugar, and stir the mixture well. It should be left lightly covered at room temperature for 3-4 days, stirring once daily. When it has developed a sour smell, that is yeasty, it is ready. Store in a clean glass jar in the refrigerator, and feed it weekly, about one cup flour and one cup water per cup of cup of starter Refreshing an unused starter is easy. Stir the starter, then take 2 Tablespoons of the original stuff and mix it into 1 cup water, 1 cup flour, and allow it to sit for a day at room temperature. This makes it less tart and gives it a bit of new life. I am one who dislikes waste, so I have been known to make some extra starter from the original batch, and give it to a friend with directions on how to raise the sourdough starter (make sure the friend WANTS the starter first).
OLD FASHIONED SOURDOUGH PANCAKES
- This recipe needs to be started the night before for best results
- 2 cups unbleached flour
- 2 tablespoons unrefined sugar, or brown sugar
- 2 cups plain yogurt or buttermilk
- 1 cup sourdough starter, unfed
- 2 eggs
- One quarter cup melted butter
- Pinch of salt
- One teaspoon baking soda
Create an overnight sponge by stirring the flour, sugar, buttermilk or yogurt, and sourdough starter together in a glass or ceramic bowl that is lightly covered. Allow to sit at room temperature overnight. The next day, whip together the eggs and butter, add to the sponge, and mix. Add the salt and baking soda, and stir again, the batter should bubble. Pour onto a greased hot skillet, and cook until the edges of the pancake become a bit dry, and the batter bubbles. Flip and cook for one more minute. Serves 4-6 people.