Sourdough is the unsung hero of the bread basket. Composed of little more than flour, water, salt, and a fermented starter — and more nutritious than commercially made breads — the tangy, chewy loaves are perfect for lunch-box sandwiches, and ideal for yeast-phobic bakers.
You need to begin with a starter, of course, and that’s where people get hung up. But think of a sourdough starter as Fermentation 101. A starter lasts longer than all those pickles you put up, and though it takes about the same amount of time as sauerkraut, a starter is more versatile. “It’s a science experiment you can play with,” says Gretchen Rude, a resident of Brattleboro, Vt., who has been baking with a 20-year-old starter culture for eight years. All of this makes it a kid-friendly project. Once active, a starter can be used for pizza dough, biscuits, and pancakes. Like buttermilk, the starter moistens and tenderizes quick breads, cinnamon rolls, even chocolate cake.
Breads made with a probiotic-loaded sourdough starter have beneficial bacteria, which eases kneading, so the dough feels good in your hands and after baking, loaves don’t go stale as quickly as other breads. A healthy starter can last a lifetime (just ask your grandmother), and it’s a key that unlocks a treasure trove of home-baked treats made with minimal effort. “Sourdough baking is one of our top topics of interest on the hot line,” says Amber Eisler, baking education instructor at King Arthur Flour in Norwich, Vt. “People are mostly afraid that they’ve killed their starter culture, so they call to get some encouragement.”
In a simple mixture of flour and water, the sourdough culture grows lactic acid bacteria and wild yeasts. The lactic acid bacteria contributes tangy flavor, while yeast produces dough-leavening carbon dioxide. Microscopic wild yeasts are everywhere, and curious bakers have captured these tiny fermenters in starters since ancient times.
Cultivating a starter at home requires little more than time. It takes about a week to establish a viable culture. Combining equal parts water and flour and allowing the mixture to ferment at room temperature is the technique. Each day, you remove a portion of the starter and add a new measure of flour and water to provide food for the budding natural yeast. Eisler recommends storing starter in a non-reactive container, like a ceramic crock or wide-mouth glass canning jar. When you go to use the starter, you remove what you need for the recipe, and “feed” the starter by stirring in fresh flour and water.
There are as many recipes for starters as there are uses for the bubbly stuff. Some call for all-purpose flour, while others suggest whole wheat or rye. One recipe might recommend tap water, while another may call for pineapple juice or raisin-spiked water, claiming the sugary liquid establishes a starter quickly. “Any combination will eventually create lactic acid bacteria, grow, and thrive,” says Peter Reinhart, a culinary instructor at Johnson & Wales University, and author of 10 books on bread baking, including the upcoming “Bread Revolution: World-Class Baking With Sprouted & Whole Grains, Heirloom Flours & Fresh Techniques.”
He suggests stirring a new starter culture a few times each day to supply the yeast with oxygen and control bacterial growth.
As easy as it is, cooks are wary of how to do it. “People are intimidated by sourdough, but you don’t need to know a ton about a starter to use it,” says Rude. Her culture was a gift from a friend raised in the Pacific Northwest. When Rude lived in California, her starter smelled like pineapple, and later took on the scent of apples when she relocated to Vermont, a testament to the diversity of regional microorganisms and yeasts.
Sourdough enthusiasts assert that wild yeast gives their breads terroir, an unmistakable taste of place. The unpredictable nature of spontaneous fermentation is either immensely attractive to bakers or it frightens them.
In Concord, Nashoba Brook Bakery’s many hand-shaped sourdough breads use a 17-year-old starter, derived from Concord grapes. “I tested almost 100 sourdough cultures from different foods and airborne yeasts before I got one that was sweet enough,” says Nashoba Brook co-owner and head baker Stu Witt. “Yeast is a wild organism and you have to tame it, but it really ends up taming you.”
Witt also recommends storing starter in a glass container. “You can see the bubbles as they’re forming. It takes some courage and energy to get it going at home, but take notes and be repetitious in feeding your starter, you’ll learn how changes affect it.”
An overnight rise will produce flavorful, lofty breads with a pleasant chew. For same-day baking, a scant teaspoon of dry yeast added to the dough will ensure a quicker rise without compromising the taste and texture of traditional sourdough. “I’m a promoter of doing what you need to do so that baking can fit into your schedule,” says King Arthur’s Eisler.
Over the past three months, this intrepid baker tested methods for cultivating a sourdough starter, fretting over sluggish cultures, and struggling to keep up with stronger ones. I used over 100 pounds of flour, and hand-kneaded 20 batches of bread. All that dough dealt a death blow to my trusty stand mixer (don’t worry about yours, unless you plan to plow through a dozen sacks of flour). I tweaked sourdough recipes until I developed one that was delicious and easily replicable.
No matter how you slice it, baking with a sourdough starter is a delicious way to learn about fermentation, one loaf at a time.
Jaclyn Fishman can be reached at email@example.com.