Breadwinner: Make Your Own Sourdough Starter
The first thing you need to buy to make bread is a head of cabbage. Not one of those limp things from the supermarket, its tightly layered leaves reflecting the overhead lights with a glossy sheen. No, you want one that looks dusted with a fine white powder, a finger drawn across the surface leaving behind a distinct mark. An organic, local, too-expensive farmers market cabbage. Preferably a red one. Why? That’s yeast clinging to the leaves, the wild cousins of the granules you’ll find in a Fleischmann’s packet, and if you harvest it, encouraging it to take up residence in a solution of flour and water instead of a head of cabbage, you can make bread from it. Sourdough bread.
Raisins, grapes, cumin seeds, fruit juice, a piece of someone else’s sourdough, even air—there’s lots of yeast floating around in the air, and not just in San Francisco or some rarefied valley in Tuscany—can be used to turn a slurry made from equal parts flour and water into a bubbling vat of bread-leavening awesomeness. But using cabbage is easy—this process is Michael Ruhlman approved—and after you pull off a few leaves, you can make coleslaw with the rest of the head (because summer).
Tuck the leaves into a mixture of flour and water—say 2 cups of each—then cover the container with a towel and put it in a relatively cool place. The next day, stir in another half cup each of water and flour. On the third day, do the same. By the third or fourth day, there should be small bubbles dotting the surface of the mixture—the sign that the jump from too-thick glue to living starter has been made.
Pull out the cabbage, feed your infant starter again with equal parts flour and water, and introduce yourself to the gluten-y offspring you’ve created. If you’re a nurturing caregiver and even occasional bread baker, you can make a lifetime worth of loaves rise with the sugar-eating, carbon dioxide–producing, bread-lifting power of that captured wild yeast.
In his first memoir, Kitchen Confidential, Anthony Bourdain writes about the sourdough starter that leavened the bread at the restaurant he worked at as if it were a floury cousin of the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man. The starter is described as “a massive, foaming, barely contained heap of fermenting grapes, flour, water, sugar and yeast, which even now was pushing up the weighted-down lid of a thirty-five-gallon Lexan container and spilling over on the work table where it was stored.” Adam, the baker and a fellow junkie, calls Bourdain, pleading with him to feed “the bitch,” as the “ungainly blob” is somewhat unaffectionately referred to. It’s a task no one wants to do, one that no one would do—if it weren’t for the wonderful bread the beast helped to make.
In my experience, caring for a starter, as I have for close to three years now, with varying levels of attentiveness, is a task that can easily be managed by the hungover—if not the strung out. After a year or so of feeding it daily, I started to space out the additions of flour and water, which supply the yeast with new sugars to burn through, stirring in 2/3 cup of flour and 1/3 of water every few days (a thicker starter is easier to work with)—or, if the starter was spending the summer in the refrigerator (or was left in there after a vacation), where the cold keeps it from getting too crazy-active, once every week or two.
Of course, you don’t need a starter to bake bread. Thanks to Jim Lahey and Mark Bittman, no-knead bread baking is stupid simple—the only deterrent to making a bronzed loaf in your own oven being the somewhat prohibitive price of a cast-iron or enameled Dutch oven the bread needs to be made in. But if you’re in the market for a life-long obsession, a search for perfection both aesthetic and culinary, then sourdough might be your thing. Three generations of men in my family have been casual (and casually obsessive) bakers, plying the trade of our German forebears, who moved to the U.S. to bail on the Kaiser’s War. I’m my parents’ first-born child, but the living thing my dad tended to before I came along was a Tupperware container of sourdough starter.
Eating my dad’s thick-crusted, tangy loaves as a kid turned me into a teenage bread snob, but it wasn’t until I made my own starter that I began to appreciate baking for baking’s sake. With packaged yeast, you can expect the same result nearly every time you make bread (unless, that is, there’s some wild temperature change in your kitchen). But sourdough is more temperamental and shifty, its lift dramatic one week, making a perfectly domed loaf, and pathetic the next. There’s no kitchen shame greater than finding a pancake-like object in your oven when the timer dings. So I’ve learned to tweak my recipe to avoid deflation or less depressing problems, like an overly dense crumb—the water dialed to some arbitrary-seeming number of grams (more on that another time), the texture and elasticity of the rising dough signaling (sometimes more accurately than others) what the finished texture and taste of the bread might be like.
My recipe is based on general proportions adapted from another recipe: the famed no-knead bread. Eric Rusch, who runs breadtopia.com (and lives in my hometown), worked out a sourdough version that’s cut with whole wheat flour too. Once your starter begins to bubble, his is the first approach I’d turn to.