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How My Sourdough Starter Took Over My Life

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Here's a story that didn't make it into Sam Sifton's New York Times piece on sourdough starters.

In an email to the NYT food editors with the subject line "my sourdough woes," I described a relationship less about guardianship and more about mourning:

I have a sad sourdough tale. I was determined to build a sourdough starter from scratch and followed the directions in Josey Baker Bread, starting with equal parts whole wheat flour and water.

The starter seemed very active at its first feeding, but I noticed some blue-gray mold towards the top. I scooped it out, transferred a tablespoon of the starter to a new jar, and proceeded with feeding. I fed it every other day, always noticing a bit of mold towards the top. On the day of the third feeding, I gave up and said goodbye, pouring my starter down the drain.

The editors did not respond. Perhaps they were too embarrassed by my incompetence. (Was I too numb to feel shame?)

This is my sourdough starter (and also a photograph of the inside of my brain).
This is my sourdough starter (and also a photograph of the inside of my brain).

The worst part was that that sourdough starter was not even my first victim. The spring before (must be Mother Nature kicking in) I had also attempted to nurture a starter—this one began with mashed red grapes and rye flour—and it, too, had developed a healthy colony of mold. There was life, yes, but not the kind I was looking for.

Thankfully, Sifton's article brought Peter Reinhart's sourdough starter method—which uses pineapple juice at the get-go instead of water—to my attention. Trusting in Reinhart, as so many bread bakers do, I was ready for attempt three.

I read the recipe—squished into two (seemingly, misleadingly) simple steps by Oliver Strand—about ten times, stocked up on pineapple juice, filtered water, and flour at the grocery store, and readied a nonreactive bowl, plastic wrap, and, I thought, my psyche.

How to Maintain a Sourdough Starter
How to Maintain a Sourdough Starter

I broke each step into its many component parts; suddenly, two steps turned into fifty (all of which were vague to me: Were the measurements in fluid or solid ounces? Why were there three separate, not entirely compatible, instructions about how to feed the starter? Why was there no mention of a "barm," a term Reinhart uses and that may or may not be different from a standard starter—who am I to say?). I set calendar reminders for stirring it, for feeding it, for looking at it, for thinking about it. No, that's wrong: I didn't need calendar reminders for looking at it (I did that every time I passed the island in my 300-square-foot kitchen-living room)—and certainly not for thinking about it.

(As you can see, the interest of my Twitter followers waned over time...)

I don't know whether it was my two failed past attempts; or the sense that everyone around me had a flourishing starter that they were babying into gorgeous loaves (not to mention pancakes and waffles and pizza crusts and cakes) with their eyes closed; or my first purchase of filtered water in my entire life; or the feeling that I was throwing pounds of flour away every single day; or the rapid accumulation of a Tupperware-full of discard that I didn't have time to deal with; or the idea that I might have to start all over again; or the stupid decision to tell all my coworkers about my endeavor... but my starter was consuming my brainspace. (And my boyfriend's—he wondered if I'd be this obsessive about a child. I predicted no.)

I asked Oliver Strand, recipe consolidator, if I was on the right track. He responded at first, but thinking about my sourdough starter was not his full-time job (even if had become mine). Our conversation spews my desperation:

I can only thank the Wild Yeast Gods that I had not yet read Peter Reinhart's "big breakthrough" discovery that "you should stir your seed culture starter two or three times a day, for about one minute each time, to aerate it." Otherwise, I would have been setting my alarm for the middle of the night (or rushing home from work at noon) to tend to it.

The Trials and Tales of Your Sourdough Starters
The Trials and Tales of Your Sourdough Starters

It wasn't just the health of my starter (was it bubbling? was it rising and falling? was it generating "hooch," the slick of alcohol on the starter's surface? when would it be ready to bake with?) that worried me; even scarier was what I would do with it. Because as many ways as there are to make a sourdough starter, there are more methods to turn it into a loaf. I stacked The Bread Baker's Apprentice and Tartine Bread and Sourdough next to my bed; I dove into forums on The Fresh Loaf; when I got too tired to read, I watched YouTube videos until I fell asleep. Then I would startle awake at 2 A.M., thinking about bread.

I learned about baking on pizza stones and baking steels and in cast-iron pots; I read about various methods of generating steam—misting the baking bread or pouring hot water into a pan near the dough, or adding ice cubes (which most of you told me was kind of dumb—but that was only after I had had success with the method)—and of rising (brotform, linen-lined colander, on a baking sheet) and of shaping and of scoring (lame, straight razor, serrated knife).

And the whole time, I wished there were one solution. In college, I majored in English, not in math; I understand the school of "more than one right answer"—the beauty in art and in complication and yadda yadda yadda. But I found myself way over my head, with too much information to organize, too many experts to heed, too many contradictory recipes to reconcile.

10 Essential Tools for Making Sourdough Bread at Home
10 Essential Tools for Making Sourdough Bread at Home

When the time finally came to bake, I planned to go with Reinhart's method (I had made his starter after all). But after mapping out the schedule I'd have to follow (7 A.M. refresh starter; 8 A.M. put starter in fridge; 7 P.M. measure barm and let it warm up a bit; 8 P.M. ferment for 4 hours; 12 A.M. put in the fridge for an overnight rest—and so on), I concluded that there was no possible way I could fulfill any of my other obligations and bake a sourdough loaf.

So I went with a simpler schematic: King Arthur Flour's Rustic Sourdough Loaf. And for three days leading up to the event, I kept the starter on the counter and fed it at morning and night, lightening the bag of flour (and glopping and gooping the bag of compost in my freezer with the sticky discard). In the end, I came away with two loaves of bread—definitely bread, no doubt about it.

I think this is what giving birth feels like. PSA the bottoms are severely burnt.

A photo posted by sarahjampel (@sarahjampel) on

What you might not be able to see is that these loaves were each about 2 inches high (that is, more like frisbees than footballs) with black-as-tar bottoms—burnt from the inside of the cast-iron pot I'd baked them in. (Ah, the beauty of a photo taken directly overhead!)

Did they overproof? Did they underproof? Was my sourdough not ready to undergo its metamorphosis? Was the oven too hot? Should the cast-iron have been enameled? Should I have followed a different recipe? Again, no answers. But it didn't really matter: My friends ate it all, and happily.

The next weekend, again working around time constraints, I made bread with commercial yeast (lots of it). It ended up like this:

One of these was made using a brotform. The others were not. 😑

A photo posted by sarahjampel (@sarahjampel) on

And it tasted good, too.

My starter still lives in a Weck jar in my refrigerator. I fed it during Passover (God, forgive me) and I recently moved it seven miles, from Manhattan to Brooklyn, and into a bigger, brighter apartment (and a much emptier refrigerator). My mind is quieter now that I've decided to keep it in the fridge and refresh it just once a week (Thursday nights, if you're asking).

I do hope to give it a long life and to share it with my friends and colleagues (my family? Not so interested). And now that it's produced its first loaves of bread, I've decided it's hearty enough to name: Clint Yeastwood.

One day, I'll have enough time to bake Reinhart's basic sourdough from start to finish. (Chad Robertson's? Maybe never.) Till then, I'll still be searching, albeit less frantically, for solutions: not right or wrong, just compatible with my life. I bet you, dear readers, have some of them?

Have you ever had a culinary project take up way too much of your mental energy? Tell your story in the comments below!

Tags: Long Reads, We're Obsessed