Extension Connection: How to make sure your bread is a winner

Recently, magazine articles have revived interest in sourdough-type starters used to make various kinds of breads and cake-like breads.

People are encouraged to pass portions of the starters and bread-making instructions along to friends.

One such product is "Amish Friendship Bread," although it may or may not originate from the Amish community.

However, the safety of Amish Friendship Bread starter has been questioned, since the instructions call for leaving the product, which contains milk, at room temperature for 10 days before it is used to make the bread.

Fermentation experts at Cornell University, Oregon State and Washington State all have concluded there is little risk of contracting foodborne illness from properly prepared and handled starters, whether or not they contain milk.

Properly prepared starters are safe because they become acidic due to the fermentation action of lactic acid-forming bacteria present in the mixture. These bacteria -- and the acid environment formed -- inhibit the growth of other bacteria, but do allow yeast, if added, to grow and help leaven bread products.

Bakers of Amish Friendship Bread should be aware of the following, however:

  • It is difficult to prepare a sourdough starter from scratch. Microorganisms naturally present in the ingredients may not be the ideal ones for producing a good starter or some other necessary condition may not have been met. It takes experience with the art of sourdough to recognize a really good starter. Most bread cookbooks have sections on sourdough.
  • Discard starters that smell bad, turn reddish or orange in color or grow mold. Good starters are bubbly and have a sour smell; the Amish Friendship Bread starter should smell sweet and tangy.
  • Neither pasteurized nor raw milk are good choices for preparing a starter from scratch. Pasteurized milk probably will not produce enough lactic acid to form a good starter, because pasteurization kills the lactobacillus organisms in the raw milk that would initiate fermentation. Eventually you just get a foul-smelling spoiled mixture. People are able to keep already-started starters going with additions of pasteurized milk because the organisms are already there from the original starter culture, which may have been started from raw milk, a possible source of pathogenic bacteria.
  • Starters originally started with raw milk may be a source of pathogenic bacteria, such as E. coli O157:H7. Never taste a raw starter. Baking to doneness will destroy harmful bacteria that might be present.
  • Cultured buttermilk, water or yogurt with active bacterial cultures are good choices for preparing a starter. For starters that call for water, flour and sugar -- and perhaps yeast -- the use of whole wheat or rye flour may give a better inoculum of lactic acid-forming bacteria than white, all-purpose flour.
  • Follow the usual recommendations for personal and kitchen cleanliness while preparing starters.
  • You can refrigerate or freeze starters, and Cornell recommends storing starters in the refrigerator after the fermentation has progressed satisfactorily -- follow the recipes for this. Refrigeration does slow it down, but you can get it going again by warming them to room temperature a few hours before use in baking.

For more information, contact Elisa at the CSU Moffat County Extension Office, 539 Barclay St., at 824-9180.

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