For a long time, I was intimidated by sourdough. I thought it was for professionals, a craft that needed years of study and career-deep attention. Ideally, long-fermented, naturally leavened breads would be baked in wood-fired ovens, the process harkening back to some impossible time when bread and life were perfect. I didn't want to dedicate myself to that process.
Then I went to the Eco Fair at my son's school. One of his 11-year-old classmates had made her own sourdough starter from scratch, and was serving samples of the bread she baked with it. She had pictures of the cupboard where she'd coaxed the culture from flour and water. The bread was delicious, with a golden-brown crust and loads of those butter-defying holes. I stood there, greedy and curious, and asked her tell me how she did the thing I thought I couldn't.
"She loved baking," she said, and she loved the taste of sourdough bread, so she thought she'd try to make it. She read and watched some videos, and voila! She got there — to a place I thought was impossible.
I guess I just didn't believe that I could really make bread rise without opening a packet of yeast.
I went home inspired, and ready to get over my fear. I had starters in my fridge, buried and forgotten. One from a friend and one from a class I took at King Arthur's education center in Norwich, Vermont. Despite great instruction, I didn't believe I could tend sourdough — the feeding and disposal schedule seemed complicated, and I guess I just didn't think I could really make bread rise without opening a packet of yeast. My son's classmate gave me that faith.
Neither of the starters I'd parked in the refrigerator looked friendly — they didn't have that bubbling science-experiment look I knew would make good bread. Still, I took a small spoonful from one, put it in a clean jar, added a little flour and water and put it on top of my fridge and went to bed.
Learn how to do it: How To Make Your Own Sourdough Starter
When I woke up, it felt like Christmas. I ran downstairs and looked — yup, there were the bubbles! I followed a recipe from Richard Miscovich's book, From the Wood Fired Oven, adding the lively starter to more flour and water, and calculating when I'd do the next step of the recipe. By that evening, I had my first successful loaf of sourdough bread. I didn't have those glamorous holes, because I used whole-wheat flour rather than white (the bran in whole-wheat interferes with the gluten matrix you try to build in bread dough), but the dough worked, crowning up in the pan and becoming a thoroughly believable loaf of sourdough bread.
I felt silly. Why did I think it was so tough? I knew better. One look at history and you can see that natural leavening is the route most taken to bread. Everybody who ate bread had someone near them making leaveners. Bakers got yeast from brewers, or made their own using brewing materials, like malt and hops. Very early American settlers would have made their own beer and their own bread, so they had those things at home, and the know-how to use them. An 1829 cookbook, The Frugal American Housewife, has several formulas for making yeast, including one that really stumps me: salt plus milk. So, you see, just because natural starters were common doesn't mean they were simple!
I have a hard time switching my brain from the muscular performance of predictable leaveners like baking powder and store-bought yeast to the realm of sourdough, whose leavening power I am driving. Yikes! How am I supposed to handle this new superfood? Especially when the most-known travelers on this food frontier are crowding Instagram with crumb-shots of intimidating ideals.
The answer is in my question, in those words: frontier and ideal. Think of prospectors in California and Alaskan interlopers keeping starter in their shirt pockets, near and dear to their hearts. Think about Laura Ingalls Wilder using a coffee grinder to make flour and Ma tending a starter to make bread. These were frontiers, too!
The Fallacy of The Perfect Loaf
After my success with that first loaf, I didn't find a way to get routine with sourdough bread. The starter took too much tending and attention. I made it irregularly, until I saw a picture of sourdough English muffins broadcast on a Facebook group. Hey, wait a sec? I scrolled back up and looked at the griddle. I dug the starter out of the fridge again, fed it and followed the recipe, and now, this is our daily bread.
As for ideals, the perfect loaf for you might not need to be what you see on social media, or buy at a famous bakery. The ideal is the one that perfectly fits into your life, and for me, that's sourdough English muffins. That's right — little round nook-and-cranny-filled muffins.