I’m going to write about Gloria using feminine pronouns; you have been warned.
Gloria is a sourdough starter (culture, mother, sponge) that I stirred together in February of 2016, and the process of creating her revitalized my love of bread baking. I love the rewarding, tangy smell of sourdough, and I keep some starter out at room temperature most of the time because I so look forward to that smell first thing in the morning and last thing before bed. But I’m getting way ahead of myself.
Number one priority: what even is a starter? And why have one?
Sourdough starter is a leavening agent. Nay, sourdough starter is the original leavening agent. Look to any bread expert (I suggest Michael Pollon’s Cooked on Netflix or Peter Reinhart’s anything), and you will find some variation of the following:
A long time ago, some members of some ancient civilization, probably Egypt, mixed together water and grain for the usual very-flat-bread of the day. Then, they forgot about it, and not until much later did they return to find their concoction bubbling up a storm.
“Eureka!” one exclaimed, “We have successfully harvested the unicellular fungus yeast, along with assorted bacteria! Life will never be boring again!”
And life was never boring again because life is hardly boring ever, Ancient Egyptian person who definitely did not say those words. But now at least there was leavened bread.
Ever since that fateful episode of poor time-management, the inhabitants of Earth have enjoyed bread that rises because they learned how to harvest wild yeast. Today, at least in the U.S., commercial yeast is more commonly used, but commercial yeast only came onto the bread-scene recently. I (will, very soon!) go over that more on the Tiny Burps page.
Wild yeast lives all around you: in the air, on your flour, on your skin. Mixing flour with liquid breaks down the starch, producing simple sugars upon which wild yeast converges. The yeast goes to town on these sugars and releases carbon dioxide and alcohol. FYI, this process is called fermentation.
A flour-water mixture hanging out with access to open air maybe sounds suspicious to you. Sure, yeah, yeast is great, but what about all those other malicious things that hang out all around us? A person very near and dear to me, who is currently going through medical school, definitely wrinkles his nose every time I talk about Gloria because the idea of things just festering on an ingredient I plan to use in my bread weirds him out. And yeah, if you use language like that, the whole process takes on an ominous tone. Better to rip the bandage off and call the culprit by its name:
Lactobacilli, to be precise! Lactobacilli is the main bacteria active in a sourdough starter, and it’s not a bad guy. You find this bacteria hanging around a lot of other yummy fermented things, beer and cheese to name a couple. Lactobacilli eats the simple sugars in a starter as well, producing lactic and acetic acids¹. These acids put the sour in sourdough—I don’t even say that to be funny, it’s a terrible joke, they actually provide the sour flavor people love (or really hate) about sourdough bread. There’s even a strain called Lactobacilli sanfranciscensis which, as you might have guessed, hangs around San Francisco, giving the local bread a unique sour.
At this point, I hope to have dispelled the common misconception that sourdough was invented in San Francisco.
Sourdough WAS NOT invented in San Francisco
Another misconception: sourdough starter is uncooked dough.
You cannot stick your starter in the oven and expect to bread.
One more time? STARTER IS AN INGREDIENT, NOT DOUGH
Sourdough starter is an ingredient that requires tending to, and in order to make bread, you combine the starter with more flour, more liquid, and salt.
How does one tend to starter? Let’s get back to Gloria.
There are probably as many ways to go about making a sourdough starter as there are people willing to make a starter, so, friends, here’s a glimpse into my process.
I followed the Sourdough Starter Recipe from King Arthur Flour’s website because of course I did, stirring 4 ounces of water with 4 ounces of whole wheat flour in a “glass” pitcher from Ikea. 24 hours later, I threw 4 ounces into the trash, stirred in 4 more ounces of water and 4 more ounces of flour (All-Purpose this time), and left Gloria to herself for another day.
I call this process of discarding starter and adding water + flour feeding—the term works well with my vision of starters as pets who require slightly more attention than cats. I recently heard a friend refer to it as fluffing, though, which is incredibly adorable. Here’s a breakdown of a basic feeding (for a liquid starter).
1 part starter : 1 part liquid : 1 part flour
In the end, it took me 2 weeks, several different containers, an incubator made from tennis shoes and a heating pad, and a lot of frustration before Gloria became fully functional and prepared to leaven some bread.
Because whole-wheat flour got me and Gloria through those tough, earlier times, I’ve been reluctant to eliminate it from the feeding formula. Whole-wheat flour retains a lot of minerals that all-purpose loses during production, giving the yeasties and bacteria more things to munch on (I think). I also find that starters made with only all-purpose flour don’t look quite so pretty, just super pasty white, which is fine, it just reminds me a little of dead E.T. and that’s awful.
Weck jars won out as my favorite container. You’ve probably seen them before, but here’s a picture just in case.
People use mason jars and ceramic crocks, but I love the versatility of a Weck jar. When I keep Gloria at room temperature, following a twice a day feeding schedule, I keep her in a 1 liter tulip jar, larger than the one pictured. I keep the lid on but leave off the orange band and metal clamps, leaving her open to the air but protected from larger, less desirable objects (like flies, maybe). When I need to stick Gloria in the fridge because I can’t do the regular feeding schedule for a couple days, I can just put the band and clamps on. A starter kept in the fridge can go about a week between feedings.
Sometimes (all the time), I feel awful throwing out 2/3 of Gloria for feedings. I keep 3 of the smaller jars around to keep some of that discard; even though it can’t be used as a leavener (unless fed again), you can put discard starter in waffles and popovers and cakes and a million other things to make them taste fabulous. This jar holds about 9 ounces of discard, and most recipes call for 8½ ounces at most.
There will be more to come about Gloria’s adventures, most likely in the form of blog posts, so stay tuned! I’ll add those hyperlinks to this page as they come.
¹ Gadsby, Patricia, and Eric Weeks. “The Biology of . . . Sourdough: Does America’s most famous bread owe its flavor to a unique ecosystem?” Discover Magazine, 1 Sept. 2003, www.discovermagazine.com/2003/sep/featscienceof. Accessed 31 Jan. 2017.