Hasty Tastes: Sourdough Starter

Yeast is a tricky thing to mess with.

You’ll remember with the ciabatta, I’m not exactly the best when it comes to yeast and baking.  I’ve made more than a few flavorless lumps of dried out crustiness in my kitchen, and I used to chalk this up to a chronic condition called living at high altitude.  I treated this problem like an addiction, because really, I was powerless.  “It’s not my fault,” I’d say. “Look at this landscape! How can yeast possibly thrive in the dry, cold tundra that is the mile high city? Curse you, humidity Gods!!!”

However, part of me knew I was wrong even among my first failures.  I blamed the altitude or the lack of humidity, but at the same time I produced a multitude of fermented beverages my closest friends called “award-winning.”  That was the same process – yeast would eat sugar, thereby creating carbon dioxide and causing those lovely bubbles known as “carbonation” in beer and… “bubbles,” I guess, in breads and pastries.  I wanted the bubbles, but in order to give in, I had to face my demons and admit I was powerless against my yeasty incompetence.  I slowly began my own, personalized twelve-step program.

Or, you know, however many steps it takes to make a sourdough starter.

Sourdough is a unique prospect in that it is completely up to the wild yeasts that are in and around us, in every room of our houses.  You look for tainted and off-flavors that come from these wild yeasts, and you hope to make magic with them.  That is what makes sourdough so special, and in order to even make an attempt at sourdough starter, I actually have to completely turn off the homebrewing part of my brain.

“Wild yeasts” and “off flavors” are words that make any homebrewer cringe. We’ve all felt the sheer disappointment of cracking open a beer after lovingly arranging a recipe, perfecting it on BeerSmith, buying and substituting ingredients, carefully controlling the temperature of a mash, boiling for hours, cooling, waiting, bottling, waiting, and finally being able to crack a hand crafted bit of wonder more than a month later… only to find it tastes like spoiled, wasted privilege.  Sourdough makes you constantly comfort yourself, saying, “it’s not beer, it’s not beer, it’s not beer,” over and over again.

Let’s get started with the process, shall we?

Before we go any further, let me just say I KNOW.  I know that this recipe isn’t true sourdough.  I know true sourdough only has wild yeast with nothing to give it a leg up.  I know, I know, I know.  However, we’ve established that baking isn’t my strong suit, so what we’re doing is giving this a bit of a boost by using active dry yeast.  What I want is for some healthy fermentation to hit this baby, then the wild yeasts can join the party after things are starting to get underway – there will be plenty of wild yeast in your kitchen to latch on, trust me.  Let’s start with a recipe:

The Starter:
2 heavy cups 110 degree water
1 tablespoon honey
1 tablespoon active dry yeast
2 scant cups all purpose flour

Everything you need for pure, baked goodness.

Everything you need for pure, baked goodness.

You could use sugar here instead of honey, and you could also avoid adding yeast at all.  You’re working with an amateur though, so this is very close to the mixture I used, and it worked out well for me.  You’ll want to start by mixing your warm water with honey to dissolve in a glass bowl (apparently stainless steel will mess it up… I don’t know how), then adding your yeast (if you’re using it) and letting it sit for 5 minutes or so.  Let those yeast soften up, then slowly add your flour, stirring until you have a gloopy mixture of… well, honey, flour, water, and yeast.

A wee bit of air and a whole lot of yeast cells can get in that little opening.

A wee bit of air and a whole lot of yeast cells can get in that little opening.

Once you have your mixture settled down, your options somewhat vary because opinions somewhat vary.  Now, you could leave this mixture with just a kitchen towel draped over it, that way the wild yeast can seep through and catch onto it.  Or, you could use plastic wrap and seal it up air-tight in whatever glass container you’re using.  You want wild yeasts to catch on, but the fact of the matter is your flour right now probably has millions of wild yeast cells on it already.  I went with kind of a halfway-there approach.  I wanted as much wild yeast as possible, but there isn’t much humidity here in Denver, so I was worried that too much moisture would seep out if I left it completely exposed with just a loose towel over the top.  Instead, I wrapped it almost all the way up with plastic wrap, leaving just a little smidgen exposed, then I placed a towel over it.  That way, the starter wouldn’t dry out and it could still catch a bunch of those wild yeast cells.

Every day, you want to stir your sourdough starter, but just leave it in a somewhat warm place for 4 or 5 days, until it starts smelling sour.  After that, cover it up tight and put it all in the fridge.

To feed your starter, you want to remove one cup of it once every two weeks or so, and replace it with a cup of flour and a half cup of warm water.  Mix it up and leave it out overnight, that way the yeast can use the warmth as a lovely, livable environment to eat the new starches you’ve fed to it.  After that, you can put it back in the fridge – covered up, of course.

You can bake a variety of breads and pastries with the cup of starter you’ve removed, but that’s a story for next time.

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