Me and My Starter

I forgot to bring my thermometer, to the Hampton Inn in Gary, Indiana. This has nothing to do with any aspect of food safety, which really is what that thermometer was built for. I didn’t need it for any other health reasons either, I wasn’t sick when I left home, and I wasn’t worried about fallout from the decaying steel plants nearby. The thermometer wasn’t even for me; it was for my travelling companion, my sourdough bread starter.

It was a trip to France that really cemented my love of good bread. That may be both the most elitist, and at the same time the least surprising, statement you’ll ever read on this blog. France also cemented my love of cheese, wine, duck-fat potatoes, strawberries, and small local farmers markets too – France is a pretty cool place for a food lover. But their attitude towards bread was possibly the most inspirational. France isn’t immune to the fast food culture that we fight against in the US. But it’s a place where an independently owned boulangerie isn’t just able to thrive; it’s an expected part of each neighborhood. Becoming a master bread baker, working your way up from apprenticeship, isn’t just a quirky modern career, half influenced by reality shows on the food network. It’s an excepted and distinguished trade, passed down through families as often now as it was two centuries ago.

And I bet every place I passed on the streets of Paris had a sourdough bread starter bubbling away in the back. They’d probably call it a levain, and use it in their pain de levain, not in the baguettes which are usually raised with commercial yeast. The baguettes were great too, soft and light inside with a perfectly crackly crust outside. But there’s a reason why the best Paris bakeries make their baguettes twice a day, why “day old” bread is considered second class. Yeast-risen baguettes are fragile. The best sourdough breads, like those from the great Poilane bakery, can be said to actually get better after a day.

Upon returning home, my wife and I were convinced to give it a try ourselves. We bought Nancy Silverton’s bread book and set to work. There are probably a thousand bread books with starter recipes; I can’t say Nancy’s is the best. But it’s the one we used, I like it, and I haven’t been motivated to find another. I won’t reprint the whole thing here, but stop by a Slow Food event sometime and I’ll share it with you.

The basic idea of a bread starter is this: capture the right kind of wild yeasts that make bread rise, feed them, and give them the optimum environment to live. In her book, she uses organic grapes for the initial yeast, because grape skins naturally harbor the right kinds of friendly yeast. You take the grapes, mash them up with flour and water, and let it sit.

I’ll be honest with you, it gets worse before it gets better. The yeast eats the flour, the grapes break down into purplish liquid, the whole thing stews and ferments a bit. It smells sort of like something in the category of other fermented foods, maybe cheese, but really really intense, and not something you want to eat. After a few days you pull the grapes out, and add some more fresh flour and water. As time passes, the good yeast seems to win the battle with the lesser organisms. The smell lightens to something closer to a strong beer, light and yeasty.

Now our starter is ready to use. It has to be fed three times a day, every day, with flour and a certain temperature of water. In the morning, you separate the starter you’ll use for that day’s baking, and the rest of the starter gets the first feeding of the next day.

So it’s a needy little pet, that’s for sure. And just like a pet, if you don’t feed it… not good. Which brings us back to the Hampton Inn. Soon after the starter was ready, I had a business trip planned to Chicago, and Renee was coming with me. Our dogs could go to the kennel, but we had no babysitter for the starter, so the starter was headed to the Windy City with us. Packed in its own suitcase with the flour, a kitchen scale, measuring cups, bowls, and a wisk, it followed us in and out of 4 hotels from Detroit to Chicago and back. In the tiny sinks of tiny bathrooms, we tried to adjust the faucet to our best estimate of 78 degree water, with the bowl of bubbling starter balanced precariously on the edge. Those same sinks washed our bowls and wisk in the morning, after that day’s allotment of starter for baking went down the drain (we’re crazy, but we’re not going to try baking bread in a Hampton Inn).

Our starter, frankly, seemed to love the trip. A living starter will draw additional wild yeasts from the air around it, joining its buddies already in the brew. That’s why a sourdough starter transported from Paris or San Francisco will never make bread that tastes the same as where it came from, it’s simply not the same starter any more. The wild yeasts in the air of Gary Indiana seemed especially appealing, and it bubbled away happily in the backseat while I travelled to my appointments.

We’ve been through a few different versions of sourdough starters since then, as time and moves to new cities have taken their toll. Somewhere along the way, we also learned that a healthy starter can take a break in the refrigerator, whenever we need our own break from thrice daily feedings. For up to a month or two, the starter will go dormant, then we pull it out and feed it and we’re baking bread in a few days. The bread I brought to Sunday’s Slow Food Swap, that starter was still hibernating the Wednesday before.

The key word is healthy though, this works for established starters only. About a year ago we decided to build our latest starter, and began the process with some nice farmers market grapes. A few days into the process we realized the bad timing – we had an overnight trip to Boston coming up, to visit family and pickup our Goddaughter. Our nieces and nephew couldn’t have been more fascinated when we pulled the bubbling container of flour and water from our suitcase in the Courtyard Marriot. They helped us with the feedings that day, and it was a good lesson related to both food and responsibility. Apparently I had learned a bit about responsibility myself in the years since my first bread starter. This time I remembered the thermometer.

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