Starter Wars

sourdough starter with its magic bubbles!

A long time ago, in a kitchen far, far away….

Well, it was only a year ago, in truth. And the kitchen was two rooms over from where I’m currently sitting. But depending on how warm the fire is, how the joints are treating me, and how many glasses of peapod wine I’ve drunk, that could be far, far away.

I digress.

So one of my goals last year was to bake bread, and moreover, to learn how to bake bread. Which is to say, gain a better understanding of what’s going on when you shake some salt in a paste of flour-water and add just three things: yeast, time and then sudden, intense heat. Come to think of it, that’s also a passable definition of the life of a sinner, in a Christian’s eyes, but I’m digressing again.

While I’m speaking heresy, I chose Josey Baker’s fine book as my bible. I thought a year was a reasonable period of time to work through the full thing. I planned to make each bread recipe about three times before moving on.

And then I hit sourdough.

I suppose it’s not a difficult bread to make, from a technical standpoint. But you shouldn’t trust me, as I’m clearly an idiot, as you will soon see.

Permit me just one paragraph of exposition: Sourdough bread is much like any other regular, old bread loaf, except in place of the activated yeast from a little packet or jar, you use a glop of “starter,” which is basically yeast suspended in a primordial Play-Doh you keep in the fridge. I think. Just kidding about really understanding the science.

Most bakers acquire starter from another baker. When fed properly, which is kind of like disobeying all the “Gremlins” rules, it will live forever.

Starter is often proudly passed down generations. If your folks don’t have some, many suggest hitting up a bakery, because bakers love to share. Some companies also make specially packaged mixes that are optimized for making great starter. Starter starter kits, I guess.

But you can make your own, and Josey allegedly outlines just how. And anyhow, screw all those guys. I wanted to learn how to do this, and I was going to “tame the wild yeast,” as Josey says, and make my own starter.

Like I said: Idiot.

The process involves mixing the right amounts of flour and water, stirring a bunch, covering it enough to keep out big critters but not so much to keep out the little, microbial ones that turn this stew into a sort of organism. That’s the theory. I tried it like 40 times using Josey’s instructions. This was the dead of summer, and I wrote some about that then.

I almost gave up and just begged some starter off of a friend. The Georgia heat is just too much for it, I thought. But before waving the white apron of surrender, I did a heap of Googling.

It wasn’t too hot, turns out. The warmer the better. That quarter inch of clear liquid that kept rising to the top of my starter? That was my cue that the starter was hungry for more food (i.e., flour). I could just pour that off, add more flour, stir, and press on. Oh, and Josey’s water proportions were wayyyy off, at least to my experience. Where he suggests equal parts water and flour, I finally had success with a 3-1 flour-to-water ratio.

homemade sourdough loaves

It was pretty clear when I hit the right mix and it was working. The proto-starter began bubbling thoughout the mix in the mason jar. When I opened it, I got just a bit of a boozy smell. And when I felt like it was stable enough, I baked with it, and the resulting loaves were fantastic. It’s the best sandwich loaf I’ve made yet.

Now that the stuff is stable, it lives in the fridge. I pull it out when it starts to look hungry. I feed it. Let it come to room temperature for half a day or so — until the air bubbles are having their little party throughout, and throw it back in the fridge until I’m ready to bake again.

And since then, I’ve been able to get back on track with my bread bible.

I’m several months behind where I thought I’d be by now, and there’s lots of exciting stuff ahead — relatively exciting, as bread bakers tend to get excited about stupid stuff (“OMG, bran!”)— like a true whole-wheat recipe.

I’ve already learned four important lessons, before I move on to this next phase:

  1. No one is infallible. Even smart, funny, nice people named Josey Baker. (And, who knows, maybe he didn’t steer me wrong on sourdough starter. Maybe I repeatedly screwed something up — though I don’t think so. He’s certainly not led me astray on a single bread recipe yet.)
  2. If what someone tells you isn’t working, seek outside knowledge. I should’ve Googled sourdough starter information earlier. If I had, I would’ve seen the discrepancies in process, percentages and times sooner and could’ve corrected my course. The old journalism adage I learned would still serve me well here: If your mother tells you she loves you, check it out. (Cultures for Health has a great ebook with a strong chapter on making starter from scratch. You can download it here.)
  3. Bread is delicious. In all its forms. I’m sorry gluten-free people. I’m so sorry.
  4. I should never have said I would also be working on charcuterie in 2016. Breadmaking has proved easy, but it’s process-heavy, and it takes time to make. There just wasn’t enough extra free time for making meaty treats. Maybe 2017? Maybe 2018?
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