The Dough, Cap’n, She’s Sour!

Warning: only read this if for some reason you’re interested in my attempts to make a sourdough starter. Others beware. If you’re a fraction as obsessed with bread as I am, you may derive a modicum of pleasure from the following. But just one li’l modicum.

If all you want to get out of this post is instructions on how to make your very own li’l sourdough starter, click here!

click for source

I like bread. Nay: I love it. After Jessica, my family, and my guitar, it’s the thing I pour most of the rest of my love into. I’ve gone over my deep and dear love of bread in a previous post or two. Anyone who dares claim a dislike of bread, well, I eye them warily, head askance, brow thoroughly furrowed. Thorough-furrowed. Because not liking bread, to me, is akin to a dislike of kittens, or moonbeams, or True Love, or the Beatles. Or chocolate.

Wait a minute: CHOCOLATE BREAD. Baked with moonbeams! Eaten in the company of kittens!

Anyhow, so when I thought about why I’d never tried to make sourdough before, I drew a blank. I mean, I’m kind of a prime candidate. I love bread, and sourdough is the very best bread there ever was – better even than the mythical ambrosia of ancient Greece, which I think included bread. I also love the process of making bread, the kneading, the feel of the dough, the smell of it baking, punching it down, slicing it – plus I happen to live in a climate ideally suited for sourdough. I have time (and flour LOL*) on my hands. My name even sounds like bread. The very blood that courses through my veins is a carefully crafted mixture of bread and platelets. And so on.

*[I used to think LOL stood for Lots Of Laughs. I still like that better.]

So finally I decided, enough is enough. No more bullshit excuses. No more nonsense. This is a perfect time in my life for kitchen experimentation, especially of the type that requires lots of patience and pseudo-gross chemical reactions and bacteria. Over the past few weeks I started not one but three separate starters from three distinctly different recipes, and experienced a wide range of success, from “This is not sourdough bread OK” all the way to “Bret, seriously, you made this? Like, yourself? No cheaties?”

No cheaties. None at all.


So the basic gist is, you combine flour and water, leave it out, and play the waiting game. That’s it. While you play the waiting game you can also play other games, like Hearts, or Cribbage, or Hungry Hungry Hippos. Then at regular intervals (some recipes call for multiple times daily, others once daily, still others once every two days), you “feed” the starter by tossing out some of it and giving it a fresh meal of more flour and water. Bakers find it helpful to think of their starters as children, children that you keep in a mason jar and feed flour and water on a regular basis. It’s pretty twisted, really. Bakers are a messed up bunch.

Then, after a few days, the starter gets frothy and smells sourly sweetly beerily weird, and then it’s done. Bam. You have starter! There are two primary ways of leavening bread – one is to use commercial yeast, the other is to grab fairy dust from the air. I’m going after the fairy dust this time.

But a lot of things can go wrong. The temperature in the room can be too cold or too hot, your container can become contaminated, you can mess up the feeding schedule, the wrong bacteria can infiltrate your mixture, or the notorious Starter-Thief Krew of Bakersfield could easily knock down your door with their choppers and snag up your starter like it was a sack of apples.

So: Starter #1 was the least experimental but also the least interesting – a combination of flour, sugar, water, and commercial yeast, which is sort of cheating. Ideally, and traditionally, the yeast is what you’re trying to create – but those packets of active dry yeast can be added if you’re feeling a little unsure of yourself, which I was. Within the first couple hours the mixture bubbled and sputtered and grew like a yeast-activated demon-beast from Hades, pushing its way out of the jar and threatening to conquer the kitchen. It finally settled down, chilled out, and made peace with its odd existence.

After I deemed it ready, though, I baked some baguettes with it. The baguettes were delicious – crusty on the outside, soft and chewy on the inside. But there was a problem: they weren’t sour! Not even one bit!

Undeterred, I convinced myself that it would develop a souriness upon further feedings and further bakings. I ended up making two more batches, each turning out the same – tasty, crusty, but entirely un-sour.

So yeah, they're pretty. But they ain't sour.

So, slightly saddened but steely of resolve, I moved onto the second starter, using the procedure described here. This one is as basic as it gets – put equal parts flour and water in a jar and feed it every day. When it gets frothy, it’s done. My first attempt, for whatever reason, yielded a horribly foul substance that smelled like vomit stuffed with ammonia, served with a side of burned hair and compost. I mean, it was really awful. Imagine the worst smell you ever did smell and then triple it. I finally decided to toss it out, and started anew – and this time the results were far better. It got nice a frothy and smelled weird, but the good kind of weird, and I was ready to rumble.

So for my birthday party a couple weekends ago, Drew and I made a sourdough chocolate cake with the starter, using a simple ganache instead of the icing on the recipe. It was really delicious, though it was hard to tell how much effect (if any) the starter had on the final taste. That’s one of the great things about starter, though – generally, failure to achieve sourness will still achieve deliciousness, vomit/ammonia failures excluded. The tragedy of it all was that I accidentally ruined my leftover starter, by pouring milk into it, and so I had to throw it out.

Frowny face!

But, I was comforted by the fact that nearly every bread baker has some tale of starter tragedy, from their kid throwing it out accidentally to what I did. It’s just a part of the process. So I hitched up my chin, rolled up my sleeves, and delved into Starter #3.

The recipe for Starter #3 came from this book, a collection of recipes from The Cheeseboard. The Cheeseboard is a local bakery and cheese shop that’s been a Berkeley institution for years and sells some of the most amazing bread and pastries you’ll ever eat. If you’re not a Bay Area local and you get a chance to visit, it’s imperative that you stop by the Cheeseboard and try some sourdough bread, or an English muffin, or a “Chocolate Thing” (my personal favorite), a cheese scone, or really, anything.

Their recipe for starter is much more complicated, at least on the surface – you can get it here (page 90). It’s a 12-day process that involves a more regimented approach to feeding, but trust me – the efforts are worth it, and when it comes right down to it, you’re only investing a few minutes of your time every 48 hours. The main key is simply to remember to do each step at its prescribed time, and remember that starters can be quite forgiving – you can be off your feeding time by several hours, for instance. Most of these recipes note that starters are quite resilient, and the only thing that will truly kill them dead is extreme heat.

At long last, I succeeded. I have a vigorous, living, bubbling starter, which I have now divided into two – one that I keep in the fridge for long-term storage, and one that I keep out on the counter and feed daily. So far I’ve made sourdough rounds:

And as of this very morning, English muffins:

There’s something pretty magical about having dough that rises with your own yeast, yeast that you didn’t buy at the store, but rather snatched from the very air you breathe. Yeast that you lured into a bowl of flour and water, like a fly fisherman from that one movie with Brad Pitt, coaxing the little bacteria into your special brand of delicious servitude. The taste of this bread is significantly different – sour, more complex; the dough has more “nooks & crannies,” and is much spongier.

For my birthday, Jessica bought me this book that just came out:

A really beautiful, gorgeous book from the owner of a wonderful bakery in San Francisco, it’s a book that’s for more advanced bread bakers, and I’m equal parts intimidated and excited to try it out. All the recipes are leaved by sourdough starters – no store bought yeast – and so at least I have that step down.

This post really needs to end, so end it I will. Let me know if you want a hunk of my starter and I’ll gladly give you one, with instructions on how to feed it. Who knows – maybe I’ll have become proficient enough to make sourdough for my wedding?


6 responses to “The Dough, Cap’n, She’s Sour!

  1. Because not liking bread, to me, is akin to a dislike of kittens, or moonbeams, or True Love, or the Beatles. Or chocolate
    Or peanut butter. Inside joke.

  2. I get that joke! And I agree.

    Bret, did you know that your bread book has photos by a Pomona alum? Class of ’04 I believe.
    There is an excellent movie to be made with Brad Pitt making bread.

  3. Your mom did a good starter…..or did we do it together….can not remember, but do remember the bread I made and I am sure she played a big part….we did a mean egg twist one day, too…just ask

  4. YUM. I’m a huge bread maker–that’s the thing I look forward to most about our new home, is the opportunity to bake!

  5. Yes, Debby is right about our shared bread making compulsion. The time the two of us (we were young and silly, once upon a time) made challah was hilarious because you must braid it, three strands, and each braid just got longer and longer as we held them up together at one end, almost reaching to the floor. It tasted delicious and looked quite professional, as I remember. As to making a real sour dough starter, Debby, I don’t remember mastering that one. Did you succeed in Bret’s final and glorious fairy dust approach (the one that worked)?

  6. I wish I could bake. But I can’t. I try, but I usually end up with heavy, brick-like objects most often used as door stops.

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