creating a sourdough starter is a lot like having a pet. you need to feed it, clean it, watch it closely and occassionally play with it to keep it happy and healthy. it won’t bring you the newspaper or fetch your slippers, but it will eventually become delicious bread that you can share with your whole family. and weirdly enough, you can keep a starter alive for much longer than a typical pet. that last fact may seem a little morbid, but the boudin sourdough bread company in san francisco has been using the same starter for over 150 years!
let me caution: when you look at the recipe, you’re going to be overwhelmed. don’t panic. at its heart, a sourdough starter is nothing more than flour and water. no expensive ingredients, no fancy kitchen gadgets needed, no big loss if you screw up. secondly, it takes a few days, especially the first time around, so it’s helpful to read the entire recipe before starting so you can plan accordingly. although most sourdough recipes set hours against the feeding schedule, you can be very flexible with timing and still end up with an incredible loaf of bread. above is my starter on day 1. just flour and water in a tupperware container loosely covered in plastic wrap. the tape is there to mark the height of the dough so i can see any changes that occur.
here’s my starter on day 2. no changes, but just a few small bubbles. let me try and explain in as few words as possible what’s going on when you make a starter. yeast is the thing that makes your bread rise, and it’s in air all around us, right now. this isn’t quite the same yeast you can buy in yellow packets at the grocery store (although those work wonders). the stuff in the air is wild yeast, the kind of yeast that doesn’t always do what it’s told and stays out past curfew. but despite it’s rogue nature, wild yeast still likes to eat, and leaving a paste of flour and water out is like a giant all-you-can-eat sign. the really cool thing about wild yeast is that bread made with starters from different environments (for instance, san francisco vs say, washington, dc) will have unique tastes based on the environmental conditions.
here’s day 3 (or 4, can’t remember). the yeast jumped into action overnight and left my kitchen a mess. however, this was a great sign for the starter. the bubbles were caused by the yeast feeding on the sugars in the dough and giving off carbon dioxide. feeding the starter fresh water and flour every day allows the flavors in the dough to develop more slowly, which gives them more depth. this is the way bread was made in the good ‘ole days (commercial yeast is a relatively new invention in the timeline of bread).
now before i embarrass myself anymore trying to explain how wild yeast works, let me give you a few helpful resources i used during this process. first, the fresh loaf is a great place to find common questions and answers about sourdough development. second, wild yeast blog is an endless source of information and inspiration for at-home bakers. susan has tons of delicious sourdough recipes and lots of tips that will really help you take the next step to great breadmaking. be sure to check both out.
i used peter reinhart’s The Bread Baker’s Apprentice, which instructed me on how to turn my starter into a “barm.” the barm is a piece of your starter plus a larger amount of flour and water than you’ve been adding to feed you starter. once you’re at this step, you can use the barm to make your final dough mix, or you can refrigerate it and feed it on a regular basis to keep it potent for use later. this barm is the “mother starter,” the basis for all of your future sourdoughs (and the thing that boudin bakery has kept going for so long).
so after a long labor of love, i finally baked my first sourdough loaf. the result? it was…okay. really not all that sour. although the starter and barm had really vibrant smells, the final bread was pretty underwhelming. i discovered that it’s actually a pretty common problem with the first loaf – the barm simply hadn’t had enough time to develop deep flavors yet. another possible issue could be the air in my apartment – it’s not quite the same as the san francisco sea air that fed the original boudin starter.
although i was disappointed, i decided to keep working on the barm for a week and make another few loaves, one of which is above. i was thrilled to find out that the flavor did indeed improve over time. one change i made in the baking process was the keep the oven at a higher temperature for longer than instructed (10 minutes at 500F, then turn it down to 450F), and the result was a much more pronounced and tastier crust. i’m learning that i need to allow the loaves to get darker than i think they should before pulling them from the oven.
i don’t usually set a timer when i make chocolate chip cookies anymore, because it’s gotten to the point that i can tell when they’re done by the smell and look. i’m not anywhere near that confident with bread, but i’m finding out that it’s more about using all of your senses than sticking to the recipe. i’m going to keep this barm going for as long as i can and make as many varieties of sourdough as possible. i’m getting hungry just thinking about it now…
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