In the past year, I’ve delved into the joys of from-scratch sourdough baking. The idea that you could take simply water and freshly-ground wheat, and capture your own natural yeast culture at once intrigued and challenged me. I’ve always had an interest in learning the “wisdom of the past”, how to make things, and do things in a simple, low-tech way (although I definitely enjoy technology too!).

My first attempts at capturing wild yeast ended, sadly, in journeys to the compost pile with my jars of experiments. “Are you sure that’s what it is supposed to be like?” she asked, with a worried look on her face, as she eyed and carefully smelled my starter-gone-bad.

“Maybe not,” I said, “I don’t think it’s supposed to smell good—it’s sourdough, after all.”

“But I don’t think it should smell that…awful.”

Mom was right, and for awhile I gave up actually trying, and set myself to doing more research (in library books, and on the internet). Several sources said to start with a little commercial yeast to jump-start the process, but I didn’t want to do that. I wanted this to be genuine sourdough, or I would just stick with regular yeast bread. Other people suggested using a little pineapple juice to increase the acidity of the mixture so it would (hopefully) not mold or spoil before the yeasty beasties were well-established. In the Encyclopedia of Country Living (on of my favorite books!), I found someone suggesting that starting a new starter in the summer could be problematic in the South—she kept getting wild molds in hers! When the next winter arrived, I decided to give a from-scratch starter one last try before buying (or begging) one from someone who had been more successful than myself.

After the first few days, it didn’t smell so good, but neither did it smell as terrible as my previous attempts. I continued feeding and caring for it, and after a week-and-a-half, or so, it consistently bubbled and doubled when I “fed” it flour, and it smelled like slightly fermented apple juice (to me). I was thrilled! Mom thought it smelled like beer—which was not surprising, since yeast creates alcohol as it consumes the sugars in the grain.

The first loafs weren’t very light and fluffy, but they tasted like a favorite European sourdough bread we bought a couple times at Whole Foods. Victory at last! As my starter aged, and I continued to feed and use it, it became more efficient as raising bread, and more mellow in flavor and smell. (I think it smells rather good, but no one in my family seems to agree! They don’t mind the bread that results from it, though.)

Now I have the joy of sharing my starter with friends, and helping them achieve their own yummy and healthy sourdough bread. :)

Sourdough can be used much like commercial yeast (with minor adjustments of time, of course) for all kinds of breads. Stay tuned for specific recipes and tutorials.


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