Sourdough is a hell of a lot easier than pie. It took me a long time to figure that out though. When I started working on the Texas Cowboy Cookbook, I dreaded the sourdough chapter. You can't write a cookbook about Texas cowboys without lots of recipes for sourdough biscuits and sourdough flapjacks. But baking experts make sourdough sound like organic chemistry. (Oops, I guess it is organic chemistry.) Some recommend you mix in potato peelings for the wild yeast they contain. Some say grape skins are the thing. In The Man Who Ate Everything, Jeffery Steingarten had a hard time getting his starter inoculated. He tried distilled water and unbleached flour and had to find a draft-free zone in his Manhattan apartment.
Steingarten got his law degree from Harvard. So how did a bunch of only occasionally sober cowboy cooks get their sourdoughs started without any trouble? One day, as I was changing my air conditioner filter, I had a revelation. The wild yeast I was seeking was all trapped in my air conditioner filter. Cowboys didn't have air conditioners, they lived outside.
So I mixed two cups of all-purpose flour with two cups of plain-old tap water and set the bowl out in the sun. It was frothing by that evening. Wild yeast is one thing we have plenty of in Houston. I had to throw that first batch away, though. I'd left it out all night and woken up as the mosquito truck was driving by.
I've finally realized that you just have to leave the bowl outside long enough for it to get inoculated with wild yeast. After that, you can bring it inside, and it will keep going.
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I started some sourdough this morning with tap water and organic unbleached flour. In a few hours, it was bubbling already. Worried about pollution? Just pick a day when the wind isn't blowing from the direction of the nearest refinery. Or hop in your car with your bowl of flour and water and inoculate your sourdough starter out in the country.