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 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…