Sourdough In Recovery

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A sourdough elder and a youngster gaining strength together

We Love What We Love

With all that’s been going on lately, I‘ve been so anxious and distracted that I made a terrible mistake; I forgot to set aside some sourdough starter before adding other ingredients for bread (lots of garlic as well as basil salt and gluten flour). Those ingredients change the texture, the color and the smell, and I wasn’t at all sure that I could salvage my beloved starter. I dumped a few cupfuls into another bowl, added water and flour, and hoped for the best. Weirdly, I found myself blinking back tears. Really? Crying over my bread starter? Well, yes; I’m very fond of my starter. Ok, I love it. It smells exciting and makes fantastic bread. Just having it quietly bubbling away on my counter feels companionable, friendly, something I can count on. It’s humble, but it’s alive, it even responds with enthusiastic bubbling when I feed it. Its loss was one more on top of so many others; so many griefs, so many horrors, so many distresses, and it felt like one loss too many.

Part of me felt ridiculous for grieving over a bowl of flour and water and yeast, but of course there was a lot more going on. After the Inauguration, I unconsciously assumed that everything would be moving forward again and my battered spirits would recover. Clearly there is a long road ahead, but it leads ahead, not behind. All good, right? Well, not really. Not yet. Recovery from trauma takes time, not to mention accumulating enough benign experiences to balance out the past. Despite the positive changes already taking place, I can’t forget that almost everything that gives me delight is in trouble. As John Muir so famously observed, everything in this world is connected to everything else, and pretty much everything is in a mess right now. If I meditate on the ocean, I know it’s fuller of plastic and pollution that we suspected. If I think about forests, I know the trees are stressed and under attack from pests and diseases. So are frogs, birds, insects, plants, you name it. Climate change is shifting weather patterns and pushing plants and creatures to adapt faster every year. In the middle of the night, I find myself wondering sadly what kind of future my grandkids will find in twenty years, or ten.

Recovery Takes Time

After the last few years and especially 2020, it’s no surprise that some of life’s joys are harder to appreciate. It may take time before we feel secure enough to allow ourselves to relax into happiness. Sourdough, too takes time to rebuild. In case my attempt to resuscitate my original starter failed, I made a brand new batch. I mixed a little water and flour in a small bowl and set it on the counter where my sourdough starter always sits. Every day, I added a little more flour and water, figuring that the natural wild yeasts in my kitchen would repopulate the new starter. Sure enough, in three days, the new starter was starting to bubble as it fermented. It already smells good, but lacks the deeper tang of the mature starter. However, the rescued starter does indeed seem to be recovering; it resembles the original more every day. As it reawakens, so does my hope. My heart lifts when the smell of baking bread fills the house and I, too, feel that recovery is on the way. It just takes time.

Original Sourdough Starter

Sourdough is prehistoric, what our ancestors around the world used to make bread in one form or another. All it needs is flour, water, wild yeasts, and time. It takes a few days for a starter to develop, and the longer it matures, the better your bread will taste. If you’ve tried making sourdough and been unhappy with the result, try this “wet” technique, which is both forgiving and delicious.

Basic Sourdough Starter

1/2 cup water
1/2 cup unbleached flour

In a glass or ceramic bowl, vigorously combine flour and water and let stand at room temperature. Add 1/4 cup water and flour each morning and evening, and stir vigorously several times a day for 3-4 days until bubbly. Now feed it 3-4 times a day, stirring vigorously to incorporate plenty of air, until you have more than enough for a loaf of bread (2-3 cups). It’s better to feed a little several times than to dump in a lot of flour and expect a young starter to be able to digest it quickly. Always feed starter last thing at night and first thing in the morning. When it’s ready to use, starter will be a little soupy and slightly spongy. Before you start baking, pour about 2 cups into a glass jar, cover and refrigerate for up to a week.

Refresh refrigerated starter by pouring it into a glass or ceramic bowl; if there’s tan liquid on top of the starter, pour it off. Add 1/4 cup water and 1/4 cup flour now and every few hours, stirring vigorously. It’s best to give starter a day or so of feeding to fully activate. If you have more than you need, make extra bread for neighbors (generosity is good for the soul).

For Better Texture

If you love the chewy tenderness of bakery bread, the secret ingredient is gluten flour (vital gluten). It’s very high in protein, and a couple of tablespoons will turn an average loaf into a splendid one. Wet sourdough tends to spread wide rather than rise high, so for the best rise and texture, bake it off in a standard loaf pan or round casserole dish. Experiment with making rolls from extra starter so you get a feel for how much of a given added ingredient you prefer. I usually add about 1 tablespoon fresh minced garlic, 1/4 cup of chopped herbs or grated cheese to each 4 cup batch of dough. Form quarter-cups of dough into balls and put them into an oiled muffin pan or baking dish. Let rise until doubled (an hour or more), then bake at 400 degrees F for 15-20 minutes.

Classic Sourdough Loaves or Rounds (makes 2)

4 cups recently fed, wet sourdough starter
4-5 cups bread flour
4 tablespoons gluten flour
3 teaspoons kosher or sea salt

Stir a few cups of bread flour, the gluten flour and the salt into the wet starter, then add just enough flour to make a soft dough (if it’s sticky, keep wetting your hands rather than adding more flour). Turn on the oven light (this heats the oven to the right rising temperature) and place a bowl of boiling water on the middle rack. Set dough to rise next to the water. Let dough rise for an hour, divide in half and knead each piece by hand (100 turns) until smooth and elastic. Place each kneaded loaf into an oiled pan or dish and slash the tops three or four times to assist rise. Return loaves to the unheated oven (leave light on) to rise for an hour or so. Take them out of the oven, preheat oven to 400 degrees and bake the loaves for 20 minutes. Reduce oven to 350 and bake for another 20 minutes or until internal temperature reaches 180 degrees. Let cool a bit on a rack before slicing. Makes 2 loaves.

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4 Responses to Sourdough In Recovery

  1. Patricia Patterson says:

    What a terrific article. I love sourdough, but you have more info than I had. Thank you so much.

    • Ann Lovejoy says:

      Thanks, Patricia! I’ve been baking with sourdough for many years and got tired of trying to do things according to strict rules. I kept thinking about those ancient people who first figured out how to harness wild yeasts, and even about the gold miners who seriously were not finicky foodies; surely there was a way to make sourdough naturally and simply. And there is, yay!

  2. Carrie Gifford says:

    My Dad passed away Christmas Day, 2019. I am caring for his sourdough starter – it feels like a living connection to him. I completely understand the tears…

    • Ann Lovejoy says:

      Oh Carrie, what a beautiful way to mingle your love for your dad with the living legacy of his starter. When my late husband died suddenly, his hand prints remained on my kitchen countertop for months; he’d been making bread and the extra dough and flour from the kneading held the marks of his hands. I couldn’t bring myself to wipe them out (though eventually a friend did it for me).

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