Sourdough Mornings

I confess to being intimidated by sourdough bread. I have never made a loaf that I’ve loved. And the chapters that I encounter in such books as Rose Levy Barnbaum’s excellent Bread Bible don’t make me any more confident. Pages upon pages of discussion and recipes!

Consider instead this account from Laura Ingalls Wilder’s On the Shores of Silver Lake:

“But how do you make sourdough?” Mrs. Boast asked. “You start it,” said Ma, “by putting some flour and warm water in a jar and letting it stand till it sours.”  “Then when you use it, always leave a little,” said Laura. “And put in the scraps of biscuit dough, like this, and more warm water,” Laura put in the warm water, “and cover it,” she put the clean cloth and the plate on the jar, “and just set it in a warm place,” she set it on its place on the shelf by the stove. “And it’s always ready to use, whenever you want it.”

I’ve never tried starting my own and it certainly sounds easy. However I suspect that we live in a much more sterilized environment than Laura did and that getting the right yeasts into the starter are a greater matter of luck and persistence than they used to be. There are ways around this, of course: find a friend who bakes with sourdough regularly and use some of their starter, or even buy some online from a fine source such as GEM Cultures in Redmond, WA (they’re great, they also have fun dairy cultures, and a “cultured crepe” starter that I’d like try sometime).

For now, I’ve shelved my sourdough bread ambitions. Where I have actually shone a bit more is in the world of sourdough pancakes and waffles. Yum! The flavor is incomparable. I’ll start by discussing these, and then move on to the easier substitute that I’m using right now. Because sourdough is sort of like a pet, you have to feed it and you can’t leave it when you and your almost 3-year old son and 2-month old fetus go to Seattle for a month. It will die. And then, being pregnant and distracted by work and said 3-year old, you won’t have time or energy to cultivate, borrow, or even order a new one. So you find reasonable substitutes. But I still miss the flavor of the real thing, and I’m planning to bring it back into my kitchen as soon as I think I’m ready for the responsibility again.

Sourdough Starter

Sourdough is a living thing. It requires food (flour, and I think it has to be gluten-ful flour; typically I use whole wheat or rye) water, and warmth. The fridge is a great way to hibernate the starter in between uses, but don’t let it hibernate too long. I think one week in the fridge is the longest I’d go without refreshing. And depending on the time of year and your weather, you will need to keep it out of the fridge longer to re-awaken it. If you plan to use sourdough regularly it is worth keeping notes on weather, the food you give the starter, and the results you get so that you can perfect your pancakes to your liking in your home environment.

Refreshing the Starter

I add one cup of flour (I prefer to use whole wheat flour or rye flour) and 1 cup room temperature filtered/distilled water (or well water, so long as it’s not water with fluoride or any treatment that might interfere with the sourdough) to the starter in a bowl and let it sit covered with a thin, clean cloth overnight in a warm place. In the winter that means near the wood stove, in the summer that’s usually on the kitchen counter. In the morning I take 1/2 to 1 cup’s worth of the refreshed starter and set that in a jar – I usually put it in a half-pint glass jar, and that amount should come up past the midway point but well below the top of the jar. That goes in the fridge, and I leave the rest in the bowl and start adding ingredients…


 – refreshed starter, I usually end up with a generous cup or so after setting aside some starter for next time
 – 1 egg, although you can also do 2 eggs for more richness
 – glug of maple syrup, depends on how sweet you like your batter
 – 2 T or so of melted butter or some other fat (bacon grease and coconut oil are both quite delicious)
 – generous dash of sea salt
 – 1 tsp or so of baking soda – depends on how active the starter is, the batter should produce some lively rising a few moments after adding baking soda… if it doesn’t, I would add some yogurt or buttermilk to the batter and then a touch more soda
 – anything else! – sometimes I add almond meal or flax seed, cornmeal, mashed banana, diced apple. You could even finely grate some leftover veggie bits for a more savory-style pancake. And depending on the thickness you want for the batter you could add more milk or more flour
 – and they just don’t taste quite right if you use something other than a cast-iron skillet. If you don’t have one, stop reading and go buy/find/steal one. Then come back and start reading again.
 – top with yogurt, fresh fruit, maple syrup, a fried egg, jam, marmalade, whatever sounds right for the day!

DSCN3813 DSCN6338


 – follow recipe for pancakes above, except separate the egg(s) and stir just the yolk in, and then beat the egg white(s) until soft peaks form and fold this in as the last ingredient
 * I like to double this recipe and make extra waffles for freezing. Then you can pop them in the toaster for a quick and easy breakfast!


 – follow recipe for pancakes above, except add more eggs (start with 4 but feel free to experiment)
 – thin the batter out with milk, half and half, or cream until it’s much more pourable than pancake batter (again, experiment until you get the thickness that you like!)
 – and if you want really nicely-textured crepes, pass the batter through a sieve
 – be sure to keep the size of the crepes small until you get the hang of flipping them, or unless you have a crepe iron and a long-handled flipping thing. These are quite fun and are definitely on the short list of kitchen toys that I dream about.
Sourdough Substitutions
Now if, like me, you have killed your starter or simply are not inclined to have a pet right now, there are a couple of options:
First, you can use buttermilk or soured milk for more tang in your batter. Obviously, this is the easiest option but as is true of so much in life, the easiest option produces the most lackluster result.
Second, you can let your flour sit overnight with buttermilk, soured milk, or yogurt. This takes a bit more planning but produces a better tang than the first option. I use a cup to cup ratio of flour to liquid. This is from Nourishing Traditions, but a similar preparation can be found under the heading “Soaked Pancakes” in this article on the Weston A. Price Foundation website.
One cup of flour and one cup of liquid pretty much yields one cup of sourdough starter, so start there and then follow the recipes above. And the last caveat? If you add baking soda and aren’t seeing much rise, throw in a pinch of baking powder.
Alright, go add a bit of sour fun to your morning!

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