Twenty years ago, after leaving his job as the manager of an Albertsons Market bakery in Twin Falls Rick Hazen found himself missing the taste of fresh bread. He made a sourdough starter using flour and some unprocessed apple juice.
The juice fermented. Wild yeast made an appearance. The starter bloomed. Hazen has been baking with it ever since. “We won’t eat anything else,” said his wife, Lorri.
Jocelyn Knepler of Bowling Green, Ky., was given her sourdough starter by a friend in Midland, Texas, in 1973. “She got it from a woman in Kermit, Texas, who got it from a woman in Golden, Colo., who started it in 1948,” she said.
Knepler and her starter have since moved together from Texas to Alaska, to Britain, to China and to Kentucky, where she is retired. Her daughter uses the same starter to feed her boys. “It’s a family tradition,” she said.
A sourdough starter comes into your life the way a turtle might: as a pet you maybe didn’t know you wanted until someone hands it to you or you find yourself holding the terrarium after an impulse purchase you couldn’t explain if you tried. You get it or you make it or you buy it, and now you have a sourdough starter. It needs to be fed. It asks to be used.
There are holes in our lives. They are filled for us by circumstance, or we fill them ourselves.
“You do this simple thing,” said the comedian Tom Papa, who has been feeding and using his starter in Los Angeles for more than a year, after he received it from one of his daughters as a Christmas gift. “And it changes your life.”
Sourdough starter is simply flour and water left to ferment, a medium that supports the wild yeast and lactobacilli that surround us all. Fed with more flour, and more water, a sourdough eventually achieves a kind of symbiosis that helps dough rise, without the use of cultivated yeast. That it delivers a pungent, slightly sour and deeply alluring taste to all that you cook with it is a happy side effect. Taste is not, strictly speaking, the point of sourdough.
“A lot of us think that sourdough is a style of bread,” writer Michael Pollan said in one episode of Cooked, his new documentary series on Netflix. “But what sourdough is, is the traditional way that bread was made until only about 100 years ago.”
Pollan can sometimes sound bossy. “Sourdough is the proper way to make bread,” he said in one segment.
You can speed the process of a sourdough starter with grapes, as baker Nancy Silverton advised years ago on a Julia Child TV show.
It is certainly a simple way to make bread, at least once you have a starter up and going, though the process takes time, because the wild yeast in a sourdough starter is less vigorous than its commercial counterparts. Make bread with a sourdough starter, and the dough rises slowly as the starter ferments and changes, and as it reacts to all manner of factors, like flour type, air temperature, humidity and altitude.
A baker can react to those factors with science or conviction. Erika Szymanski, an American doctoral student at the University of Otago, in New Zealand, has a master’s degree in microbiology and uses her sourdough regularly, for pancakes, skillet breads and rye loaves alike. But she is hardly doctrinaire about its care.
“Sourdough is alive, and so are we,” she said. “The whole deal, I think, has to be about figuring out a relationship that works for both parties. And if it’s unconventional, whose business is it to replace love with fear and claim that you’re doing it wrong?”
Start at the top, then. See if you can’t get some starter from someone. Anyone who has one will be glad to part with a cup or so, because to maintain its balance and size, you need to use or discard part of the starter each time you feed it.
Or buy some — sourdough starters have started to show up at farmers markets and on Etsy. The website Cultures for Health sells one. So does King Arthur Flour. Katie Walker, a spokeswoman for the company, said sales of starter are up for the company, and on track to be 20 percent higher than last year. “How to Make Your Own Sourdough Starter,” she added, is King Arthur’s top-performing blog post.
So you might try making a starter yourself, combining a cup of water and a cup of flour in a covered bowl and allowing it to sit at room temperature until it begins to bubble and bloom. You can speed the process with grapes, as baker Nancy Silverton advised years ago on a Julia Child TV show.
Peter Reinhart, the author of The Bread Baker’s Apprentice, uses a few ounces of unsweetened pineapple juice. Add the juice instead of water to the flour and let it sit, he wrote on his blog a few years ago; a few days later your starter should begin to come to life. Nourish its bubbles with more flour, and water.
Obsessives and frequent bakers keep their starters out on their countertops, using the stuff daily, feeding it daily. Some people name their starters: William Butler Yeast, Herman, Sarah, Sky Pilot, Ms. Tippity, Eleanor, Roxanne.
Once you have an active starter, which is to say one that is light and bubbly, with a pleasant yeasty-boozy aroma, a fork appears in the road. Obsessives and frequent bakers keep their starters out on their countertops, using the stuff daily, feeding it daily. Some people name their starters: William Butler Yeast, Herman, Sarah, Sky Pilot, Ms. Tippity, Eleanor, Roxanne.
The rest of us keep sourdough starters in the refrigerator, which slows their metabolism, allowing us to use them, and feed them, less frequently. (We do not name our livestock.)
Still, a starter must be fed. The bakers at King Arthur prescribe a diet of a scant cup of all-purpose flour and a half-cup of lukewarm water. Others increase the amount of water, or alter the kind of flour according to their tastes, using rye or whole wheat.
Samuel Fromartz, a home baker whose In Search of the Perfect Loaf is an invaluable guide for beginning bakers, said these serial feedings make it clear that the notion that any particular starter can be traced back over decades, even centuries, is hokum. (King Arthur Flour says its starter is a strain that dates to the 1800s.)
“Ultimately,” Fromartz said, a sourdough starter “adapts to your kitchen, feeding regime and feedstock, which will favor certain yeast and bacteria over time.”
Each sourdough is what it is. You can use the starter you pull from your crock before feeding to make a fine overnight sponge, or base, for pancake or waffle batter. Or to bring an amazing depth of flavor to pizza dough. It’s a little more complicated than a regular pizza dough, said Anthony Falco, the director of pizza operations at Roberta’s, in Brooklyn, “But, oh boy, the end result is worth it.”
It is certainly a simple way to make bread, at least once you have a starter up and going, though the process takes time, because the wild yeast in a sourdough starter is less vigorous than its commercial counterparts.
Eventually, you will want to make bread. Recipes for sourdough loaves abound, each seemingly more complicated than the last. Chad Robertson, the baker at Tartine Bakery & Cafe in San Francisco, published a recipe for his sourdough country loaf in the book Tartine Bread that ran to 38 pages. It takes about two weeks to complete. You can streamline that recipe a little, but not a lot.
An easier way to start is with an adaptation of the baker Jim Lahey’s storied recipe for no-knead bread, replacing commercial yeast with a little less than 3/4 cup of healthy, well-fed sourdough starter. Give that dough a long, long rise and then plop the proofed dough into a hot, enameled cast-iron pot with a lid. The reward is an incredible loaf within the hour, and you may well find yourself addicted to the smell, the taste and the process.
Benjamin Seigle, a home baker in Chicago, certainly is. “I take a glob of it,” he said of his starter, “and throw it in the dough,” then he allows it to ferment for a day before baking. He doesn’t have the patience for more, he said, “and my palate isn’t sophisticated enough to notice the difference.” He’s happy with his two loaves a week, he said.
Papa, the comedian, said he bakes three or four times a week. He talked about that one day recently with Joe Rogan, the broadcast host and Ultimate Fighting Champion color commentator, on Rogan’s podcast, “The Joe Rogan Experience.” Mail flooded Papa’s inbox afterward, he said — “dudes, UFC fans” looking to talk baking.
“More people are interested in this than my comedy,” Papa said. He sounded surprised. His whole life up to now has been comedy and hanging out with his family. “Now I think maybe I have a hobby,” he said.
Servings: 2 pizza recipes and leftover starter. Time: 4 to 8 days.
16 ounces flour
3 ounces unsweetened pineapple juice
10 ounces filtered or spring water
1. Make seed culture: Combine 1 ounce of the flour and 2 ounces unsweetened pineapple juice in a large glass or small nonreactive bowl. Cover tightly with plastic wrap and leave at room temperature, stirring with a wet spoon twice a day. Bubbles should appear after 24 to 36 hours. After 48 hours, add 1 ounce flour and remaining pineapple juice, stirring to incorporate. Re-cover with plastic wrap and leave at room temperature, stirring with a wet spoon twice a day. When it is foamy, in 1 to 4 days, combine 2 ounces flour and 1 ounce filtered or spring water in a medium nonreactive bowl. Add seed culture, stirring to incorporate, and re-cover with plastic wrap. Stir twice a day to aerate.
2. When mixture has doubled in bulk, in 1 to 2 days, convert it into a starter: Combine 12 ounces flour and 9 ounces filtered or spring water in bowl. Add 4 ounces of seed culture mixture (discard the rest, or use to make a second starter) and mix until fully incorporated. Transfer to a lightly floured surface and knead for 2 minutes. It should have the consistency of bread dough. Transfer to a nonreactive bowl and let rest at room temperature until it doubles in size, about 4 to 8 hours. Knead lightly, then store in container with tight-fitting lid (container must be large enough to let starter triple in bulk). Store in refrigerator.
Tip: Every 5 to 10 days the starter will need to be fed with more flour and water. Follow the directions in step 2 above, substituting starter for seed culture.
Sourdough Pizza Dough
Servings: 3 pizzas. Total time: 30 minutes, plus 8 to 24 hours’ rise.
5 cups/500 grams 00 flour
2 1/2 teaspoons/15 grams kosher salt
2 1/2 teaspoons/7.5 grams instant dry yeast
1 tablespoon/15 grams extra-virgin olive oil
1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons/90 grams sourdough starter, “fed”
1. In a large mixing bowl, combine the flour and salt.
2. In a small mixing bowl, stir together 300 grams (about 1 1/4 cups) lukewarm tap water, the instant dry yeast and the olive oil, then stir the sourdough starter into it and pour it into the bowl with the flour mixture. Knead with your hands until well combined, about 4 minutes, then let mixture rest for 15 minutes.
3. Knead rested dough for 3 to 4 minutes. Cut into 3 equal pieces and shape each into a ball. Place on a heavily floured surface, cover with a dampened cloth and let rest and rise for 8 to 24 hours in the refrigerator. (Remove from refrigerator 30 to 45 minutes before you begin to shape it for pizza.)
4. To make pizza, place each dough ball on a heavily floured surface and use your fingers to stretch it, then your hands to shape it into rounds or squares. Top and bake.
Sourdough Pancake or Waffle Batter
Servings: 4. Total time: 15 minutes, plus overnight rest.
1 cup/240 grams sourdough starter, “unfed”
1 cup/224 grams buttermilk
1 cup/120 grams all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon/about 13 grams light brown sugar
1 large egg
1/4 cup melted unsalted butter or neutral oil
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon/3 grams kosher salt
1 teaspoon/6 grams baking soda
1. Put the sourdough starter in a large bowl and add the buttermilk, flour and sugar, then stir to combine. Cover the bowl and allow it to rest overnight at room temperature.
2. When you are ready to cook, whisk the egg, melted butter or oil and the vanilla extract together in a small bowl, then add the rested sponge. Add the salt and the baking soda to the batter and mix to combine.
3. Pour some of the batter onto a preheated greased waffle iron and cook until the waffle is brown and crisp, then repeat. Or use a small ladle to create pancakes on a preheated oiled pan or griddle, flipping them when they are well browned on the bottom. Serve immediately.
Sourdough No-Knead Bread
Servings: 1 loaf. Total time: 12 to 24 hours.
3 1/2 cups/425 grams bread flour
1 teaspoon/6 grams kosher salt
3/4 cup/180 grams sourdough starter, “fed”
2 tablespoons/9 grams sesame seeds
1. In a large mixing bowl, combine the flour and salt.
2. In a small mixing bowl, stir together 300 grams (about 1 1/4 cups) lukewarm tap water with the sourdough starter, then pour the mixture into the bowl with the flour mixture. Mix until just combined. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and a tea towel and leave it to rise overnight, about 10 to 24 hours.
3. The next day, dust a clean kitchen surface with flour. Scoop out the dough and place it on the surface, then dust with more flour. Gently fold the edges of the dough from the outside in, to form a round loaf. Dust a clean towel with yet more flour and place the dough on it, the seam side down, then cover and allow to double in size, about 2 hours.
4. Meanwhile, heat oven to between 450 and 550 degrees. Place a covered enamel Dutch oven or heavy pot with a lid into the oven and allow it to heat for 30 minutes or so. Remove the pot from the oven, take off its top, and carefully invert the risen dough into it, so that the seam side is now facing up. Sprinkle with the sesame seeds, then put the top back on the pot and return it to the oven.
5. Bake for about 25 to 30 minutes, then take the top off the pot and allow it to continue to cook until it is brown and crusty all over, an additional 20 minutes or so. Put the loaf on a rack to cool for at least 30 minutes before serving.