Earlier this summer my sourdough starter croaked.
The last time it happened, in the late winter of 2009, was traumatic. I’d brought that starter with me from Washington, D.C., in 1985; it was pretty much my last tangible link to my lesbian-feminist community days. In addition, I’d heard over and over again how hard it was to get a new starter going. Living starter-less was almost as unthinkable as living dog-less. What to do, what to do?
Starting a new starter turned out to be not hard at all, and out of that whole experience I wrote one of the best essays of my life, “And Will Rise? Notes on Lesbian Extinction,” which was published online in Trivia 10.
So this time I didn’t panic, I just set about starting a new starter. The method that worked before worked again:
Pour a cup of skim milk (either reconstituted powdered or straight from the carton) into a bowl. Leave it out on the counter for a couple of days. When it starts to look like custard and smells a little sour, whisk in a cup of unbleached white flour and leave it out again. I leave it uncovered, on the theory that it’ll attract wild yeast and bacteria faster that way, but if you get squeamish at the thought of fishing drowned bugs out of the starter, by all means cover it loosely, e.g., with a towel or a piece of waxed paper.
After two days, the mixture should be showing some bubbles and looking a little spongy. The well-worn, greasy, and split-down-the-spine paperback from which I learned this method, Floss and Stan Dworkin’s Bake Your Own Bread, advises that if you’ve got no bubbling action by day 5, you should start over. Ditto if you get colored molds on top. This hasn’t happened to me, but the Dworkins say that it may mean that your medium is too dry — too much flour, not enough liquid.
Now you’ve got a cup of starter. Before you bake with it, double it: whisk in a cup or so of unbleached white flour and a cup of warm water (or milk, or a combination of both) and leave it out for about 12 hours. Then return a cup of starter to the fridge, loosely covered and in a non-metal container (glass and ceramic are fine), and use the other cup to leaven your bread or pancakes or whatever.
Both times, I mixed the defunct batter into the new starter, making the new at least a collateral descendant of the old. New starter usually takes a while to develop the distinctive sourdough tang, and so it was in 2009. This time the first bread and pancakes I made were unmistakably sourdough. Maybe the old starter wasn’t as dead as I thought?
Whatever the case, there’s a dog asleep at my feet and a jar of starter alive in the fridge. All may not be right with the world, but my little world is back on track.