Starter D'ough!
May 4, 2016 8:40 AM   Subscribe

Back in March, Sam Sifton wrote an aspirational story about sourdough starters (previously) for The New York Times. On behalf of those of us who aspire, Sarah Jampel responds with "How My Soudough Starter Took Over My Life.".
posted by Room 641-A (31 comments total) 28 users marked this as a favorite
During our commute this morning, we were literally discussing trying out sourdough-making for the first time. (You really are weird, MeFi.) These articles are making me feel like the endeavor is far more of a Manhattan Project than I had suspected.
posted by CheesesOfBrazil at 8:49 AM on May 4, 2016 [1 favorite]

The Sam Sifton article inspired me to get a sourdough starter going. Despite myself - I've named it Otto (as in autolyse) and I feed it at least weekly - more when I want to bake some bread. I've made some beautiful loaves - but cheat with a pinch of instant yeast to make sure I get enough lift.

As a by product of feeding the sourdough - I have been making sourdough waffles which are deadly easy, and deadly for the waistline. My co-workers are the big winners as I now bring in about a dozen waffles into the office each week.

I've been loving the process... making sourdough slows you down, forces you to have patience and give over control to the sourdough. It's a small piece of craft that I look forward to doing each week.

*mods - I've linked to pictures of my sourdough experience on my instagram account. It's not a commercial enterprise - but let me know if I have broken any rules. Apologies in advance.
posted by helmutdog at 8:51 AM on May 4, 2016 [3 favorites]

I had a starter that lasted nearly one year--enough where I was able to give some of it away to friends who are STILL keeping theirs alive after four years--and it made amazing bread, but it was hard to make my brain remember to feed it constantly. I keep thinking I should try again, but Shepherd and I couldn't even give our nukazuke pot the attention it deserved and all you had to do was stir the damn thing once a day.
posted by Kitteh at 8:52 AM on May 4, 2016

My husband and I started growing a starter in early 2016. We bought it freeze dried from Amazon. It took two tries to get it going successfully--the first time we weren't feeding it often enough and it got contaminated with mould. At first we were adding a pinch of instant yeast for more lift, like helmutdog said, but after a few weeks it was active enough not to need it any more.

It lives in the fridge in a glass jar that used to hold peanut butter. We make bread about once a week or so? Sometimes more, sometimes less.

I dunno if buying a freeze dried starter is "cheating" but it really hasn't been as fraught as the article portrays. And hey, the bread's good. We will have to try waffles.
posted by quaking fajita at 9:01 AM on May 4, 2016 [2 favorites]

I killed my starter. It was liberating.
posted by JPD at 9:05 AM on May 4, 2016 [6 favorites]

Oh lord, just the other day I bought pineapple juice to start a starter, à la the Reinhart method. I don't think I knew quite what I was getting myself into.
posted by marshmallow peep at 9:06 AM on May 4, 2016

You are starting a new hobby when caring for a starter. If you are lucky you get a tough starter and you can leave it alone for a while. More likely you'll be tending to it at least every other day. I've had one that's spent a week or so in the fridge, but mostly it lives on the counter. I feed it every morning while I feed my kids.
posted by hot_monster at 9:10 AM on May 4, 2016

I don't think it's cheating. You still have to do all the work. The beginning stages of a starter can be perilous. I tried a starter where I used flour from wheat I ground myself. After only a few days, it smelled like rotting garbage. It was horrible. I chucked it and found success with store-bought wheat flour. That was the beginning of the starter I have now.
posted by hot_monster at 9:18 AM on May 4, 2016 [1 favorite]

There is a ridiculous amount of misinformation out there relating to sourdough microbiology and naturally leavened breads. Unfortunately much of this even comes from otherwise highly respected sources. One hopes that much of this will be definitively put to rest with the publication of Modernist Bread: The Art and Science from the team that brought out Modernist Cuisine.

In short: There is no reason to engage in a burdensome feeding regimen. All the "sourdough starter" is for is storing your culture. Keep a small amount in the refrigerator. 20 grams would be more than enough. Or even less. When you want to "activate" the starter, let it come up to temperature and start showing a few signs of life, then dump it all out except whatever little bit clings to the sides of the storage jar, and "feed the culture" by adding equal weights of flour and water to the jar, stir to incorporate the "old starter" sticking to the sides and let it sit out until it is bubbling merrily away. (Contrary to popular belief, refreshing the storage medium by high dilution creates the best growth and preservation conditions for the sourdough microflora that you want to keep.) Then dump out most of the "activated starter" and use that to inoculate however much dough or poolish (or whatever) you need to make your bread, repeat the "feeding" process with whatever is sticking to the sides of your storage jar and bung the whole thing back in the refrigerator. If you're not regularly using the starter for baking, take it out and do the "feeding" bit once every other week or so. It's really as simple as that.

Apples and grapes and pineapple juice and pinecones and commercial yeast and sugar and all those things are a complete waste of time. Sourdough microflora don't live on apples or grapes or pineapples or pinecones or any of those places. All these things do is provide a ready source of sugar to create a quick burst of activity as the sugars are consumed by whatever microflora are present, which helps the baker feel reassured that something is happening. But these organisms will all die off within a few refreshments of the starter, and so ultimately all these "tricks" do is prolong the amount of time it will take for a stable symbiotic association of yeast and lactobacilli with desirable and predictable characteristics to establish itself. Meanwhile, there is no reason to do this work yourself. Sourdoughs International will sell you any number of different sourdough cultures collected from around the world, all of which have distinctive, predictable and stable characteristics and are resistant to invasion from other microorganisms if they are maintained properly.
posted by slkinsey at 9:21 AM on May 4, 2016 [41 favorites]

I've made some beautiful loaves

You misspelled 'nakedly perfect in a way bordering on the obscene.'

That is some fine-ass looking bread is what I'm saying here.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 9:57 AM on May 4, 2016 [6 favorites]

Tried getting a starter off the ground last November, it was foul and not properly active within a week and a half.

Started over in December. Named it Henrietta (hoping for immortality), used bottled water, a little higher flour to water ratio, and.... success! At least with the starter. And I'd echo a lot of what slkinsey says. Henrietta can take being left alone for a few days, feeding once a week seems to be fine, I'd expect every other week would be fine if I used the refrigerator. Getting properly active starter from that point seems to be mostly about taking some of that culture and making a few aggressive feedings.

So that just leaves the rest of the process to get right. I'm still not sure I have enough salt -- or how to get it distributed nicely throughout the loaves, since I don't add it until after letting the flour/water/starter autolyse. I'd also like to get my loaves puffier/airier, and I think I might not be getting the timing (or temperature) consistently right on the rise...
posted by wildblueyonder at 10:06 AM on May 4, 2016

Over the years I have inadvertently stumbled on slkinsey's method above. Mostly because I only bake in spurts, then forget about it for months while my culture waits in the back of the fridge for my interest to return. I just let it sit on the counter for a while, dump out what'll dump out of the jar, refresh with flour and water, wait for it to reinvigorate and use. Simple and low maintenance, which is the only way any organism which is dependent on me will survive.
posted by Floydd at 10:32 AM on May 4, 2016 [2 favorites]

I had starter going for maybe 8 years. A nice little jar (almost a specimen cup) from King Arthur Flour. What finally killed it was neglect. I would bake 2 loaves every weekend (or the pancakes/waffles like helmutdog mentions). I'd split and give starter to all who asked. It's not a hard hobby, just need the time to keep at it. I miss it, but do lack the time to re-start.
posted by k5.user at 10:40 AM on May 4, 2016

We keep our starter in a covered cereal bowl in the fridge, developed from a dried starter ordered online. Once a week or so, I put a bit of the starter in a new cereal bowl, mix with equal flour and (non-chlorinated, bottled) water, cover with cling film and return to the fridge. I've had no problems with mold or undesirable funkiness, unlike our previous attempt with a ceramic crock from King Arthur. There are two big advantages to this method. First, the cling film is clear, so it's much easier to keep an eye on it, be reminded of its existence, and be prompted to do anything if it starts to look weird. Second, using a fresh container each cycle makes it much easier to avoid mold. I chose cereal bowls because they're a good size for the amount we need to keep around and we have a bunch of them.
posted by jedicus at 11:13 AM on May 4, 2016 [3 favorites]

In short: There is no reason to engage in a burdensome feeding regimen.

Yup, this. I keep mine in a Tupperware container in the fridge. It's only about 100 grams and I feed it when I bake -- maybe twice or three times a week.

They're really hard to kill, though if they get sluggish from disuse, you may have to refresh it a few times to get it back to full vigour.

I just made mine out of flour and water. Took about a week. Easiest thing in the world.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 11:37 AM on May 4, 2016

The one tip I would pass on though -- to anyone who's aiming for sourdough perfection. Screw all that messing about with tiles in the oven and water sprays. Baking my sourdough in a iron Le Creuset casserole dish is the one thing that allowed me to get predictably great bread.

No steam necessary.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 11:46 AM on May 4, 2016 [1 favorite]

To give you an idea how old my partner's starter is, it's named Ellsworth, after the character in Deadwood, which we were watching at the time during its initial run.
posted by aught at 12:27 PM on May 4, 2016

I cheated and started mine with a pinch of commercial yeast. It's more of a poolish really. Keep it in the fridge, still works fine, I can go two weeks without baking and it doesn't die. Seem to get all the flavor benefits, though it's not as sour as proper San Francisco sour dough.
posted by Diablevert at 12:42 PM on May 4, 2016

If you've had it for any length of time, none of that commercial yeast strain is left anyway. It's not capable of surviving long-term in that environment.
posted by slkinsey at 12:59 PM on May 4, 2016

That's what I figured, but starting it with commercial gave me confidence that it would actually work and I wouldn't have the mold issues that set the second writer into such a tizzy. I mention it just in case people are reading that piece and deciding it's all too much of a hassle --- for me, mix of half water half flour and a tiny pinch of Fleischman's left overnight worked fine. Plunked it in my fridge the next day, been using it ever since. Did add a bit more yeast once when I was worried it was getting rather slow.
posted by Diablevert at 1:08 PM on May 4, 2016

My sourdough starter started as a poolish--I didn't realise that the recipe created three times the amount needed, and I figured I'd see what happened if I held on to it for a while. That was five months ago, and since then, I bake bread every week or two. Despite my laziness (I forget to feed it, sometimes, and use tap water instead of fancy water, and...) it seems to be going well enough, and the bread is great, which is hard to argue with. I'm thinking that this weekend I'm going to see if I can make a brioche with starter instead of yeast--fingers crossed.
posted by mishafletch at 1:24 PM on May 4, 2016

Metafilter, are you reading my mind? I have been thinking about making my own starter and have actually put it on my list of things to seriously research this week at work.

I'm not an everyday baker - or even an everyweek baker - so I appreciate these tips on how to keep a starter happy and useful if it's not touched for a while.
posted by Elly Vortex at 1:25 PM on May 4, 2016

We've found the biggest threat to the starter is forgetting to put some back in the jar and using it all in the dough instead. It's happened a couple of times now, but it's pretty easy to start another one.

One of our old starters travelled around the world with us a few years ago, although it nearly got left behind in a fridge in Singapore.
posted by Miss Otis' Egrets at 3:00 PM on May 4, 2016 [1 favorite]

I've tried four times and still have never been successful at getting a starter going. Followed directions to the tee, but first one turned to acetone, second molded, third never took off at all, and the fourth once again turned to acetone. I'm plagued. Every time I read an article about it, I'm hoping for the one secret that I didn't know, but it seems like it is just a very easy thing I can't do.
posted by General Malaise at 3:30 PM on May 4, 2016

I had my starter going with pretty neglectful treatment in funky-ass Louisiana bio-culture and humidity (maybe that helped) and it lasted fine. What killed it was it lost its privileged place on the counter when some visitors came and it stayed hidden in a cabinet for too long for me to want to revive it or start over. It must have been a busy time. You really can't mess it up because it fends off the competition. Leave its container out, add some whole wheat flour and water occasionally... The bagels! I miss those bagels!
posted by zangpo at 6:10 PM on May 4, 2016

Says here you can use Kefir to make sourdough.
posted by sneebler at 9:04 PM on May 4, 2016

I never really got the hang of making sourdough bread but every time I fed my starter I would make Sourdough Crumpets with the leftovers. So easy, so delicious.
posted by poxandplague at 12:25 AM on May 5, 2016 [1 favorite]

I'd also like to get my loaves puffier/airier, and I think I might not be getting the timing (or temperature) consistently right on the rise...

I bet you're underproving. This was the hardest thing for me to master, because the recipe books are useless and proving time varies by temperature. Also, that whole thing of 'when the loaf is doubled in volume' was useless because it's really hard to identify a doubling in volume by eye.

This was something I just had to sort out through a lot of trial and error, basically. You're looking for a soft, springy dough that still has some bounce to it. There are good videos on YouTube that show the right amount of spring. I think I learned most from Theresa Greenaway at Northwest Sourdough. She was really helpful when it came to troubleshooting my problems. She's got a forum attached to her website.

But you don't want to wait until your dough has overproved, because then you lose out on your oven spring and get a baggy, flaccid loaf. And even the best sourdough is going to be tougher and chewier than a loaf made with yeast.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 9:45 AM on May 7, 2016 [1 favorite]

Also, that whole thing of 'when the loaf is doubled in volume' was useless because it's really hard to identify a doubling in volume by eye.

I use a bucket like this. When the dough goes in I mark the level of the top of the dough with a piece of tape and use another piece of tape to mark when it has doubled*. Sometimes I think of weighing it just in case but I'm not sure I've ever referenced that info. It's probably not as precise as I think it is, but it's a great alternative to trying to eyeball a bowl of dough. (With the matching lid I also reclaim a bit of the space it takes up by using it to store various baking-related foods or gadgets.)

*h/t ATK
posted by Room 641-A at 11:02 AM on May 7, 2016

This thread and slkinsey's assurances convinced me to give this a go, so I've had an attempt sat on the counter all weekend. Definitely started to bubble a bit by this afternoon so I "fed" it for the first time, but now I remember the advice about chlorinated water (I used water from the kettle originally) and I'm suddenly worrying about a small yoghurt pot full of gloop.
posted by lucidium at 1:31 PM on May 8, 2016

It's aliiiiive! That happened a lot faster than I was expecting. Everyone seems to say to not attempt a loaf until at least a week, but is that just because it won't work well or will it actually be unpleasant tasting?
posted by lucidium at 2:06 AM on May 9, 2016 [1 favorite]

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