With everyone locked-in at home for COVID-19 mitigation, it appears many are baking. I can’t find flour at the grocery story and I’ve read that the yeast supply chain is flattened. Fortunately, I still have yeast. Now, folks are getting into sourdough. I spent the first two years after my son’s birth making sourdough bread every week. Below I share some of my discoveries. I blogged the experience in excruciating details over on Tumbler if you want to dig in.
Get a starter
You can make your own starter, but you’re better off getting some from family (I got mine from my mom!), friends, or a restaurant. I tried making my own. Here in the Pacific Northwest, it’s verdant. Downright fecund. Put some water and flour together and it’s pretty easy to grow something. Just not the wild yeast I was hoping for. Much easier to get a bit from someone else because they will always have some to share (see below). And it’s friendly and you get to have a story about your starter that every sourdough baker wants.
You’re going to be throwing out a bit of dough
You need to feed your starter. There are two approaches to this.
- Take out most of the starter, leaving just enough for the next round, use some for your bread you are making and dispose of the rest. Feed the starter by adding water and flour.
- Take out some of the starter, add flour and water, throw out the rest. After the newly fed starter has fermented a bit, use what you need in your bread and store the rest for the next round.
In either case you’re throwing out some of the starter. (Or giving it away to your neighbors!)
Starter works by providing sugars (in the flour) for the yeast and bacteria to grow that creates, as by-products, carbon dioxide, lactic and acetic acids, and alcohol. Once the yeast and bacteria have consumed most of the sugar there’s no more value in the flour, making this a “spent” fuel. So you throw it out.
I worked hard to get my feeding proportions down to the smallest I could, that would have enough sugar to survive, and throw out as little as possible. But I still threw some out every week. I hate wasting food. (There are apocryphal stories of Alaskan log cabins chinked with sourdough.)
Trust your nose
I’ve toured micro-distilleries around the world and I noticed they all decide when the distilled product is good by smelling it. Our noses are really, really good at this. Better than any machines we’ve been able to make. We know when things are bad. Like that sliced turkey that’s been in the fridge for a few weeks. Or those beans from last Thursday. Your nose knows.
Smell your starter as you grow it. When the yeast has pulled all the sugar out of the flour, it then breaks the sugars into alcohol. This gathers on the top and does not smell like your Macallan 18 (it’s where the term “hooch” comes from). A little bit of ethanol is fine — and can preserve the starter. Beyond that the starter can produce formaldehyde and another noxious things. Your nose is going to detect those. (I’ve recovered a pretty noxious-smelling starter by careful feeding — essentially like starting one from scratch.)
Also, smell your bread. (Because why wouldn’t you smell fresh baked bread?) In my sourdough journey I found that my tastes and goals changed. I moved from wanting a San Francisco-style (i.e. sour) sourdough, to something more French (without the sour flavor). Eventually adding commercial yeast to the bread (not the starter; that pushes out the wild yeasts), to change the flavor.
Learn the smells along the way as you develop the feel and mastery.