Bread

How My Sourdough Starter Took Over My Life

May  4, 2016

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).

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.

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.

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.

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!

43 Comments

margaret March 28, 2017
I have had the same starter going for years in a glass jar in the fridge. Sometimes I have neglected it for months. The gray "hootch" was scary at first, but after reading it was harmless, I just started stirring it back in before doing my "pour off." Recently I started a Sunday ritual making sourdough pancakes or waffles with my "pour off" before doing the weekly feed and letting it rest at room temperature for a few hours before giving a final stir and stashing back in the fridge. Benign neglect = low maintenance.
 
Sophie H. June 18, 2016
Sourdough is great therapy. I highly recommend it for anyone suffering a relationship break up or job loss or similar. All that thought consuming yet so deliciously productive planning, measuring, not to mention kneading by hand... A MUST in those circs!
 
Brooke A. June 17, 2016
Remember when everyone acted like starting and maintaining a starter was the hardest thing that ever happened?
 
William June 17, 2016
This article, (or at least the idea for it, as well as many of the details) seems plagiarized from a chapter in Jeffrey Steingarten's "the man who ate everything"
 
labingha May 27, 2016
I know I'm late to this party, but my dad and I have been obsessing over sourdough starters since the NYT article came out. I'm lazy, have two small children, and live in the Bay Area. My starter "started" on the third day and has produced six beautiful loaves of bread. My father is a perfectionist, retired, and lives in Portland, OR. He has killed his starter three times. <br /><br />The last time? Because he (eek) mixes his starter with his hands and forgot to wash the neosporin off the cut on his hands.
 
Lisa E. May 9, 2016
Love this post. And I thought I was the only one!
 
Debbie B. May 9, 2016
I obtained my starter from a friend, definitely much easier than creating your own. But I highly recommend Reinhart's recipe, you have to do it on the weekend but timing is not as critical as it may seem; you can definitely warm it up for two hours and you can ferment for 6 hours instead of 4. Once you have done it a couple of times, it seems pretty easy-it's like one operation per day.
 
davidpdx May 7, 2016
I can appreciate your frustrations! I started baking sourdough a few years ago. But, I was more interested in actually baking the bread than in a kitchen science fair experiment. So I walked over to a popular Portland bakery and asked the counter person whether I could by a bit of starter. She called over the head baker, who was only too glad to give me a pint or so of starter, no charge. He was happy to help out a home baker, and since in a few weeks my starter would take on the "terroir" of yeasts around my house, he was not losing any proprietary ingredient. I began to feed the starter and in a few days made my first loaf. My starter lives happily in the fridge; gets used/fed every two weeks or so when I bake; and has gone for as much as four weeks without attention. Believe me, when I have my morning toast I don't miss any psychic rewards I may have gotten from starting my own starter!
 
achariya May 6, 2016
I too just started baking sourdough bread and it consumed my life. I spent hours just trying to figure out the time table on when to start the process that will fit my schedule and have it for breakfast or dinner. I turned down social engagements because I wanted to come home to feed my yeast. I followed the Josey Baker's recipe and after the third try, I got it. You just have to keep trying!!!
 
Marlene T. May 5, 2016
Great post! I loved it!
 
Ryan P. May 5, 2016
ive been waiting for this post.<br />
 
Ana S. May 5, 2016
How I understand you! I recently baked my first sourdough loaf (fairly successfully) after killing a few starters. I am so obsessed and so completely in love with fermentation these days, that Katz's books are poetry to me...
 
marcellatp May 5, 2016
Not sure why we think our efforts should be bakery perfect on the first try. Do tennis players think their first serve attempt should be all aces all the time, or golfers every swing a hole in one? Yet bakers seem to feel every attempt should be perfectly, instagrammably amazing and the best tasting ever. It's a process and takes a while to develop a feel for the dough and notice the changes in the starter and later the dough at different stages. You've started and will do well to just keep going and gain some more experience. For me, it helped to intersperse bread trials with pancakes or biscuits or other more forgiving sourdough baked goods. Another thing that really made all the difference for me was Chad Robertson's methods - not that his are perfect for everyone, but we all have our own style if you will and finding the baker that matches you is what you need. Also, I hated the whole giant waste of ingredients thing and was so happy to find this blog post for keeping a much smaller amount of starter. No more cup (or more depending on the recipe) of discard. Yahoo! http://tartine-bread.blogspot.com/2011/08/sourdough-starter-demystified.html<br /><br />Hope some of this helps.<br />
 
EL May 5, 2016
I agree. I never keep a ton of starter. It just isn't necessary and wastes food.
 
Chuckanut May 5, 2016
I think there are mold spores in your flour. Mold grows in my starter when I don't use supermarket flour. Also when my second attempt was slow to bubble my neighbor suggested adding a tiny pinch of yeast. That gave me the bubbles I was looking for. I also suffered flat loaves for a while. I was letting the first rise go on too long. I use the Tartine method.
 
RMS May 5, 2016
Thanks for relating your totally relatable experience. Having finally decided to try sour dough bread baking, I found a simple way to get a great starter--after eating a lovely meal at a local restaurant (which serves amazing bread) I asked the waiter to ask the chef if she had any sourdough starter to share. Viola! A mason jar of starter appeared from the kitchen; after all, restaurants/bakeries have to discard, too. Have kept it going with daily feeding (when wanting to bake) and weekly feeding (when it's chillin in the fridge). Had the exact same experience with the King Arthur Rustic loaf recipe. So glad to learn it isn't just me! Looking for other recipes to try, so please post again if you find a good one!
 
EL May 4, 2016
I'm not sure I can help. But maybe I can help with some of the angst that you are feeling with a sourdough story. <br /><br />My family has a sourdough starter that we got from some neighbors about 45 years ago. The neighbors supposedly had it from their pioneer ancestors.<br /><br />About 2 years ago I mentioned to my father that I had no starter. He immediately gave me some. So I took it home (from Salt Lake to Missoula, this sourdough travels) and never used it. And never used it. And. . .<br /><br />About 1 year later, I had mentioned that I should get new starter to my father as I had not managed to do anything with the starter he gave me, but I got the flu while visiting and forgot to get replacement starter. About a month after that I got a call from my father saying that he baked his sourdough starter by mistake (actually it was another house member who had done this) and did I have starter that I could give to him. I told him that my starter had been in the fridge for over a year and that I doubted it was viable. But I am a microbiologist and decided to try anyway. <br /><br />SO I OPENED THE JAR! There actually wasn't much mold. But there was a layer of brown on top (there wasn't any hooch, but after a year, did you really expect alcohol?) and it smelled dreadful (rather like rotten fish or at least very fishy). I looked it up online to see if that was a major problem and no, surprisingly, it wasn't. Other people had been there first. So first I tried a small spoonful (I wanted some left in case I needed to try again) and it didn't rise. Then I decided to go for broke. I used it all.<br /><br />I also put it in my oven with the light on -- and it grew!! But it still smelled. It took at least 2 -- 3 refreshes before it began to smell normal. It may have gotten a new influx of bacteria and yeast from the flour I use though. <br /><br />So now I have a living starter that works incredibly well for bread. I sent some to my father who (as it turns out) had been able to get some from a friend in town to whom he had given starter several years ago.<br /><br />So that is the end. What can I tell you? Well, I feel that most of the fuss I've seen with starter is overkill. My own feeling about starter is "don't worry, be happy". I use my starter approximately every 1 -- 4 weeks now (I live alone and really can't afford (both in time and money) to make tons of bread, pancakes, crepes etc. So I use it when I need it and I rarely if ever use yeast. Sourdough is slower than yeast (which is why you see all those sourdough recipes that add yeast). When I want to make bread and my starter has been sitting for about 3 weeks (as happened just this week), I expect it to take a bit to get going (this time it took about 24 hours to get bubbly). But after that, everything's fine. I use Ken Forkish's overnight country brown recipe to make my basic bread (which is lemon flavored bread), but I expect almost any recipe will work if you are patient.<br /><br />And here's and excellent URL if you haven't run across it already. They even offer free starter. http://www.sourdoughhome.com/index.php<br />On the website they tell you how to preserve sourdough by drying it (and King Arthur Flour tells you that as well).<br /><br />I keep my starter pretty well hydrated (its a very liquid starter) and only use unbleached all purpose to maintain it. However I've used different flours to make bread and it works with all of those. I have found mold in my starter, but have taken what I need (from as far from the mold as possible. I then bleach the container (I like my starter jar).<br /><br />Anyway, good luck and hopefully you'll stop worrying. . .<br /><br />
 
ang W. May 4, 2016
oh my...i have been contemplating embarking on a sourdough journey after some buch and water kefir success, but haven't quite fully engaged yet...i am not sure if i am ready for what i am fear will be similar to your level of obsession, i mean, passion.
 
Frederique M. May 5, 2016
start it with your booch! saves MUCH of the early misery!<br />
 
Kent Z. May 4, 2016
Maybe it was luck, maybe I have a "golden touch", but I ended up with a vibrant, hungry starter with a consistent rise and fall after 3 days. Read about it here: http://bushleaguebaker.blogspot.com/<br />Sorry to hear about everyone's frustrations.
 
j May 4, 2016
I purchased sourdough starter in a cutesy jar from a crunchy farmer's market dude with some authentic-looking loaves scattered about on his tables for five or ten bucks and I have NO REGRETS.
 
Alexandra S. May 4, 2016
Here's one more idea for you: kombucha. When I was in CA recently, a guy at a coffee shop told me he had been making his sourdough starter with kombucha. I didn't have time to get details, but i've been thinking about it ever since. Now get some sleep, Sarah!! This was hilarious by the way.
 
Frederique M. May 5, 2016
I prepared my 6-8 month old starter using the dregs off the bottom of my kombucha brew and its wonderful! Just used the chalky brew from the bottom to replace water at the creation of the starter and then continue feeding with water and flour as usual. It lifts off after a few days (instead of a few weeks!) and is much more resistant to mold as the yeasts and lacto-bacilli are already present from the booch!