Sourdough StartersMeet my two new pets - Mirka and Niedamir. You'd think that with 3 dogs and 4 cats we would be done with taking on any more pet ownership responsibilities. But, these pets are easy. They live in the refrigerator. As long as you take them out about once a week, to feed and play with, they can live forever. Not good for snuggling or playing fetch, they can however help with an endless supply of delicious, sourdough baked goods.

Yes, my new pets are sourdough starters and yes I did give them names. Mirka is the white flour starter and Niedamir is whole wheat. They are uniquely mine and will grow and develop over time. They give my sourdough breads a unique flavor and, as long as I keep taking care of them, they can last for generations. The notion of heirloom sourdough starters, just like Nalewka recipes, is well documented in the past and hopefully a trend of the future.

Since Ancient Egypt until the introduction of barm, the foam or scum formed on the top fermented beer, in the European Middle Ages, sourdough was the only form of leavening available to bakers. Even with the availability of packaged, purpose cultured yeast since the mid 1800s, sourdough breads are acknowledged to be superior in taste, quality, uniqueness and freshness. Like the famed sourdough breads of San Francisco your breads can also carry the stamp of terrior specificity by being unique to your area and household.

Making bread in ancient Egypt.

You can buy starters commercially but that defeats the purpose. Making your own started is fundamentally simple if not always easy. As long as you remember that a starter is a living, breathing organism of lacto-bacteria and yeast living in symbiosis on flour and water - you should do fine.

Making bread in the European Middle Ages.

Here are a few simple ideas to remember:

  • Sourdough starts are a symbiotic mix of lacto-bacteria and yeast living on flour and water.
  • The strains, mix and makeup of lacto-bacteria and yeast in your region and even household is unique.
  • Lacto-bacteria and yeast are ubiquitous and when uncontrolled - one of the main causes of food spoilage.
  • Modern industrial processing of food is designed to destroy lacto-bacteria and yeast and prevent it from attacking the processed foods.
  • The less processed and the more organic (unpreserved) your starter ingredients are, the easier it is for lacto-bacteria and yeast to establish themselves.
  • Once started the particular symbiotic mix of lacto-bacteria and yeast in your starter will evolve over a few generations before it stabilizes. This period is crutial so pay attention.

Technically the rest is simple:

  1. Take one cup of flour, rye and whole wheat work best.
  2. Mix it with one cup of water, un-chlorinated works best and you can get that by simply leaving a cup of warm tap water out over night. It is a good idea to use a wooden spoon for mixing all your sourdough products.
  3. Let it stand uncovered for about an hour in your yard or by an open window. This is not necessary because the flour will already have some lacto-bacteria and yeast in it but it will help introduce some local strains into the mix. Be warned - local strains are not always good.
  4. Cover lightly, you want to enable an exchange of gasses so a loose jar lid or cheese cloth will be fine, and put away in a dark, warm place.

It's alive I tell you, it's alive!!!

A baker baking bread from a Middle ages calendar.After 8 to 24 hours, with any luck, your mix should be bubbling vigorously and have a pleasant sour, doughy smell. Take half of the mixture, you can already use what is left to make bread, and add half a cup of flour and about half a cup of warm water. Your going for a very loose sticky dough. Cover lightly and put away in a warm, dark place for up to 24 hours. If you wish, you can repeat this process several more times till you are happy with the vigor and smell of your new pet starter. Making a few test breads along the way will also help establish your new starter's quality.

Once satisfied, at the hight of it's bubblyness, put your starter into a tightly sealed jar and into the refrigerator. It can keep there for up to 2 weeks between feedings. If you are going away or you think you will not be needing it for an extended period of time make a thicker batch, wrap it in plastic and put it in the freezer. It will keep for a very long time. I have revived starters that had been in the freezer for over 3 months. I don't know what the outside limit is so let me know if you find out.

What I described up till now is the standard "if all goes well" scenario and your experience, like mine, may vary. Slow, sluggish, bad smelling, moldy starters do happen. It's never easy to determine exactly where the blame lays  because, in the beginning, something as simple as the time of day when you mix your starter can make a difference. The mix of organisms in the air around us changes with time, humidity, temperature, light. Maybe, when I have the time, I will try an experiment of starting a new starter for every month of the year. The truth is that after a few generations the final, stable mix of yeast and bacteria is mostly composed of the same robust strains regardless of location.

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