Only when I thought I’d lost it did I realize how much I valued it.
A couple months ago, I lost something valuable. The value wasn’t monetary; it was precious because I’d created it and kept it alive for 15 years. Truthfully, I’d come to take it for granted, knowing that even if I neglected it for months, it would still be there whenever I needed it. Only when I thought I’d lost it for good did I realize how much I valued it.
My sourdough starter.
Sourdough is the oldest known bread; it remains one of the best. As Ed Wood says in his book, Classic Sourdoughs, “10,000 years later, there’s no way to raise better bread.” Wood, a physician, became pathology chairman in a Saudi Arabian hospital. He’d become interested in a class of “truly unique organisms” even before then: the yeasts and beneficial bacteria that had been the basis of breadmaking for thousands of years. Now in the Middle East, the historic birthplace of bread, Wood began a quest for sourdough cultures and knowledge that had been passed down through generations from the earliest beginnings of civilizations.
The “sour” in sourdough comes from those beneficial bacteria: lactobaccilus, which have a symbiotic relationship with yeasts. Their byproduct, lactic acid, gives sourdough breads their unique flavor.
It’s not difficult to find sourdough starter. Packets of dried starter are available; there are numerous cookbooks and websites with instructions. And I was pretty sure that Patrick Groth, master baker and owner of Incredibly Delicious, would give me some of the starter that he uses to make his incredibly delicious artisanal sourdough breads.
Still, my own sourdough starter had been special, something unique to my particular place in the world. I’d used Nancy Silverton’s book, Breads from the La Brea Bakery. Silverton was in the vanguard of American chef/bakers rediscovering the fantastic flavors and textures of artisanal breads with crackling crusts and chewy, subtly tart interiors. Silverton’s book was the first to translate the sourdough techniques and recipes used by artisanal baking professionals for use by home bakers.
“This is the most frustrating and ultimately satisfying thing I discovered: Bread is alive,” she says.
“Sourdough bread in all its states, as a starter, as a dough, as a shaped loaf about to go in the oven, is a product not only of its ingredients, but of its surroundings. The sourdough loaf you might make in St. Louis with the same ingredients, equipment and recipe as I use in Los Angeles will not be exactly the same as mine. It will have its own characteristics and idiosyncrasies.”
I’d followed Silverton’s instructions, beginning with pesticide-free grapes, because grape skins naturally attract wild yeasts. Using wild grapes that grow in our woods and water from our well made it truly, as Silverton says, a product of my surroundings. Making the starter was a 14-day process. After initially fermenting the grapes, water and flour, the culture is periodically refreshed with additional flour and water until Day 10 when it begins to be fed three times a day. On the 15th day, the sourdough starter is finally ready to make bread.
And so I began baking. I’ve never considered myself primarily a baker, especially not a bread baker. I’d made yeast breads occasionally: tasty, homey loaves and rolls. One I especially liked included crunchy millet seeds and oatmeal that kept well and made wonderful toast. But the sourdough bread I was producing was at a higher level. Chef friends asked if I’d bring it to dinner. I became confident enough to teach sourdough bread making in my cooking classes, building up enough starter to give to students.
Over time, however, I used it less often. Our kids grew up and moved out; I ceased giving cooking classes. Weeks, even months, went by. Silverton said the starter would keep for a week or two in the refrigerator, but I found that if I fed it just before refrigerating, it could live at least three or four months. A few days of regular feeding brought the starter back to full strength.
I’d almost lost my sourdough starter twice before. Once, I was putting some in a bowl prior to washing its container, which had become crusty around the rim, when the phone rang. When I returned to my task, pouring the excess down the drain and beginning to rinse the container, I realized I hadn’t put any starter in the bowl. There was only about a tablespoon left, but I managed to build it up over a few days.
The other incident happened while taking my daughter, Ashley, to New Zealand to study oenology (wine-making and grape-growing) at Lincoln University in Christchurch. During the month I was gone, we had a new kitchen floor installed. My husband, Peter, cleaned out the refrigerator prior to moving it, then thought he’d thrown out the sourdough starter. “I’ve been putting off telling you – I knew you’d be upset,” he said, finally confessing during a long distance call. He felt so awful that I couldn’t be too upset. Later that day Ashley and I went to a cheese shop. Loaves of bread were for sale; spying a worktable with flour on it, I asked if they were made there. The proprietor said yes; as we talked, I told him about my lost starter. “Would you like some of mine,” he asked. I smuggled it home in my luggage, only to find that whatever it was Peter had thrown out wasn’t sourdough starter; I’d put it in our basement refrigerator.
This time, though, it really seemed like the end. An out-of-town guest had decided to wash dishes while I ran to the store. I’d put the plastic container of starter on the counter next to the sink earlier that morning, intending to feed it. I didn’t have the heart to tell her – she’d just wanted to be helpful.
I’d been proud of having kept my sourdough starter so long. Still, I knew I could make it again. But the wild grapevines were barren: either hot dry weather or birds had gotten the fruit. “I’ll have to wait until next year,” I thought
Then, three weeks ago, I told my son, Robb, the sad saga of my sourdough starter during a phone call. “I’ve got some in my fridge,” he said. Suddenly I was hopeful. “But it’s been in there a long time,” he said. “I’ve had it since I lived in Sleepy Hollow.”
My optimism shriveled. Robb lived in Sleepy Hollow, N.Y., before moving to Boston. “I’ve had it at least four or five years,” he said. “I used it a couple times, and haven’t fed it since.”
Now my hope was virtually dead. But why not try? Robb retrieved it from his fridge. “It looks pretty skanky,” he said. “There’s grayish liquid on top, but it smells OK.” I told him that was normal after being stored for a few months. “Mix it together, add a heaping cup of flour and a cup of cool water, and let it sit out overnight,” I told him. “If there are any bubbles in the morning, call me.”
There were. Not many, though. But over the next days, Robb continued to feed it. Ten days later when he drove to Brooklyn, where I’d come once again to see my grandson, the sourdough starter he handed me was as bubbly, alive and deliciously tart as that I’d first made 15 years ago.
My sourdough starter and I are back home in Springfield. By the time you read this, I’ll have made bread with it again. But first, I’m going to put some in the basement refrigerator. Just in case.
Contact Julianne Glatz at firstname.lastname@example.org.
As a thank offering, I’ll provide my sourdough starter, along with instructions on care and feeding and a recipe, to IT readers. If you’d like some, email me to schedule a pickup at my daughter Ashley’s stand at the Old State Capitol Farmers Market, Wednesdays and Saturdays through October.