I brought back a sourdough starter from New Zealand, from one of my homestays. The starter is from a German woman, and I’m thinking she got it from Germany and brought it to New Zealand. And then she gave me some dried up chips to bring back to the U.S.! That’s something I love about sourdough starters– the passing it forward aspect. I wonder how many households are using this same starter around the world? And what’s cool is that all the loaves of bread, or other bread-related foods, all probably taste and look really different.
Here’s my sourdough starter, sitting in a mason jar after having been revived from a dried state back in December when I came back to the U.S. after my most recent travels:
And here is a collage of some of the loaves I’ve made. I’d say I’ve probably made close to a dozen loaves in the last months. And each one has been different. I haven’t quite hit upon the right combination of ingredients. But I’ve learned a ton just from the process. It’s always amazing what you can learn from doing something over and over and over again. Like running– there are all these learnings from running that have been documented: Haruki Murakami wrote about these learnings (a great little collection of essays) and there are lots of blog postings about lessons learned from running. Just type in those key words into your favorite search engine, and a slew of posts come up.
So here are my learnings from
making sourdough bread using a sourdough starter. Let’s start with the more practical, mechanical learnings.
- Managing a starter is a big part of the process. And it’s not as difficult as one would think. You just want to keep your starter bubbly and happy, and you can tell when it’s not happy. Happy = elastic, gooey, bubbly, white-ish, and yeasty-smelling. If it’s grey, liquidy, and stagnant, then no good. And the way to manage a starter is just to feed it flour and some water every few days. More frequently if you leave it on the counter (like every other day or so) and less frequently if left in the fridge (once a week or so). You keep it in the fridge if you don’t use it every week. That’s what I do. I make a loaf every 2nd or 3rd week or so, so I take the starter out of the fridge a few days before I want to make a loaf, feed it, and then use it. And when I’m not making bread, I leave the starter jar in the fridge where the molecules just rest a bit.
- Pay attention to the starter but not too much attention. It doesn’t need to be severely monitored, but it also likes some love every once in awhile. That’s what’s great about a starter, it’s pretty low maintenance, like succulents which don’t need a ton of water or care. I appreciate the low maintenance of this little organism. It needs me but not too much!
- Just estimate measurements, but maybe start with a more exact recipe. I’m more of a cook than a baker. I like to use a recipe as a starting point and then make my adjustments, like adding more of one spice than another or substituting sour cream for yogurt or adding in different vegetables. That’s why I can only do quick bake recipes like chocolate chip cookies or banana bread. Anything that requires a lot of measurement and exact protocols is annoying to me. It’s funny because I’m totally not like that in real life– I’m incredibly detail oriented and concerned with protocols and precision. But when in the kitchen, I like to let that go. It’s my chance to unwind and be free of the work-mentality. So with sourdough bread, I started with a recipe, got comfortable with how the dough should look and feel, and then started to improvise from there. I added a bit more honey or tried a different kind of salt or oil or flour.
And from there, the more meta-level learnings:
- Learn to let go. As I said, I’m usually a bit of a control freak about things. So making sourdough bread has taught me to be more free and improvisatory. I’ve experimented with the recipe I started with, and just yesterday, I tried a completely new recipe, incorporating yeast along with the starter. That resulted in a new texture to the bread. I think I’ll try it again and add more salt and some honey. Every loaf I’ve made, I’ve done something a little different. I’ve had some success with some and some that weren’t so great (that went to the chickens!). But I’m learning to go with the flow and be more flexible about bread-making, specifically and life, more generally.
- Make your own food. I’m learning to look at the things I eat and see where I can cut back on processed, store-bought, ready-made consumables. It’s really interesting to see how much you can “take back” into your own kitchen. I’ve only bought two loaves of bread in the last six or so months. And those were both when I had friends in town and was making bruschetta or something special that the sourdough bread didn’t quite work for. Bread is my big project right now. I’m not sure what other foods will come next in my journey of making my own food! Any suggestions?
- Be in it for the long-haul. Making bread is a lifelong process, I would say. Because I’m not really using exact measurements and have been experimenting with different recipes, I keep playing around to find a really good loaf. And even when I find that really good loaf, I’m sure I’ll keep maneuvering and wiggling to find another really good loaf made in a different way. But I’m excited each time I put the loaf in the oven to see what will come out an hour later. Besides the assortment of ingredients, things like climate, elevation, and water affect the bread, and that’s always variable. So I can never come out with the same loaf twice. But that’s part of the journey!
OK, I’ll leave it at that. I’m sure this list could go on and on. But I like a series that just has three parts. I’m still looking for good recipes for sourdough breads, so if you know of any, send them along!