Kefir levain – a different kettle of fish – but makes for flavorful bread.
I’ve wanted to make this ever since Joanna posted about her 38% wholemeal kefir levain bread, which she adapted for people who wanted to keep it sugar-free (although who could argue with this date syrup one)?? This yielded a really delicious bread. But it’s a long, slow and less predictable bread, because of the preferment using milk kefir, so be prepared to wait and adapt. I started the preferment at night. The next morning, I noticed it had risen a little but there were hardly any bubbles. It took warm afternoon sun shining on it and a very slight rise in temperature for the preferment to almost double (3/4 towards doubling), and it never attained the sort of liveliness of my usual levain. On hindsight, I should have used it then; I think it was at its peak. But Joanna had warned that it could take anywhere between 36-48 hours, so for the sake of experimentation, I decided to see how far it could go. And without resorting to nestling it near the heater! Since she mentioned temperatures between 16-19 degrees celsius. By the next morning, it was ‘crestfallen’ and smelled sour so I knew I had taken it beyond its peak.
I used it anyway and went for an autolyse of about an hour. Everything came together easily and I did a few folds before popping into the the fridge for an overnight proof. The dough was strong but lacked structure (if this makes any sense) but I expected it, with the sluggish and acidic levain. As with the preferment, it was slow-moving and it was hard to read the dough. It never became light and full of air, so much so that despite the very long proof, I was still wondering if it wasn’t under-proofed. I was sure, given the lack of volume and all that acidity, I would get a dense loaf. Lo and behold, it had quite a good oven spring and the crumb was very aerated. And there’s a really nice sweetness in the crust and crumb.
I’m really enjoying the sweetness of these long-fermentation and/or high-hydration breads. I’ll leave the science to others but it’s nothing short of magical how the sweetness is coaxed from the flours and grains, a deep sweetness that’s got nothing to do with the artificial sugar-spiked, malt or whatever-induced sweetness in commercial bread. (Just now, I had to buy a sandwich from a ubiquitous chain for lunch. We all know how these industrial breads are pumped with additives and are barely fermented, but this one must have been put through the production process double time. It was so dense, it was like wheat bread trying to imitate rye bread! It made me want to weep. i looked around to see if anyone had noticed but everyone was just chomping away.) And there’s nothing short of magical in the journey of a grain from the time it harnesses the energy of the sun to the moment it appears on our table as bread.
milk kefir levain, water kefir levain, fruit yeast water… isn’t it amazing what one can use. It shouldn’t be surprising the fermentation takes a longer time. I like to think it’s the yeasts and bacteria and all those hundreds (or is it, thousands??) of organisms in the kefir and flour and water and air getting to know each other, breaking out of their shells, acclimatizing, coexisting. It’s us being impatient. Each time I pick up the jar to peer and sniff, I imagine them thinking, “It’s her again. Why can’t she let us be….”
After the last experiment, I think it’s safe to say the milk kefir levain is quite sensitive to temperature. The next time, I’ll try a warmer environment from the outset. Also I now know not to expect the same sort of reaction as a usual levain, at least in my case. And what about varying the milk, flour, or even the water. I’m never been precious about the water, i’ve always just used tap water.