BREAD BAKING TIPS - ARTISAN SPONGE STARTER

            Sponges are used as starters in most artisan breads. If you have never used a sponge starter you will be pleasantly surprised with the results. Your loaf texture and feel will be softer, like a sponge. That's where the name comes from. It is a really nice tool that every baker should be familiar with. By the way, your crust can still be thick and chewy and crusty with a spongy center in your loaf.

            To make a sponger starter mix equal parts of cold water, bread flour and a small amount of yeast. I use 1/2 tsp of active dry yeast per 2 cups of water and 2 cups of bread flour. Mix thoroughly, then cover the bowl with a plate and let sit at room temperature for 18 to 24 hours. You can mix it with a wooden spoon every once in a while if you like. There are no fixed rules on sponges. You can make a quick starter by using equal parts warm water, bread flour and 1/2 tsp of active dry yeast. Let it sit at room temperature for an hour or so. You will have a quick sponge to add to your next batch of bread.

            You can experiment with your sponge if you want. Try using less yeast. You can also keep the sponge in the fridge. You can not mess it up whatever you do, but the optimal sponge will peak at time of use. Yeast is an organism. Its activity will peak at some point in the baking process. Heat, the quantity of yeast used and the time sponge sits are all variables. If you use warm water it will peak sooner. If you refrigerate the sponge it will take longer. Just like bread rising, it will rise to point and then peak - the rising will stop. If you peak the yeast you will get oven shoot while baking. If you miss the peak you won't get any oven shoot. Just experiment. It's fun. It's all part of the learning process.

            Now you have a sponge starter. To make a loaf with your sponge simply substitute starter for flour and water in the recipe for your next loaf. The sponge is equal parts water and flour so it is easy. If you use one cup of sponge starter in your next loaf just decrease the recipe by 1/2 cup of flour and 1/2 cup of water.

            If you were to let the sponge sit for a few days and feed it every three days some more flour and water it would sour and become a sourdough starter over time. When I make pizza dough in my bread machine I leave the dough I don't use in the machine for a few day and let it ferment (sour). I use it in the next batch of bread that I make. Sometimes I just pull the remaining dough out of the bread machine and use it to make another pizza.

            Give it a try. Experiment. Bread baking is a craft. You will never know it all. There is always more to learn.

More Tips at the following links:

Wholesome Ingredients

Whole Milk Mozzarella for Pizza

Elusive Oven Spring or Oven Shoot

About Flour

Economics of Home Baking

Temperature and the Craft of Bread Baking

Pizza: Thick Crust vs. Thin Crust

Shaping Hot Dog/Hamburger Buns

Artisan Breads

It's Always the Yeast

Using Enough Yeast?

Buying Yeast

Baking Issues & Stones

Active Dry vs. Instant Yeast

Coloring Your Loaf - Dark Bread

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