Rain on your [naturally leavened] Parade?

A few years ago someone on a starter forum presented the idea of weather being the culprit behind his starter’s sudden sluggish behavior. I thought he was crazy, or in denial of the fact that he was probably just neglecting his starter a bit.

Until……

Last week. Out of the blue my beautiful, well kept Peeta went rather limp. He bubbled moderately when fed but lacked the real oomph needed to properly leaven a loaf of bread. Strange. Now that my starter is such an integrated part of my life, fluxuations in activity are mild and seldom worth mentioning. I had been receiving a host of troubleshooting emails and comments over the last day or two complaining of similar “symptoms” and figured it was God’s way of giving me a refresher course in this area so I could better help everybody.

Powerfeeding hadn’t done the trick the way it usually does, so it was with humility that I took a sample loaf of modest height to a class last week. I don’t like to hide the unpredictable nature of baking with starts. I think it is important for everyone to understand that you only get chemical predictability with chemicals, and baking with living things means you get real-life results from time to time (and really the more experience you gain, the less “life” can get in your way).

Lucky for me, one of the attendees of the class is obsessed with meteorology, and was happy to explain my sluggish start.

Low Barometric pressure preceeding a storm is similar to the old adage “the warm before the storm.” Baking at my altitude is a horse of a different color as it is, but when a particularly powerful storm is rolling across the country (like the one that blew in last week), it can really affect baking.

Think of it as a soda bottle. Unopened, the “atmospheric” pressure in the bottle is high and the CO2 stays “dissolved” in the liquid. As soon as you open the bottle, the pressure drops, and suddenly you have millions of bubbles making their way out of the liquid. In bread, we want our bubbles to stay put. Atmospheric pressure helps that.

It doesn’t surprise me that many of the world’s most famous bakeries are located directly on the coast, at sea level, where atmospheric pressure is greatest.

If I had had any doubt, It was only within a dayof this storm exiting our vicinity that my starter miraculously bubbled right back up. One day stormy and sluggish, the next day sunny and bubbly.

Now I don’t think that this is an “excuse” we can often use for starter lethargy. More often than not it is our own neglect that causes these problems, but I offer this information to you as another tool in your belt for taking care of your starter. It is also a good reminder that Patience is Paramount when it comes to starter baking.
When problems pop up, evaluate your process, look for irregularities in your approach, and if all else fails, keep feeding your starter and stock up on patience. Before you know it the storm clouds will part (sometimes literally) and the sun will shine down upon you and your baking once more. 🙂

Comments

  1. says

    Hiya!
    I am now baking at sea level in the Caribbean. I started in Utah at 6000 ft! So the barometric pressure here is more and also the heat seems to really make my dough want to spooge…
    I’ve found that using more flour and then refrigerating for the last hour before baking helps this problem some but I would love to hear any other advice on baking at sea level in hot climes!
    Tah tah for now!
    kak

    • thebreadgeek says

      Kak you have great instincts! At warm, humid climates at sea-level, a long cold-proof is exactly what I would recommend. Many bakers will allow the dough to sit on the counter for a few hours, then move it to the fridge for the rest of the rise time. This could also be done immediately after shaping, letting the shaped loaves rise for a longer period of time, then letting them warm a tiny bit before baking.

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