One Ingredient: Sourdough Starter
by Julie Van Rosendaal
Before the invention of commercial yeast, bakers made things
rise with a gooey, bubbly “glue” of flour and water left to its own devices to collect and develop
the yeast that’s already present everywhere – including in the air and on the grains that have been
ground into flour. In a warm, wet environment, the yeast chows down on the natural sugars in the
flour, creating carbon dioxide bubbles, which make it expand, and lactic acid, which gives it its
characteristic tang. Over time, as the starter is fed and continues to grow, it develops a deeper,
more complex flavour.
Once you bring your paste of flour and water to life with time, warmth and regular feedings, you
may find yourself surprisingly devoted to it and the resulting loaves. Bakers I know text photos of
their starters to each other like proud parents, cod- dling them with warm towels and extra
feedings. Most starters have a name – Herman was common in the ‘70s and ‘80s – and some are even
brought along on vacation. Due to this dedicated caregiving, some starters last for generations;
there are stories of starters that have lived for more than a hundred years.
Because sourdough starters are so inherently personal, the bakers who created them can be as
opinionated as the parents of actual children about the right (or wrong) way to raise one. Bakers
describe their starters as moody or hungry or needy or tired, characteristics that come across in
their finished loaves. Advice is often contradictory, so how you tend to your starter should, like
parenting, depend on what works best for you, your starter and the loaves you bake with it.
Although you can get a head start by ordering fresh or freeze-dried starters or coaxing a friend to
share a jar with a little history, it’s simple to start from scratch. And, if your first batch of
goo doesn’t bubble, or starts to develop a questionable fuzz, your investment is only a cup of
flour and the minute or two it took to add water.
Some formulas for new starters call for organic rye flour or mashed grapes, the theory being that
fruit skins are yeasts’ natural habitat. Some are kick-started with a pinch of commercial yeast,
but start with some good organic flour and bottled or distilled water to keep your canvas as pure
as possible, and you’ll make a clean start.
Here’s what you do: stir together about a cup minus 2 T. flour and
1/2 c. water – in an immaculately clean bowl. It should have the texture of thick batter. Cover it
loosely with a lid or plastic wrap and leave it on the countertop for 24 - 48 hours. You may see
bubbles starting to form on the surface – if not, don’t panic; the temperature of the room and the
flour itself may be slowing it down.
Once your starter shows signs of life, you’ll need to feed it. But to prevent creating a
“starterzilla,” remove half to bake bread with – see the recipe below. If bread (or waffles,
doughnuts, pizza dough, cinnamon buns, coffee cake or dumplings) aren’t in your plans, share the
scooped-out half with a friend, or tuck it away in the freezer as insurance in case you neglect
your starter and need to begin again. Then, feed it with a scant 1/2 c. of flour and 1/4 c.
water. Stir it vigorously, cover it again and leave it for another 24 hours. By then it may be
giving off a clean sour/citrusy aroma. Once again, scoop out half, and feed it with the same
measures of flour and water. Cover and leave on the countertop for 24 hours. Repeat.
By this time, you should have a nice, bubbly, pleasant-smelling starter. If it devel- ops a
dried-out crust on top, simply peel it off and throw it away. If it becomes foul smelling or starts
growing mold, start over. Once you get it going, keep feeding it about three times a week for a few
weeks to help it gain its strength. At that point, it’s ready to use. Go ahead and name it now.
The warmer your starter is, the more actively it will feed – the danger here is that if it’s too
warm, it may chow through its food and become listless. At normal room temperature, you’ll need to
feed it once a day; the refrigerator will slow it down,
but keep it healthy, and you can get away with feeding it once a week.
Read article in digital issue of City Palate.