Sourdough is a philosophy more than a recipe

Photo by Tommaso Urli on Unsplash
My introduction to sourdough began many years ago when I received a starter as a gift from a baker friend. The starter she gave me was part of her weekly discard from a starter she'd kept going for as long as she'd been married. At that time, she'd been married for more than 30 years and I've kept that starter alive in my fridge in the years since.

I didn't know much about sourdough when I received that first starter and I remember thinking at the time that with her starter, I had everything I needed to crank out the kind of sourdough she did. Boy was I wrong.

Sourdough seems simple at first glance. A basic sourdough recipe consists of a small amount a starter, flour and water. To those three ingredients I'd like to add another two ingredients: time and patience.

My determination to achieve sourdough competence set me on a wild exploration of the chemistry and microbiology, the history and philosophy of this kind of baking. And truly, it's a whole other kind of baking.

One of the first things I learned is that sourdough starters don't contain a single wild yeast. Instead they're a microbiome in and of themselves. There are many wild yeast species as well as a whole host of symbiotic lactobacilli in any starter. What's more, every starter is different and those differences come from the kinds of flours a baker uses, the environment where the starter is kept and the microbiome of the baker. Every time someone feeds a sourdough starter received or purchased from another baker, that starter changes a bit more. In a short amount of time, that starter's biological make up will have changed so much that it's another, all together different starter that's unique to a baker and his or her kitchen.

My much-loved starter may have begun its life in the household of a young married couple 40 or so years ago but by now it's so linked to me that it's uniquely mine. That's wild.

Sourdough baking is so unique that I can't in good conscience slap a recipe on this website and call it done. So instead I'm going to write a series that'll take anybody interested from making a new starter from scratch (it takes a week or two), to feeding and keeping a starter alive and finally, baking with one.

In my mind, my experiences with sourdough run on a parallel track to my regular baking. I know conventional bread baking very intimately and I can tell at a touch and a glance if the bread I'm baking is progressing as it's supposed to be as I go through the process of baking it. Sourdough however, forces me to pay extra attention. It's a much longer and more gradual process and the microorganisms I'm trying to corral have minds of their own as well as time tables that they're not always willing to share.

I always say that baking appeals to me because it's something I can never fully master --it's a discipline that I will always learn from and improve. No baker ever stops learning and improving. Sourdough forced me to start that process all over again and just when I think I'm a reasonably competent baker, I mess up a batch so royally I'm ready to write off the whole exercise. But I don't. I feed my starter, put it back in the fridge and start over again the following week.

So as I said, I'm going to write this sourdough thing as a series and I will offer a class in it at some point this spring. I just have to figure out how to condense a way of life into a two-hour class. Hah.

See Magic in a mason jar: make a sourdough starter from scratch and Sourdough baking with training wheels: a sourdough bread with added yeast