Or, what I was looking for wasn’t what I thought I was looking for
© 2020 Lif Strand
Years and years ago I started trying to bake the perfect loaf of sourdough bread. In spite of the fact that I still lived in California and could buy freshly-baked San Francisco sourdough bread any time I wanted to, I just had to do it myself.
If you’ve read anything else about me, you know about my having to do things for myself. Too often, the hard way.
Back then I was more into cooking than I am now. It was still a relatively new thing to me. I was in my own kitchen, nobody hovering over me expecting me to cook or bake the way they thought I should. All that mattered was I had to like the end result and that whoever I was feeding should like it, too.
That was just food. The sourdough bread thing was different.
It wasn’t for anybody else. I had an inner vision of smell and taste that I wanted to create, of the perfect tang and chewy crust. It was my personal challenge. It dragged on in fits and starts for years. As with many quests, though, what I was looking for wasn’t what I thought I was looking for.
My quest wasn’t really about bread. That was just the prize. My grail was a perfect starter — for without it there would be no sourdough bread.
Over time I began to believe that starter is a sad story of dreary obligation to one-celled organisms. I had a love/hate relationship with every one of my starters. I didn’t like the bread they made. First I thought I was getting bummer yeast. Then I thought I didn’t have enough yeast lurking in my kitchen. There was even the possibility I was simply a terrible baker.
I began to fear that if I kept going the way I was I’d be chained to a kitchen for the rest of my life. Starter is a living thing, a kind of pet that demands regular attention. Unfortunately, any starter that entered my house was doomed to die of neglect. Too often my only reaction was good riddance.
But yet it would start again. The urge. I swear, I never learn.
Over the years I have nursed too many sourdough starters along that got me no closer to my goal. Many arrived into my kitchen in little packets of yeast powder that cost way, way more than commercial yeast. Sellers claim their dried starter descends from yeast used by gold rush miners in Alaska in the 1800s. Or from yeast that traveled with pioneers over the Oregon Trail. I figured okay, a little expensive, but they’re guaranteed to be the real deal, right?
As I killed off starter after starter, niggling doubts would enter my mind. First of all, how would anyone know the provenance of 100 year old starter? I mean, I know there’s a DNA test that can point to where a given yeast came from, but I doubt anybody but the most scientific of folks is into the time and expense of doing so. And then what’s all this measuring by grams business? Maybe those grizzled old miners in the Alaskan gold rush carried gram scales around with them. I’m betting that 99.99% of explorers, pioneers, and the like didn’t. Unless it was for making gunpowder. Maybe not even then.
Anyway, I could not see those overworked pioneer women messing around with finicky starter. They had hungry families to feed. There were bugs, dust, flood, blizzards, snakes, marauders, limited fresh water, and weevils in the flour to deal with. Who had time to fuss with something as basic as bread?
Fast forward to nowadays – I mean to now when COVID has people convinced they’ve got to bake bread. For all that’s awful that’s going on, there are some good things, too. For one thing, there are biologist Sudeep Agarwala and gastroegyptologist (his term) Seamus Blackley out there on Twitter, encouraging us all in our bread-making efforts. But wait! There’s more! They’re describing how to make wild-captured yeast! How to make bread out of so many things other than wheat flour! And they don’t mind stupid questions!
Right around the time I started following them I came across a great webpage on sourdough starter troubleshooting, the subtitle for which said everything that mattered: What does it take to kill your starter?
Now I’ve decided this whole sourdough starter thing is built on misunderstanding and, let’s face it, taking advantage of people’s ideas that old is bad and new is always better. But it ain’t necessarily so.
It turns out that yeast that’ll make great sourdough is everywhere — sorry San Francisco. Also, yeast is tougher stuff than you’d think. Don’t believe me? Check out that jar of starter I discovered when I was cleaning out my fridge last November or so. That starter was last fed sometime in 2018. When I came across it I went ewwww and put it outside to empty into the compost pile. Then I forgot about it.
I mean, still in the jar, still on the porch.
I took the photo today, half a year later. That stuff in the bottom looks pretty good, actually. Could it still be viable? What would bread I made from it taste like? I haven’t figured out how to get the good part out of the bottom. I don’t want to contaminate it with the nasty black goo on the top. I haven’t even opened the lid yet – but when I do I’ll let you know what happens.
Meanwhile, in spite of the two jars of commercial yeast on my shelf I once again had a burning desire to make my own homemade bread starter yeast. The first try was uglier than the jar from the depths of my fridge. I blame it on juniper berries. No offense to juniper trees, but… gin. The alcohol that gave me a hangover so bad when I was a teen that I can’t stand the smell of gin to this day. And what is gin distilled from, my friends?
So all right. Possibly some prejudice on my part towards the juniper berries I made starter from. I take responsibility for the starter going moldy and gross before I could even try it in dough. I was going to go for it again and this time it was going to be different. This time, following directions gleaned from the tweets of the two above-named gentlemen, I used raisins. I like raisins.
I had a happy, bubbly starter in no time at all.
The next challenge was adapting my no-knead bread recipe for starter instead of dry yeast. The recipe makes good but not sour bread. I’d been making loaf after loaf using that recipe for long enough that memories of hockey-puck bread had faded.
Not so with the sourdough starter. My dough ended up as a goopy nasty mess that I had to pour into my improvised Dutch oven. It left sticky globs of dough on me and everything else. The resulting bread was tasty but a little too close to hockey-puckness to suit me. The clean-up time cast a pall on bread-making. My enthusiastic starter was demanding that I make more and more bread. I could see where this was heading.
I’m already tired of baking. It’s already warm here in the southwest and I don’t want to heat up my house baking bread twice a week. I don’t need to consume that many carbs anyway. Besides, I can get wonderful fresh-baked bread delivered once a week these days. Jennifer’s bread looks better, tastes better, and I don’t have to do anything but slap some butter on a slice and eat it. Why bake?
Ah, but there’s that starter.
I made it myself. It’s good starter.
I don’t want another science experiment in a jar in the back of my fridge.
I don’t want to keep feeding it and then throwing out the excess to feed it again. Yes, people do that. Not me. Not when it’s a 60 mile round trip to buy more flour, assuming there is any in the store. Not when it’s such a frivolous waste to throw good food out.
So… back to Google.
To quote one website I looked at, starter is flour and water. It’s not some magical alchemical substance that can only be used for one kind of ritual. Yes, friends, sourdough starter can be used for plenty more tasty bits and bites than bread!
The mind reels.
I found a great recipe for sourdough starter crepes. I like crepes. The recipe uses a cup of starter. If I don’t feed my starter great honkin’ amounts of flour every few days I could have crepes once a week and not an overload of starter. Forget baking bread for a while.
The recipe calls for milk. I don’t keep milk in the house because it goes bad before I get around to doing anything with it. I do have powdered milk, but that stuff is nasty. There’d have to be a zombie apocalypse going on before I would bother with it and even then I’d use it to chase off the zombies. So I used a wee bit of evaporated sweetened milk (why not?) plus some water. Everything else was as the recipe called for.
The result was more like wimpy pancakes than real crepes. Thinner batter would have been better. But so what. They were pretty. They were sour and yet sweet. I tried one with organic blackberry jam. Yum! I had another with honey. Yum again! The other two — well, three — I ate as-is, soon as they were cool enough to handle.
I’ve got one left but I’m too full to eat it [note: by the time I posted this it was long gone]. No problem! Crepes are great cold, too. I’m thinking a fruit and yogurt filling later on when I’ve got room for one more.
Let’s hear it for starter!
Let’s hear it for not-bread!