Rise Again

Excuses first: In Write Through It, my other blog, I took on the 2017 A–Z Challenge: to blog thematically through the alphabet, starting with A on April 1 and ending with Z at the end of the month. To make it come out right, you got Sundays off (except for the last one). I met the challenge, and am pretty satisfied with my output, but From the Seasonally Occupied Territories languished in the meantime. Now I’m back. If you have any interest in writing or editing, do check out Write Through It: On Writing, Editing, and How to Keep Going.

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Starter jar

At the very beginning of April, or maybe it was the very end of March, I committed a Big Stupid. I bake all my own bread. For the last seven or eight years, nearly all of it has been sourdough. I keep a starter going in my refrigerator.

The drill goes like this:

  • In the morning, take starter jar out of fridge, pour contents into big bread bowl, add cup of flour and about a cup and a half of warm water, whisk together, cover with towel, and leave out all day.
  • In the evening, when doubled starter looks bubbly, pour a cup of it back into jar and return it to fridge.
  • Add other ingredients to what remains in bread bowl — liquid, sweetener, oil, and enough flour to make a batter — mix well together, and leave out all night.
  • The next morning, or when batter is well risen (in cool weather this can be closer to noon), mix in desired additions (raisins, nuts, chopped onions, grated Parmesan, whatever), salt, and however much flour it takes to make a kneadable dough, knead, let rise till doubled, then bake.

Pouring half of doubled starter back into starter jar

My Big Stupid? I forgot to double the starter before I started mixing up the batter. It’s said that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, but it seems old dogs can learn new tricks without being taught, because in more than 30 years of using a sourdough starter I’d never done this before.

When I caught myself, I’d already added applesauce, water, and vegetable oil. My starter wasn’t starter anymore. I went ahead and made bread with it.

Over the years I’d given cups of starter to a couple of friends, so I contacted them to see if they had kept it going. If they had, they could double it and give me a cup, whereupon I’d be back in business. But they hadn’t.

I had, however, managed to start a starter from scratch before — when the starter I’d kept going for about 25 years died of neglect. (Aside: “And Will Rise? Notes on Lesbian Extinction,” my essay based on that experience, appeared in Trivia 10 and is still available online.) So I set to it, again following the instructions in Floss and Stan Dworkin’s Bake Your Own Bread, one of my two favorite bread books (the other is Beard on Bread).

 Step #1

In a small bowl, mix up a cup of reconstituted skim milk from the dried skim milk that had been in my cupboard for god knows how long — probably since my last adventure in starter starting at least seven years ago — cover it with waxed paper, and leave it in an out-of-the-way place. (In take 2, I discovered that skim milk from the store works just as well.)

Step #2

Wait. The Dworkins say the milk will smell sour, but the decisive sign for me is that the milk becomes a custardy semi-solid. My apartment in early April is on the cool side, which probably explains why this took several days.

Step #3

Pour the custardy milk into a somewhat bigger (but not too big) bowl, whisk in a cup of unbleached white flour, and put it back in your out-of-the-way place.

Step #4

Wait. The milk-and-flour mixture’s job is to attract wild yeast from the air. Your job is to wait till yeast is in residence. When bubbles appear in the batter, you’ve probably got yeast. Like the curdling, this seems to take longer in a cool room than a warm one. If your mixture turns blue or green, what you’ve got in residence is mold, not yeast. Throw it out and start again.

Bubbly batter

At this point, I thought I was home free, so I doubled my new starter and began a new batch of bread. However, the batter did not rise noticeably overnight the way it usually does. It had bubbles, but it wasn’t especially bubbly. Was this due to the coolness of my apartment or was the wild yeast too weak to raise my batter? I left it out another day and a half. At the same time, hedging my bets, I repeated Step #1, this time using store-bought skim milk.

Lacking confidence in my wild yeast, I sprinked a scant half tablespoon of active dry yeast on the batter before I added the rest of the ingredients, kneaded it, and made two loaves out of it.

O me of little faith! When I bit into my new loaf, the telltale tang told me at once that wild yeast were in residence and my starter was sour. Whether it was peppy enough to raise bread on its own I wasn’t sure. Hence —

Step #5 (optional)

I poured the starter out of its jar and back into a bowl, fed it a heaping spoonful of flour, and returned it to the out-of-the-way place (on top of the Rinnai heater behind my desk, in case you’re wondering), which it now shared with starter #2, which seemed to be coming along fine. For two or three days I fed starter #1 a spoonful of flour each day, along with enough water to maintain its consistency (more liquid than batter). By this point I was sure: the starter was rising up the sloping side of the bowl.

Now I had two starters. A single home baker does not need two starters. I made pancakes with starter #2, saving a cup of the starter just in case.

Sourdough pancakes

Starter #1 (right) and starter #2

Saturday morning I commenced the real test of starter #1, going back to step #1 (and remembering to double the starter this time).

Sunday morning, when I peeked under the towel that covered my bread bowl, I knew starter #1 had what it took. The batter had risen well up the sides of my bread bowl, just the way it was supposed to.

Risen batter

Before 2:30 p.m. three perfect loaves were cooling on their racks. (In my experience, sourdough takes longer to raise bread than active dry yeast, but the time was on target for this time of year.) In this case, the proof isn’t in the pudding; it’s in the bread.

Ready to rise

Risen

Baked

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About Susanna J. Sturgis

Susanna edits for a living, writes to survive, and has two blogs going on WordPress. "From the Seasonally Occupied Territories" is about being a year-round resident of Martha's Vineyard. "Write Through It" is about writing, editing, and how to keep going.
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15 Responses to Rise Again

  1. shanynavila says:

    This has me itching to get my bread bowl out. It has been a few years because I started a book,almost got a divorce, and I am still attempting to raise my kids–they are growing but whose doing the raising? This, though, has me hankering to start all over, to gather the new yeast that has mixed with the old yeast in the chaotic air in my house and find out what comes out. Not that I need one more thing to do…but the smell of bread. Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Jennie says:

    Whew! What a great effort. God help me if I ever try to bake or cook seriously. That would be scary. Great post, and you win any A to Z challenge!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I cook well enough to feed myself and not get bored, but bread baking is the only kind of cooking that I’m really adept at. It’s deeply satisfying in a way that most other cooking isn’t — probably because of the physical effort that goes into kneading. Also I can put anything in it that I want. One of my most favorite combinations is chopped onions and walnuts. 🙂

      I usually make two or three loaves at a time, which means I can give one away or take one to a potluck — the recipients always appreciate it, even though it’s much easier to buy good bread at the grocery store or a real bakery than it was when I started a long time ago.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. tompostpile says:

    Considering the ubiquity of yeast spores, and that you’ve been using the same sourdough starter for all these years, I’d say that odds are good that you have recaptured your own strain of starter.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. OMG, I can smell the bread from here!

    Like

  5. From mistakes rise big things. Think of the Tatin sisters who dumped the pie to the ground and invented this delicious upside down pie.
    I keep thinking that I should bake my own bread too. Have you read a quite interesting article about starters in a recent New York Times magazine? I found it incredible that people would pass starters for years and years and would travel with them. Have you read this?
    Again, congrats for reaching the final line of the challenge.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I got my first starter from a friend when I still lived in D.C. (Hers died at least once and was replenished by mine.) When I drove myself and my belongings back to Massachusetts in a rental truck, I bought a cooler just for the sourdough starter.

      There’s lots of lore about sourdough starters. Miners in Alaska and (IIRC) California were called “sourdoughs” because they packed their starters with them. One version I read had them keeping the starter in a big bag of flour that they carried on their sleds (undoubtedly pulled by dogs that looked like Travvy!). Some starters have supposedly been passed down for generations. Neither my mother nor either of my grandmothers baked, and it’s probably a good thing, because if they’d given me a starter I would have killed it at least twice over by now.

      It can take a while for a new starter to get really tangy, but my new one is pretty good already. If it gets too tangy for your taste, you can mix a half teaspoon of baking soda into it from time to time. That tames the flavor a bit.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Fascinating! About your mom and grandmother, would you have killed the starter because you knew nothing about them at that time or are you saying something about your family here? 🙂

        Liked by 1 person

      • Any starter I inherited probably would have died of neglect rather than by conscious effort. For many years, I did most of my bread baking with active dry yeast and used the starter mostly “for special,” especially rye bread, and also for pancakes. Which means I didn’t use it all that often, which means I didn’t “feed” or replenish it often enough. Starters are more resilient than some baking books let on, but they do need tending. After mine died seven or eight years ago, I realized I’d probably let it go untended for close to six weeks. 😦

        There was a symbolic aspect to it, though. That starter was one of my last tangible links to the D.C. women’s community, which I left in 1985. This provoked much remembering and reflection (which turned into a pretty good essay — wild yeast makes a great metaphor!) Since then, I’ve used sourdough for most of my bread baking, which means it gets replenished every couple of weeks. Sometimes I feed it a tablespoon or so of flour between bakings, just to keep it happy. 🙂

        Like

  6. Looks delicious!
    Congratulations on completing the A to Z Challenge! (Survivor badge here http://www.a-to-zchallenge.com/2017/04/)

    Liked by 1 person

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