Sourdough Bread: A Starter (Part One)

I grew up with freshly baked bread. The scent of dough proofing, and of crusty loaves baking in the oven, informs my sense memory from its earliest stages. I'm not quite sure where my mom picked up the passion for scratch cooking and baking, but I'm sure glad she did.

Bread has such wonderful powers. Not only does it take a few basic ingredients and transform them into something nearly transcendental, it too has the power to raise its culinary companions above the mundane. Growing up, a simple meal of beans and boiled potatoes was frequently elevated by a few moist and slightly crumbly slices of Irish Soda Bread, slathered liberally in butter. Pasta never graced our table without a loaf of fresh bread, usually a French-style baguette.

I grew spoiled by all this bread. Nearly every single day, some loaf or other was pulled, swathed in a tantalizing blanket of aromas, from our oven. As an adult, I've taken on the task myself, baking bread with more frequency than most, though much less than I'd like.

Throughout all of this baking, my mom's and my own, true sourdough has been conspicuously absent. I don't know why, exactly, and it's entirely possible that my mom had some early experiments that I've edited out of my consciousness or otherwise forgotten. I think it mostly comes down to a matter of instant gratification.

When I get the itch to bake bread, I want it now. I don't want to have to wait several days for wild yeasts to find my offering of flour and water, bring their families and friends, and set up camp. I don't want to have to wait for the slow, glorious process of fermentation to occur seemingly of its own volition. A couple of hours of rising, proofing, and baking is more than enough wait, thank you very much.

Of course, the irony is that sourdough only requires you to wait once, and then rewards your patience almost immeasurably. After you've begun the process, after your starter has gained its footing, the thing is nearly impossible to kill, and can be (almost) always at the ready. A few days' patient feeding is a small price to pay for the tangy, crusty breads that await.

Getting started is the easy part. Combine some flour and water in a bowl. That's it. Okay, there's a bit more to it than that, but not really. If you want to be precise about it, you should measure out equal parts flour and water, by weight. You also probably want to use water that's hovering around 100 - 110°.

Having read enough about sourdough starters, and understanding the basic underlying principles, I chose to be a bit more lackadaisical. I poured some flour in a bowl, verified the water temp from my tap by running it over my hand, and eyeballed the amount I added to the flour. The goal here is to create an environment hospitable to the growth of wild yeasts and lactic acid-producing bacteria. Simply combining some flour and water in a container held at a reasonable temperature is almost certain to do the trick. These are hearty bugs.

From here, my plan is a simple one: feed it. I've read as often as twice a day is appropriate, but I don't think I'll get to it that frequently. As long as I'm providing a reasonably constant supply of food, I'm reasonably confident my starter will do just fine. For each feeding, I'll be removing half of the starter, and replacing it with equal parts flour and water, with a good stir to oxygenate the mix. Removing a portion of the starter is necessary, as it would otherwise grow at an exponential rate, and soon envelop my kitchen, my house, and the city of Houston.

For those of you not wanting to feel wasteful, I hear you can make some mighty fine pancakes with the starter you remove. I'll probably do that once my starter gets moving. For now, it's just easier to dump it, and I don't think I'm losing much in the way of flavor, yet. After about a week, once my starter is alive and healthy, I'll put it in the refrigerator between uses. This puts the starter in a sort of cryogenic fugue state. To revive, I'll simply take it out the night before I intend to bake, feed it, and let it sit on the counter.

For now, it's just a bowl of flour and water. Soon, it will be a bubbly bowl of flour and water with a weird smell. In a week, it will be bread. In a century, perhaps it will be an heirloom.

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