By Karen Najarian
Well, I’m over two years behind on the pandemic sourdough kick. Back in 2020 when we were in Covid lock down and everyone was getting their starter bubbling, I was recovering from massive radiation to my spine – head to tailbone, including my esophagus – to get the newly rediscovered cancer off the nerves exiting my vertebrae. But, I’m rarely on time for anything, anyway, even my own wedding, so it’s fitting that I’m late to the party with my flour and water.
I’ve baked untold numbers of yeast leavened bread loaves in my life: basic white, cinnamon-raisin-nut (my favorite), whole wheat, multi-grain, as well as loaves leavened with baking powder and baking soda: banana bread, persimmon bread, nut breads, you name it. But, at almost sixty-nine years old, I’ve never baked a loaf of sourdough bread. I bought a boule (French for ball) of sourdough bread from the artisan baking table in Lucky’s and savored every bite – plain, or toasted with a gob of butter, or toasted with an over-easy egg on top. Rick has a sensitivity to American wheat (Roundup we believe) so he could not share in it. I felt bad for him. For that reason, I usually make bread with organic wheat and thought that this could be my time to try it with sourdough, for him as well as for my own experience.
I started my starter, the leavening agent that makes sourdough bread rise and have those wonderful bubbles in it, over a week ago. The internet has all kinds of recipes and directions for making your own starter. I chose one by King Arthur, the popular flour folks. It looked too simple: mix one cup of whole wheat flour and a half cup of water, cover lightly, and set in a warm place for twenty four hours. I used organic whole wheat flour, so Rick could enjoy the eventual bread, warmed up my oven just a bit, stuck the light brown goo nestling in my quart Pyrex measuring cup on the middle rack, and went to bed.
I peeked into the oven the next morning to find the same blob not looking much different. Same that evening at the twenty-four hour mark. Was I doing this right? Where’s the yeast and sugar I’d always used with my yeast breads? Just flour and water? How can that be? Then I remembered a question I had years ago for a Napa Valley winery tour guide: “What kind of yeast do you use to ferment the grapes?” His reply: “It’s already on the grapes.”
Being a microbiologist, that sounded plausible. Microorganisms are everywhere, especially on fruit growing outside in the dirt but, unlike my backpack meals, I wasn’t cooking in the dirt. The recipe said to start out with whole wheat flour or even rye flour because “the wild yeast that gives starter life is more likely to be found in the flora-and-fauna-rich environment of a whole grain flour than all-purpose flour.” OK, I thought. So the yeast for sourdough piggybacks with the flour and all I’ve got to do is wait for the warm moist environment in my quart measuring cup to activate it and start growing – kinda like the fungus of athlete’s foot from hiking in a river-waded boot too long. OK, I got this.
Now, humans have been baking sourdough bread for 5,000 years using only the wild yeast residing in the ground grain. Baker’s yeast, Saccharomyces cerevisiae, has been commercially available since the 1870’s. This single cell organism quickly and reliably multiplies and pumps carbon dioxide into the bread dough to make nice little bubbles that, when baked, result in a light airy loaf. Emigrants, folks crossing the prairie to the west, and gold miners in California, all who didn’t have easy access to a market, relied on their sourdough culture to raise their bread. They’d make certain to occasionally feed it flour and water to keep the yeast alive until it was needed to leaven a loaf, or more likely, “bake” frypan bread.
The recipe said not to expect much in the first twenty four hours so I wasn’t completely disappointed when it appeared that nothing was happening. What it did say was to feed it more flour and water. I understood that. Living things take energy to grow. But unlike all the other loaves of bread I’ve baked in my life where I added sugar for the yeast to eat, metabolize, and make bubbles, there was none in this recipe. I explicitly remember this question from a high school Home Economics test: “What is the purpose of the sugar in a bread recipe?” Answer: “Food for the yeast.” Hmm, I thought, the starter must be metabolizing the complex carbohydrates in the flour. I was itching to know what microorganism was doing this. What kind of yeast was present in the flour? Should I add some baker’s yeast to give the starter a little start? Maybe a little sugar? I was not born with patience.
Good thing I didn’t. That’s usually where my projects go wrong: when I use past knowledge in a new situation in order to take shortcuts. After more googling I learned that Saccharomyces, the yeast leavening for regular bread, doesn’t like the acidic environment produced in sourdough starter. Saccharomyces thrives when fed glucose. Table sugar is fructose bonded with glucose. That’s why there’s always sugar added to regular bread dough. This sweet environment favors the growth of the Sacchromyces yeast over any other microorganisms hanging out in the flour.
Sourdough, on the other hand utilizes the enzyme amylase, Lactobacilli bacteria, and Candida yeast, all found naturally in the bread flour. The amylase breaks down the starch in the flour to glucose and maltose. Lactobacilli require maltose. Candida cannot metabolize maltose and leaves it all for the Lactobacilli to consume and multiply. While growing, the Lactobacilli secrete lactic and acetic acids making for an acidic environment (and subsequent sour taste) which the Candida thrives in and whatever Saccharomyces yeast is in there, they hate it. It’s all a very symbiotic happy soup with the different components inadvertently making a happy environment for the other. Humans lead a bit more complex relationship with each other and the plants and animals in our own soup. Maybe someday we’ll be as smart as yeast and see how we can benefit each other.
So, I followed the directions for Day 2. I stirred the goo, took out all but a half cup, flushed what I removed down the garbage disposal, added a cup of organic all-purpose flour, and a half cup of water to the reserved half cup. Then I stirred it up. I guess I’d already captured the right bugs from the whole wheat flour and now it just needs raw carbohydrate for fuel. I mixed it up, covered it, and put it back in its warm little incubator for another twenty-four hours.
Bubbles!!! Yeah. I felt like Tom Hanks when he made fire in Castaway. I must be doing something right. If Dr. Frankenstein was there we’d have high-fived. I’d created life in a measuring cup. I guess something like that happens unwanted all the time in the guts of my garbage disposal but, no matter, fermentation was happening and I had orchestrated it.
Day Three I repeated the feeding and watering and tossing of the extra, anticipating more bubbles and evidence of microbial growth. Nada. WTF!? Hadn’t it been working yesterday? What was wrong? Was it too hot, too cold, too wet, too dry? Did I kill it? Had I failed? I felt like I’d lost a member of the household. Then I remembered my daughter-in-law telling me not to mix it with a metal spoon when she’d gifted me some of her own starter about a year ago (which is probably still hiding in the bowels of the fridge). So I proceeded to continue feeding the sluggish starter with flour and water and mixing it with a bundle of wooden chopsticks I’d found in a drawer, my wooden spoon being too big for the Pyrex measuring cup. Not being completely sure what the problem was and being the scientist that I am, I decided to make another new batch of starter along with trying to revive the first one. This time I stirred it up with the wooden chopsticks. Then I thought, maybe it flagged because of minerals in the tap water or even from the herbicides they use to fight water hyacinths in the San Joaquin Delta, our water source. So I made up another batch with the deionized bottled water we get from the local shop, Water Wise, and mixed that with the chopsticks. Now I had three batches. Surely one of them would work.
Day 4 dawned with bubbles in all three batches. I giggled. For some reason I was giddy with joy. It felt like hope. It felt like a resurrection. It felt something like O’Henry’s story The Last Leaf where a girl with pneumonia resigns that she will die when the last leaf falls off the vine outside her window. As long as one leaf remained or the goo of my starter kept bubbling, there was hope for life. In O’Henry’s story, a neighbor paints a leaf on the fence so that even if the last leaf falls, she will not lose hope. I’d like to think that Rick will blow bubbles in my starter when I’m too weak to feed it. For now, I fed, watered, and discarded the excess in each of them like usual.
Day 5: Bubbling and brewing, they all smelled like beer. Feeling like a new mother, I began the regimen of twice-daily feeding.
Day 6 they all looked more active with more numerous and tinier bubbles just like King Arthur said. Morning and evening I fed, watered, and tossed.
Day 7 I fed, watered, and discarded the unused again. This was the closest thing I’d had to a pet since Abby crossed the rainbow bridge last Oct. I felt needed. I felt attached. I felt pathetic.
Day 8 I decided it was time to bake. Little did I know I wouldn’t have edible bread for sixty hours.
When I glanced at the bread recipe on Day 7, I saw something about “2-4 hours”. I figured that would be the rise time. Wrong. That was ONE of the rise times. Nevertheless, I persevered.
First of all I stirred down the foaming starter and measured a cup into a big bowl. Then I dumped in 3 cups of flour, 1½ cups water, and 2½ teaspoons salt. I vigorously beat it for a full minute just like the recipe called for. I did this for the first batch of the starter before I realized I wasn’t supposed to put the salt in yet. Doh! So I made another batch and left out the salt. Then I read: “Cover and rest at room temp for 4 hours. Refrigerate overnight or for about 12 hours.” “Holy shit!” I thought. “That’s gonna take me into tomorrow!” But, having invested a week already, I figured another day wouldn’t kill me. So, after its four hour rest, I stuffed it in the fridge and went to bed. I’d revisit this project in the morning.
I know that when you refrigerate something the microorganisms slow down in their growth. That’s exactly WHY we refrigerate food. But the recipe said that these two white blobs the size of premies “will have expanded in size and become more relaxed after their overnight rest.” The next morning the premies weren’t crying but I didn’t see any expansion either. Had I killed them again? Not knowing, I soldiered on.
I added 2 cups of flour to each batch and salt to the one I hadn’t. I mixed it and kneaded it in my mixer until it looked like a “smooth dough.” Covered, it was now to rise another five hours or longer! Not only that, it recommended deflating the hopefully rising blob and stretching and folding the dough every hour! “This is some labor intensive bread,” I thought. “How did the gold miners have time to pan for gold?”
Then I discovered why pizza makers throw their dough in the air. The more time, like in seconds, that it has contact with your hands, the more it sticks to them. Looking like my husband on drugs with a caulk gun, I dove into the kitchen sink and extricated the alien life form from my hands and arms. This I did for each of eight hours because it didn’t look like it was rising. I still had to form it, let it rest for ten minutes and then rise for the 2-4 hours that I initially thought the whole process was going to take. It was 8 pm.
I decided to only bake one of the two batches. Maybe I could learn from the first if it didn’t turn out. Good thing I did.
It was 11pm when I put the round blob on a cookie sheet in the 425° oven. At the recommended 25 minutes, it did not look brown at all. I’d been traumatized ever since I tried to impress my future mother-in-law with a raw-in-the-middle nut bread. So I put it in for 10 minutes longer. Then 5 more for good measure. At midnight I had something you could use for shuffleboard. Or curling. Is this how Julia Child started?
Tired and disgusted, I left the other batch out on the counter and went to bed.
In the morning, refreshed and undaunted, I turned out the second bowl of soft dough and formed it into a round shape on the cookie sheet and let it rise most of the day in the warm oven. I baked it when I ran out of patience. Finally, an edible loaf of very sour bread graced my cutting board – warm and soft on the inside with a crisp crust that dissolved in my mouth when chewed.
After reading a bit more about special Dutch ovens for boule sourdough, I got the bright idea to use my cast iron Dutch oven that I got for making cobbler in a campsite. Loaf number three was raised on parchment and gently lowered into the pre-heated 425 degree pot, sprinkled with water for steaming, and covered with the 425 degree lid. I had to focus. A mishap could brand me for life.
Now this was getting even closer to what I bought at Lucky’s, my personal gold standard. There will be more researching and more experimenting and maybe one of those fancy boule pots I found on Amazon, but I’m proud of my spirited ingenuity, perseverance, and never giving up, one thing I WAS born with.
Copyright May 31. 2022 by Karen Najarian
My gosh, I had NO idea all this would take more than a week! But, after you get a good starter, if keeps forever if it’s happy, right? You have vastly more patience than I do!
Yep. Life eternal in a mason jar.
Love the story Karen, and your writing!
Wow. You have a lot more patience than me. Congratulations on a job well done !!! You have inspired me once again Take care💕
What perseverance! I’m going to try making my own starter but Cook’s Illustrated’s instructions sound much easier than what you went through.