So You Wanna Start Some Sourdough?

Sourdough Loaf

Joseph Ball

With the shelter-at-home order drawing into its eighth week, you’ve probably reacquainted yourself with your home kitchen a lot more than you ever imagined. Spend even a few minutes on Facebook or Instagram, and you’ll soon discover that the ultimate badge of quarantine home cookery is a high-rising, golden-crusted loaf of rustic bread with perfect razor slash marks across the top. And when hashtags such as #covidcooking and #quarantinebaking are trending in the hundreds of thousands, you might think it’s time to get in on the game.This was likely on the minds of a lot of homebodies a few weeks back, when baking staples such as bread flour and yeast flew off of grocery store shelves as fast as toilet paper and disinfectants. Lacking yeast (or wanting a bigger challenge than a loaf of sandwich bread), many new bakers are fermenting their own sourdough starters.The process requires several days and dates back to at least 3700 BC. It was a baker’s main way of leavening bread until the last couple of

centuries—the ultimate throwback to times of famine or migration. It seems simple: mix nearly equal parts of flour and water in a jar and set it on your kitchen counter until the mixture shows signs of life and has a beer-like aroma. This will take anywhere from a day to 72 hours. Natural yeasts in the air should settle on the starter, making it foam up in the jar.

But that’s where the trouble often starts. Or doesn’t. Some home bakers stare into the jar for days and see nothing. Others encounter foul odors or, worse, mold. That’s when the self-doubt sets in. Did I use organic flour? Filtered water? Did I make sure all of the flour was dissolved in the water? Is my kitchen below 70 degrees? Above 80? Does it pass the “float test”? Or does the float test produce false positives? Dozens of sites with pages of information, advice, and emotional support have proliferated over the past weeks, the most popular being those from King Arthur Flour and Cook’s Illustrated, as well as local bloggers Alex and Sonja Overhiser’s site, A Couple Cooks.

Slice of sourdough

Make it this far, and you’ll still need to toss out a portion of the starter (itself an emotionally stressful act that has spawned many lists of “discard” recipes using the runoff) and “refresh” or “feed” the starter on a schedule for several days. And if you’re clever, you’ll need to name your starter, something like “Sir Rise-a-lot” or “Vincent Van Dough.” Sound daunting? Fraught with pitfalls? You’ve already got your children and pets to take care of. Do you really need more responsibilities right now? Despite this, dozens of locals who never would have thought of baking their own sourdough loaves are somehow posting photos of their impressive, professional-looking results. 

Eddie Sahm, who has learned more than a bit about fermentation at his brewpubs, Big Lug Canteen, Liter House, and Half Liter, is one local restaurateur who has spent a bit of time over the quarantine experimenting with baking and posting photos of his fledgling loaves. “When you hear about making bread, you always hear about how it is ‘more science than other cooking,’” Sahm says. “This holds pretty true, but with sourdough there is so much feel to it. There are multiple stages where you have to understand your dough. Whether it is the starter, the correct amount of kneading, the perfect rise time, whether it’s over- or under-proofed. There really is an art to it.” 

Doughnut pop-up baker Amanda Gibson of Indy Dough, who has recently been selling out orders of mystery pastry boxes at Studio C, did two sourdough “drops” at the start of the quarantine, helping out bakers by offering mature starters. She posted her own advice about feeding a starter in her Instagram highlights and later a tutorial on sourdough focaccia. “I’d say my first advice for sourdough is that while it’s complex, it’s also super simple,” Gibson says, “and you’ll learn something each time you use it.” However, Gibson warns that this comes with a commitment. “My other piece of advice is to make sure you develop a relationship with your starter. Learn to know when it needs to be fed, what spot in your kitchen it thrives the most in, and when it’s ready to use. Just don’t be intimidated.” 

Cast iron bread

“What folks do not know about sourdough bread is that it’s more of a process than a recipe,” says Frank Petrarca, a part-time bread instructor at Great Fermentations and home brewer from Carmel. “It’s not as easy as substituting sourdough starter for yeast in a recipe. I tell students in my classes to forget just about everything they have learned about baking bread except for the water, flour, salt, and starter/yeast combination. It’s a fair amount of science, which may only suit some bread bakers. But a naturally fermented sourdough loaf is a feather in the cap of every home baker.”

Not into this whole baking thing for such a process? Petrarca says that there is no shame in baking any of many wonderful yeasted loaves. A favorite of his and many new bakers is the famous The New York Times “no-knead loaf,” first suggested by Jim Lahey of Sullivan Street Bakery well over a decade ago. His radical idea? That water in the dough, as well as a hands-off 24-hour rise in the refrigerator, produces as much gluten in the flour as back-breaking kneading for a chewy, well-crumbed artisan loaf. Later, bakers added vinegar, beer, or alternative flours to Lahey’s basic recipe to mimic the acidic notes in sourdough, often producing professional results with a lot less stress.

Whatever you do, take pride in every effort. As Milktooth pastry chef Ilana November advises: “When I think back on my early loaves, they were terrible compared to my standards of today. But I was so proud, and they were so delicious. Without professional ovens and equipment, go easy on yourself. I worked in a professional sourdough bakery where they strived to make loaves consistent. After that experience, the point of baking at home for me became to make bread personal, not perfect.”

Sourdough starter from Amelia’s

Want to try your hand at a home-baked sourdough loaf without the wait? Amelia’s Bakery, which has quickly converted itself into a full-service curbside grocery source with limited takeout from adjacent Bluebeard, has fully fermented sourdough starters available. “We always have quite a bit on hand,” says co-owner Ed Battista. “Just call ahead, and we can usually have some for you.” The starter will still need a couple of “feedings” before you can bake with it, but the process will be nearly complete. Amelia’s also has all-purpose and whole wheat flour, as well as instant yeast and many other gourmet ingredients for all of your baking needs. Other local sources for curbside groceries offering baking flour and yeast are Wildwood Market and Turchetti’s Salumeria.

Above all, baking bread or creating your own sourdough starter should be a pleasurable distraction from the pressures of a global crisis. As Sahm says, “As with most cooking, it’s an enjoyable process, and even when you mess up, it’s still fun to eat. But I have a new appreciation for people who do this every day. At a brewery, we spend our money on jacketed fermenters, sterile piping and tubing, and heat and cooling equipment, all for the yeast to be as stable as possible. But here is where the fundamental change is. In baking, your yeast is an expression of your area and experience. You work diligently to take care of it but also keep it wild and fun.”