The living being in my fridge – right. It’s sourdough. Sourdough starter is the living being in my fridge. (Although there may very well be others.) Like the tweedlebugs’ neighbourhood on Sesame Street, with rows of buildings all constructed out of old milk cartons and yogurt containers. That is entirely possible. But if it is in fact happening, this new sourdough monster is the mayor of Julie’s Fridgeville.
So yes, I am very excited to have acquired a peanut butter jar full of bubbly, pungent sourdough starter that is older than me. A CBC listener called in with a rush-hour tip while I was taking over traffic duties one afternoon and thought I might really like to hear about the sourdough starter (or “monster”) he had in his fridge, and not only did I want to hear about it, I wanted to drive over to his house and get some. Of course I did.
So here’s the story, in short: his Mom’s friend was dating a chef at the Banff Springs Hotel back in the early 70s, who got a chunk of the monster from him, and then gave some to her. (Who knows how old it was at the time?) She had a baby boy at the time, who grew up eating sourdough pancakes every Christmas and sourdough biscuits and dumplings with his dinners. He grew up, left home, and years later asked for some starter, which meant relocating some of it from Campbell River, B.C. to Calgary. And now a small vat of it is taking up residence in my fridge. Which excited me more than I probably should admit, but I love that this thing has been kept alive for so long, and has been so enjoyed.
A sourdough starter is essentially an alternative to commercial yeast. Flour and water is mixed together into a sort of soupy paste which then attracts and cultures wild, natural yeasts from the environment (as well as from the grain), and the lactic acid bacteria is what gives it its characteristic tang. The starter can then be used in place of commercial yeast in bread recipes. I tried adding some to my usual no-knead bread with very happy results: all I did was knock down the flour to 2 cups (mixed with 1/4 tsp. yeast and 1 tsp. salt) and add a cup of starter. I wasn’t brave enough to eliminate the yeast entirely; I’m not sure it would have worked. May have. In this case it just added the sourdough flavour and a slightly chewier texture. (If you have not tried the no-knead bread yet, PLEASE DO. Don’t worry about the sourdough part. Just make it!)
Truly, even if you don’t have a friend dating a chef from the Banff Springs, it’s simple to start your own sourdough starter. The simplest ones are no more than just flour and water, although it’s common to add some squished unwashed organic grapes (to take advantage of the yeast that’s naturally present on its skins, and sugar, to aid feeding) or starchy potato water to help get things going. You’ll need a week or two to properly establish your starter, and then you’re good to go.
There are two basic types of starter: one scenario involves mixing up a batch of dough, pinching off a piece (called the “chef”), and baking the rest; the chef is kept to add to the next batch, and so on. The other way to do it is to mix up a batch of “wet” starter, which is what I have, and keep it alive in your fridge, using it as needed and replenishing it each time by feeding it more flour and water (or sometimes milk).
If you want to try your own The Kitchn has some good basic instructions, as does Wild Yeast and Joy the Baker. And on YouTube you can even watch a video. If you want to visit the bookstore or library, Nancy Silverton’s Breads from the La Brea Bakery, Rose Levy Beranbaum’s Bread Bible and Peter Reinhart’s The Bread Maker’s Apprentice are good choices. Now from what I know, you want to avoid adding commercial yeast to your starter, which is a little like cheating – the packaged yeast sort of overpowers the natural yeasts you are trying to attract
It’s a fun project to take on, especially if you have kids and are running out of things to do on spring break. If they really want a pet, you can fulfill their wish. And if they don’t kill the starter, maybe they can get a puppy.
Sourdough Berry Coffee Cake
1 cup flour
2 tsp. baking powder
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1 cup starter
1/3 cup canola oil
fresh or frozen berries, or sliced apples, pears or plums
2-3 Tbsp. each: brown sugar, flour, butter, sliced almonds (optional)
Mix the dry ingredients; add the wet. Stir just until combined. Spread into an 8″x8″ pan, top with berries or other fruit. Rub together crumble ingredients and sprinkle overtop. Bake at 350 for 30 minutes.
(If I may, I need to sidetrack here and tell you that if my camera was within arm’s reach I would take a photo of my gut. It looks as if I might deliver quads at any time. I just ate a piece -plus two or three shavings- of chocolate Guinness cake my sister made for a surprise party we just held for my other sister, who just became Vice Principal of her school. It was thickly topped with cream cheese frosting that was just barely sweetened; enough to differentiate it from plain old cream cheese, but not enough to allow it to do anything but slump over the cake. I have to obtain that recipe, which came from her Irish friend.)
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