The Start of a Starter

I’m not sure what inspired me to create a sourdough starter. I can’t remember if it’s something I had contemplated for a while, or if I started it on a whim.  It was, most likely, inspired by my love for baking bread, and the memory of my sister keeping a starter for a while when we were teens, and making mouth-watering cinnamon rolls with it.  Anyway, I launched into my experiment with a sourdough starter not entirely sure what I was getting myself into.

I had a cookbook which we had found at a book sale, probably the local ongoing library sale which we raid periodically, all about bread. My intention was to cook through that cookbook as well, and had tried a couple recipes, all of which had been flops. The Mexican wedding cookie was crumbly af and the cornbread recipe yielded the driest chili accompaniment I’d ever had. But perhaps those were flukes, I thought.  I read the chapter about sourdough and decided to use the book’s recipe to raise my own from scratch.

What came from it was complete disaster. The cookbook recommended covering the bread with a damp cloth for the first week as I slowly built it up.  Soon enough, I had a lump of dough which was streaked with grey and smelled like rotten yogurt.  And then appeared the mold.  Well, that was a flop. Into the bin it went.

I’m not sure why I hadn’t realized what a dumb idea covering it with a damp cloth was. What else will happen but mold?

As you might expect, I turned to the Joy of Cooking.

The process for making a sourdough starter takes about a week, more or less.  It requires consistency, patience, attention, and lots of flour (obvs.) And in time, it yielded my very own sourdough starter, lovingly named Doey (like Joey, but also like doughey.)

Raising Doey has been a constant learning experience for me, a bit like raising a child, I suppose. You have to feed it every day, make sure it gets exercise, and above all, don’t forget about it.  I’ve rung up King Arthur Flour Company more than once to ask questions like, should I feed it before storing it in the fridge for a week of no baking? Is it ruined if a fruit fly got trapped inside?

The most challenging thing for me, honestly, is all the baking science that goes behind a sourdough starter.  Science is far, far from being my strong point. Give me an essay to write on the great British novel and you’ll have it in a day; ask me to explain anything of a scientific nature and I will very possibly end up in tears.  (Same with math problems.) This article, “Beginner’s Sourdough Bread,” on the blog The Perfect Loaf, is one of the many amazing and helpful resources about sourdough starters, and summarizes much of what needs to be known about starters. For instance, it challenges my ignorant notion that the temperature of the water isn’t all that important in feeding the starter.  Turns out, it actually is.

But my ultimate resource is the King Arthur Flour Company. The website contains a vast collection of recipes that call for sourdough at its various stages– the peak of the rise, the discard, and so on.  The recipes range from basic sourdough loaves to sweet breakfast breads, rolls, pizzas, and dessert flatbreads. Who would have thought?  I’ve been slowly working my way through the different kinds of recipes, trying to learn something new about baking with each recipe.  As with The Joy of Cooking, I will be sharing about some of the recipes as I try them and perfect them.  But for now, I’m off to read their ultimate guide to sourdough and to think about which recipe to make tomorrow.

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