Adventures in Sourdough

“Why are we paying the price of whole wheat and artisan breads when we could be making it ourselves?” Almost to the day that the Significant Other made this economy-driven announcement, an old bread machine was synchronistically gifted my way.  It seemed an easy solution; since then, bread-making has been at least a weekly habit in this house.  I’ve been playing around with all sorts of combinations; whole wheat/oat/buckwheat/flaxseed, whole wheat/sunflower/wheat germ/bran, light whole wheat/pumpkin seed/rice flour, green chile/polenta/pepitas, caraway/orange/rye, and gluten-free combinations, just to name a few.  I mentioned that I had a fondness for sourdough bread, but he has turned up his nose at the suggestion, so I have not bothered to either buy it or bake it.

sourdough bread1

I crave this.

My mom was a major fan of all things bread, especially sourdough bread.  I might even say she was kind of a “bread-a-holic”. She just loved her bread.  It must be genetic.  Try keeping me away from a hot bread basket in a restaurant.  Although I can hear her say “Don’t fill up on bread before your meal”, we always did.  That San Francisco sourdough bread is as unique in taste as New York bagels are – there is just something different and special about where it comes from. With sourdough it’s the bacteria in the starter that lends the regional flavor. With bagels, it has been suggested it might be the water, although supposedly the skill of New York bagel makers might have something to do with it.  Fond memories surround sitting with my mom in her SoCal kitchen and swooning over sandwiches made with fresh sourdough bread…..the slight tang, the scent…the carbs!

Back to the present – the S.O. suddenly developed an interest in the health benefits of bacteria like Lactobacillus acidophilus in yogurt and kefir, or the lactic acid bacteria in fermented foods like kimchi.  Kimchi has been the new kick.  I cannot get on board with it, at least not yet, and I don’t think I ever will.  Have you ever gotten a whiff of kimchi?  To me it smells like raw sewage. Not only that, it looks like reconstituted road kill in a jar. There are few things that look less appetizing.  I realize there are some very big fans of kimchi out there, but getting past the smell to be able to eat it remains an issue here.  When he eats kimchi, I have to leave the house.  I mean it, the odor is that bad to me – and it lingers for hours.  Want to get rid of me?  Open up a container of kimchi, I’m out of here.


I can’t even look at this without feeling nauseous…

So I have been suffering through his kimchi phase, when all of a sudden he discovers that sourdough bread is supposed to be highly digestible and filled with B vitamins and is a good thing … why don’t I make some sourdough bread?  Amen.

The starter for sourdough contains lactobacillus and yeast, with Lactobacillus sanfranciscensis being the lactic acid bacteria that gives it that special taste.  Different parts of the country and areas of the world have their own strains of bacteria in the air, which eventually will permeate and give a regional flavor to your starter, no matter where it originated. So my sourdough really is not going to be exactly like the sourdough I ate and craved in California years ago with my mother, although it will taste similar, and honestly, some people probably can’t even tell.  Because I didn’t have an ancient “this has been in my family for generations” starter bestowed upon me,  I had to create my own. I have ended up with an Upstate New York River City Sourdough Starter.  And it’s pretty good.


My bubbling starter

Basically, starter is just flour and water –  I looked up a number of different ways to get one going from scratch.  There are a lot of interesting choices using grapes, orange juice pineapple juice…some recipes even call for yeast. But I finally decided on an easy one from King Arthur Flour. Figuring bread is their thing, it was simple and probably a safe bet.  One cup of whole wheat or rye flour and a half cup of water to begin.  After that it is a scenario of adding a measured proportion of regular baking flour and water and discarding part of the starter as you go along.  You use it, you feed it, you use it, you feed it. Any search will bring up step-by-step instructions from many sources.  Anyway, within a week I got a starter going with no problem.  It just fermented and bubbled up and was pretty exciting.  Just the aroma of it brought back floods of memories.

Some people seem to take their sourdough making very seriously.  There appears to be a lot of discussion, opinions and some passion surrounding individual approaches and methods. Apparently, some people actually name their starters too. I haven’t come up with a permanent name for mine yet, although in my head, without any clear reason, I have been referring to it as “Bob.” Suggestions welcome…..

Next, I had to figure out how to incorporate it into a bread machine recipe.  Yes, the process of letting bread rise, kneading it, letting it rise again and then into the oven is a satisfying and therapeutic thing.  They certainly look so much prettier as funky rounded loaves instead of that toaster-shaped weird hulk with a paddle-shaped hole in the bottom that you get from a bread machine. But I didn’t feel like being held hostage by my bread every four or five days. Bad enough I have this loose commitment of catering to this starter now. And the aesthetics are of no consequence as we attack it instantly, there being nothing like ripping into a loaf of hot, freshly baked bread.

I am still in the experimentation phase, making whole wheat,  half-whole wheat, and white varieties in the machine to see all the results.  A few times the breads have come out a little dense with not too many air holes in them and not rising as well as they could, although they still taste pretty good and have that tang.  Other ones have been great. I have not been able to figure out exactly what is happening that is causing the difference yet.  I soldier on.

A few times weird things happened with my starter because I was not paying attention.  Once or twice I fed it too much liquid and not enough flour and it became a little separated and soupy.  I corrected that.  Bob seems to be forgiving.

Yesterday I had a starter explosion. It grew into a massive, bubbling blob of science fiction madness overnight, leaving its container and taking over the top of the refrigerator, creeping towards other objects stored up there and adhering to everything it touched. It is really sticky stuff!  What a mess!   Perhaps I should name it “The Beast” or “The Blob”… or “Bob the Blob”. I removed some of it and spread it out to dry so I will have some dried starter flakes to store for another occasion, should I decide to deliberately kill off Bob the way I have historically killed off some of my house plants…..

1-starter flakes

Dried sourdough flakes


Apparently sourdough is getting a lot of attention lately – I just noticed the New York Times even had an article on it the other day. So not only are we sourdough addicts now, we are hip and trendy sourdough addicts and didn’t even know it!  Plain, toasted with good butter, and as french toast….I recently saw a pretzel recipe for it somewhere that might need some investigation too. Inhaling that aroma – ah!  And I get to have my Mom-flashback daily.

Sure beats kimchi.

Anyone want some sourdough starter, let me know…..



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5 Responses to Adventures in Sourdough

  1. Rachelle says:

    Forget the starter. Bring on the bread!


  2. Mary says:

    Loved meeting Bob. Fell in love with sourdough in San Francisco. Maybe it’s time to start my own Bob. I’ll call mine …


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