Scrumptious Sourdough and How to Avoid Starter Slaughter

Howdy there! Welcome back to BB's Bloggerie. 

I couldn't deny my love for a delicious, tart loaf of sourdough even if I tried. As a native San Franciscan, I think I would get arrested for even the thought of that. Alas, eating sourdough is very different than making it... and a whole lot harder.

Unfortunately, this distinction was not very clear when I decided to try my hand at sourdough baking. Throughout my developing sourdough journey, I have made some horrible mistakes and redeeming discoveries. I hope that this article will help you avoid the silly slip-ups that I wish someone had warned me about before I started. Check out the sourdough starter discard cracker recipe that I published a few days ago :

My sourdough story has many starts, stops and restarts but ultimately began when I was nine years old. While flipping through the library's Summer Programs for Kids and Adults yearly pamphlet, my mother discovered that the local library was hosting a workshop about how to maintain and use a sourdough starter. That following week, we treaded the three blocks up to the library with more of a desire to learn something new than to understand how to make our own loaf of bread. The workshop was led by the head bread maker of the local whole grain bakery, Sour Flour. Unfortunately, given my age, I was not focused on the sourdough demonstration nor the advice that the the baker explained, but rather the fact that she had everyone taste a part of her raw sourdough starter. Eww! 

After the class, we were all given a little bit of the mother culture and instructions on how to take care of it. I named my little starter Shimizu after the woman who taught the class. As an unexperienced, young baker, I didn't research proper feeding techniques and the only time I tried to bake with her, it was a major flop. Perhaps I was too immature for the responsibility of a starter or maybe sourdough bagels were a bit too complicated. Needless to say, Shimizu slowly turned into a foul smelling goo.

For many years, I wiped sourdough completely from my brain. Well, actually, not quite. One year after the starter disaster, during a two week summer camp, me and a team of other ten year olds helped mix and shape sourdough loaves. I remember the counselor telling the group the story of a camper from a previous year who ate too much raw sour(dough) dough and had to get it surgically removed because it kept expanding in stomach. Looking back, I question the legitamacy of that story- How much raw dough would the girl even want to eat? Isn't it safe to eat raw sourdough starter? The chef from the library workshop had us all taste her slimy starter without hesitation.... I suppose all camp stories are full of questionable plot lines that serve as cautionary tales to discourage misbehavior.

My true sourdough starter hiatas lasted for at least four years. Despite indulging in a few sour pieces here and there, I didn't have a levain to call my own. Caught up in school, theatre and music, baking wasn't something I ever thought about. I enjoyed mixing up the occasional squash bread or apple crisp, but any lengthy oven extravaganza was not in my wheelhouse. In fact, getting a cookie to rise adaquately was (okay, sometimes still is) challenging. Then, in August 2019, while wandering between library shelves, I randomly picked up the book Sourdough by Robin Sloan. Sloan's book is about a woman's sourdough journey during the development of a technology based farmer's market in a dystopian San Francisco. I know, I know, a bit of a crazy sounding concept, but I promise when read, it is  lighthearted and enjoyable. By the time that I had finished all 259 pages, I had decided to try sourdoughing once again.

To start, I followed King Arthur Flour's sourdough starter recipe and in a five days' time, had my own little sour friend. Sourdough starters typically only have two ingredients: flour and water. When these ingredients mix, the flour breaks down enabling microbes (from the air, materials surrounding the environment or even the baker's hand) to become part of the starter. There are two types of microbes present in a starter: Yeast and Lactic Acid Bacteria. Both microbes have many different types causing different tasting sourdough starters throughout the world. The famous tangy San Francisco sourdough can be attributed to the specific type of Lactic Acid Bacteria: Lactobacillus sanfranciscensis. Generally, recipes call for a starting mixture of rye or whole wheat flour because they are packed with nutrients and microbes that shorten the fermentation process. I used whole wheat flour for a large portion of my starter for both reduced fermentation time and health benefits. 

My new starter was named Shimmy in memory of Shimizu. Shimmy powered my first ever loaf: a whole wheat olive rosemary that mildly exploded all over the oven during its Bulk Rise. Shimmy made some gorgeous loaves. All of my loaves were made up of a mix of whole wheat and white flour. Developing a good all purpose flour to whole wheat flour ratio was something I struggled with originally and I have found that Tartine's Whole Wheat Country Bread forms a delicious loaf (beware, it has a high hydration). Something that I learned in my first year of baking sourdough loaves: Don't let the recipe control you. Many times while working on a sourdough recipe, I avoided outdoor excursions to avoid delaying or extending the steps of the recipe. Although the steps are there for good reason, if you are busy or want a break, the bread can often handle it. Additionally, temperature, location and season all affect how a bread is going to rise, etc. If the loaf hasn't risen, give it more time. When baking with whole wheat, it is vital to extend its rising/autolyzing time (by at least 20%) and have the expectation that it will not rise as much as an all white loaf because of its density and increased water absorption. 

Unfortunately, after about a year of service, due to long periods on the countertop, forgotten feedings and the inability to bounce back after the neglect, Shimmy was kindly composted. My biggest downfall was my fear of the fridge. I knew that cold temperatures slowed down yeast and I was scared to lose my active starter. I would leave it out on the counter intending to bake with it the following day, but would either run out of time or forget to feed it. My starter would quickly turn sour and inactive. 

Last August, I created a new starter, Mishy (in honor of Shimmy, Michelin ratings, and a miche: the classic rounded sourdough loaf). This time I was determined to succeed. After failing with Shimmy, I was concerned that sourdough and I were never meant to be. Luckily, this new starter was bubblier and sweeter than Shimmy even in her starting days. Additionally, I have now realized that refrigeration is a complete necessity to keep my starter from being hungry and dying. The minute after using my starter, I seal it up and delicately place it on the top shelf of the fridge. Mishy is so active that even after weeks of neglect, once she is removed from the fridge and fed, she immediately expands. Clearly, despite my initial fears, the fridge does not kill a sourdough starter. In fact, to increase the tangy flavor and fit the final rise into my schedule, I have begun to refrigerate the dough over night in the process called "retarding the dough." The cold enables a slow rise with enhanced sourness.

Maybe all of these tips were self-explanatory in the beginning, but for me, they definitely were not...I still have a ton of learning to do but in just a few years, I have come a long way!  I hope to share my future sourdough endeavors here through recipes and posts.



  1. Love it girl, so proud of your journey, looking forward to meeting Mishy


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