Rothwell GrainEssentials Center

We’re Anything But Sour on Sourdough


Bay State Milling Company,

Jay Freedman has made a lot of sourdough bread in his life, going back four decades to Kaufman’s Bakery, his family business in Buffalo, New York.  Back then, Jay would use their rye sour at 2 or 3 in the morning to make rye bread for the day. They’d refresh or feed the sour in the afternoon; leaving it until it was time to call it into action for the next morning’s round of fresh loaves.

Sourdough starters are used in a variety of breads—at anywhere from 5% to 50%.  Generally, the more sourdough starter used the more sour, fermented notes will be forward in the flavor. Aside from a flavor boost, using a sour can give your finished bread better texture and quality. This, according to BakerPedia, is because cereal enzymes are converting phenolic compounds and lipids into other flavorful derivatives during the fermentation process.

The team in the Rothwell GrainEssentials Center in Quincy, MA maintains three sours—wheat, rye and teff. A sour is started with flour and water that ferments with naturally occurring yeast. To get the mixture to become a living culture, it takes several days of mixing in the sour with new flour and water.

All of the Bay State Milling sours are three years old and use our products, but each was started in a slightly different way. The wheat sour was started from a sample Jay received from a sourdough workshop in the cultural center of the style, San Francisco.

For the rye, the Product Applications Team soaked raisins in water and then used that water along with rye meal extra fine to get the sour going. There are many sourdough starter recipes that call for water that something, like basil, was soaked in, or the use of juice like pineapple. It’s all a matter of preference based on what books you read and people you talk to.

The final sour is built on the African grain teff, which has a dark color and a mild, caramelized brown sugar flavor. The teff sour was created using a traditional teff flour and water base that was fed often during its first few days before it stabilized.

For as many bakers as there are in the world, there are as many ways to start and maintain a sour. There are many factors, some personal preference, but a lot has to do with what kind of bread you’re making, how often and where. Back in Buffalo, Jay says their sour was perpetual. It was a daily contributor to the operation. Here at Bay State, the sour is like a second stringer, sitting on the bench waiting for the call from the coach. It’s a key player, but whether it gets in the game depends on the opponent.

“I am keeping this alive in case someone walks through the door (of the Rothwell GrainEssentials Center) and wants to have sour,” Jay explains.

I ask Jay to walk me through the refreshing process he does a few times a week.

“The hard part is to get yourself a stable sour,” Jay tells me. “The easy part is refreshing your sour.”

Jay has his stabilized sours; so on this Tuesday morning he’s doing the easy part. Maintaining the three starters is equal parts science and art; trial and error has made this twice-weekly act one of love and ritual.

He starts with the rye sour. Jay portions out the bubbly, beige substance into a 100-gram blob. He adds 200 grams of Bay State Milling rye meal extra fine and 200 grams of water to the plastic container. As he mixes them together by hand, Jay explains that back at Kaufman’s Bakery they’d do a 1:1:1 ratio of sour, flour and water, but with how often he uses the rye sour today, a 1:2:2 ratio gives him the desired tolerance. Once the three components are mixed, he moves on to teff.

Jay Freedman adds flour and water to his teff sour in the Rothwell GrainEssentials Center.

Jay Freedman adds flour and water to his teff sour in the Rothwell GrainEssentials Center.

Jay keeps a considerably smaller portion of teff sour than the wheat and rye. The Product Applications Team started the sour with the gluten-free grain to do some experimentation. Of the three, it’s the least used in the GrainEssentials Center. It’s also the most temperamental. While the other two can wait beyond his usual few days for a refresh, the mousse-like teff sour doesn’t stand for waiting too long for its fresh meal of flour and water. Jay again meticulously measures out the correct ratio for the starter at hand: 10 grams of teff sour, 50 grams of teff flour and 50 grams of water.

At left is the wheat sour that is ready to use; note the webbing. The ball on the right is the wheat sour after it was refreshed with flour and water.

At left is the wheat sour that is ready to use; note the webbing. The ball on the right is the wheat sour after it was refreshed with flour and water.

The wheat sour is noticeably the stiffest of the bunch. Jay says it’s a balance. If your dough is too stiff it’s hard to incorporate into your finished dough. He pulls off a chunk of the sour to show me the webbing. He drops that piece into a new container and adds 100 grams of water. He makes a combination of 170 grams of refined wheat flour and 30 grams of white whole wheat.  “That’s the way I learned,” Jay says as he combines everything and finishes his last refresh of the morning. “I happen to like it.”

On this particular day, Jay combines the sour leftovers that weren’t used into a container. “In some places it would be trash,” he tells me. But today, they’ll serve as the base for his New York sourdough rye, a modest variation on the bread he was making in Buffalo 40 years ago.

Want more news like this? Sign up for our E-Newsletter.