I am actually a food chemistry dork. I can pour over facts about protein content in flour, shortening mediums, and natural and chemical leaving agents. I love using yeast, but cultivating my own rather daunts me. I checked out Pastries from the La Brea Bakery by Nancy Silverton. She outlines her process for creating a sourdough starter. It takes 14 days, and you have to feed the starter three times a day. It's not necessarily difficult, but I have my hands full feeding myself and my children, I'm sure I would neglect my dough.
Chemical leaveners have their place too. Baking soda and baking powder work by reacting with acids to produce carbon dioxide, causing your baked goods to rise. Baking soda needs acid in the recipe (buttermilk, sour cream, molasses) to react with. Baking powder is basically baking soda mixed with a dry acid and double-dried cornstarch. When it gets wet, the dry acid reacts with the baking soda, and viola! There's no need to use extra acid in your recipe.
The beauty of chemical leaveners is that you can make bread and baked goods quickly. Yeast can be fickle and time consuming, all relative to moisture content, temperature, any additives in your recipe (sugar, salt). Baking powder and baking soda are so much more straightforward, which is sometimes exactly what you need.
Tonight I made beer bread. Since I can't drink it, I figure I might as well bake with it. It's a simple recipe from Williams-Sonoma. Since the beer is a product of fermentation, it adds some leavening power along with the baking powder. You can use any beer you like, and each one will impart a different flavor to the bread. In the winter, I like to use a nut-brown. Tonight, I made it with Fat Tire Amber Ale. It was subtle, a little malty and sweet. To top it off, you pour 1/4 cup of melted butter over the batter before you bake it, giving it a crunchy, almost fried texture and heavenly butter flavor. Beer and butter, it may sound gluttonous, but could you ask for anything more?
Beer Batter Bread adapted from Williams-Sonoma
- 3 cups all-purpose flour
- 3 T firmly packed light brown sugar
- 1 T baking powder
- 1 tsp salt
- 1 bottle (12 fl oz) beer, unopened and at room temperature
- 4 T unsalted butter, melted, plus extra for greasing and serving
Preheat the oven to 375 degrees, and butter a 9" x 5" loaf pan
In a large bowl, combine the flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt. Open the beer and add it all at once. Stir just to combine. The batter should be lumpy. You want to be careful not to overmix. Pour the melted butter over the top the loaf.
Bake for 35-40 minutes, or until the top is crusty and a pick inserted in the center comes out clean. Let it cool in the pan for 5 minutes, and then transfer to a wire rack. Serve warm or at room temperature. It's best the day it's made, but heat it in the toaster the next day, slather it with butter, and it's still delicious.