22 April 2013


A sourdough starter is a magnificent thing. Mine lives in a half gallon pickle jar, which gives me enough room to grow it, stir it vigorously, and ferment it. Its consistency is somewhere between pancake batter and porridge, but the bright, pungent smell of sour immediately identifies it as a sourdough starter. Depending on one’s olfactory experiences, its aroma can be off-putting or enticing. A healthy starter seduces my taste buds with a clean, sharp pungency that contrasts so nicely with the crusty earthiness of a well-cooked sourdough loaf.

We’ve heard so much about food borne illnesses and pathogens lurking in our kitchens that we react to sour smells with mistrust and apprehension. In part because we’ve been bombarded by advertising that conflates sterility with healthy, anything that’s pungent is suspect, and we cast a skeptical eye on a ripe, fermenting vat of sourdough, throwing away anything that doesn’t look perfectly preserved.

A good sourdough starter works like a compost pile, digesting raw materials and preparing them for their next use. The wild yeasts and bacteria that inhabit my starter are alive, and that’s the biggest obstacle wild starters have in gaining acceptance in our modern kitchens.

We have an explosion of cookbooks, food magazines, cooking shows, and food blogs that will make sure that any time we want to cook something, there’s a recipe to make sure it won’t go wrong. Someone else has tested it and fixed its flaws and all we have to do is follow the recipe, and it’ll turn out. And if it doesn’t, there’s a healthy dialogue in the comments section following every online recipe, where the next great chef will declare that he used 2/3 tsp basil instead of the ½ tsp called for, and everyone raved about it for months and begged for the recipe. The last thing most of us want in the kitchen – especially when we’re about to entertain, or we have an evening of kids’ activities – is unpredictability, because it will wreak havoc on our need to get dinner at our prescribed time. And the idea that we’re in a relationship with our food, that it can be temperamental and fickle, is not something that appeals to most people most of the time, because in the short term sterility is easier – we come in, cook, eat, and are done with it. If food is alive, we have to pay attention to what it’s doing, not what a recipe is telling us to do.

I replenish my starter nearly every day. After I take a cup or two out for a new loaf, I add white or whole wheat flour, bread crusts, leftover oatmeal, and once in a while a scoop or two of brown rice. The water from my tap is chlorinated, so I leave a jar of it out for twenty-four hours before I use it in a fermenting starter because I don’t want the chlorine to kill the microbial life that is so active in the starter. I then use a wooden spoon to give the mixture a good stir, which exposes it to air, and the next day the bubbling ferment is ready for the next loaf.

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