The Backlash to Sourdough Has Already Started

updated Apr 15, 2020
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Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Brett Regot

There’s a good chance you know someone, or at least have heard of someone, who has started their own sourdough journey in the last month. Maybe that someone is even you. Because the coronavirus outbreak has kept most people at home, novice and advanced cooks alike are turning to new projects that help pass the time and are actually useful in the kitchen. Sourdough, as a result, has exploded.

A quick look on Instagram is enough to show anyone how popular sourdough is right now. The hashtag #sourdough has close to 3 million posts, and many of them appear to be recent. There are photos of Mason jars bubbling over with starter, gorgeous loaves of bread, and first attempts at sourdough English muffins.

In fact, in response to the increased interest in sourdough, Kitchn even started a sourdough for beginners program to help people out in their newfound quest. And we weren’t the only ones: Food & Wine launched their own guide, as did Eater, and the Washington Post, amongst others.

Why sourdough? You might be asking. Why not candy-making or homemade pasta? I don’t think you need to dig too deep for the answer: Sourdough is a project, but it’s not something that takes hours of your time every day. In this chaotic time, it’s also just nice to know you’re a little more self-reliant. You don’t need to go to the grocery store for more bread, because you can make your own! And lastly (and probably the most important point), bread is just plain comforting — and everyone needs more of that right now.

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Brett Regot

The Backlash to Sourdough Has Begun

But in the last couple of weeks things have started to change. Some people have discovered, after a long process of feeding their starter, that sourdough just isn’t for them. Others just resisted the call to begin with. This was inevitable.

But other people had more serious concerns. A few said (and many agreed) that baking sourdough at home for the first time is actually a waste of valuable flour, time, and money.

Because of the rise in baking — and presumably sourdough — flour has been in short supply at grocery stores. (Although hot tip: Ask your local bakery if they have any flour or mature starter to share!). Critics are concerned about new bakers wasting flour and pouring their precious resource into a more advanced, high maintenance baking process (“feeding” your starter requires a lot of flour and it doesn’t always work out).

They also argue that there are easier, more economical bread recipes for beginners that don’t require so much flour, like no-knead bread, and even yeast-free bread making options, like flatbreads and biscuits, that rely on other leaveners like baking soda. 

Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Brett Regot

What Do the Experts Think?

Do the critics have a point? Should we tackle something easier before hopping on the sourdough bandwagon? Is it more wasteful than useful? What do we need to consider?

“I can’t think of a better thing to ‘waste’ flour on then baking. What else can you use it for, anyway?” says Martin Philip, King Arthur Flour baker and author of Breaking Bread. This goes beyond just sourdough. “My best moments of the day include the minutes while cinnamon rolls bake (happening right now), or, when pizza crust and cheese begin to sizzle (dinner tonight),” he says.

Aaron Quint, the head baker and co-owner of Kingston Bread + Bar in upstate New York agrees: “I think the backlash is very silly. Sourdough baking is challenging but very rewarding. Also it isn’t really wasteful if done properly.” The discard you have from your starter is just a part of the process of making good bread, Quint explains, and that “you don’t see a lot of ‘backlash’ for people frying at home and ‘wasting’ cooking oil — that’s just doing business,” he adds.

Kitchn’s Associate Food Editor Meghan Splawn acknowledges that sourdough isn’t for everyone. “Many folks thought the pandemic would be a good time to finally try their hand at [baking sourdough] without realizing that there is some commitment involved,” she explains. There are options, however, for people who feel like they’re in over their heads. “It is sort of a shame that people don’t realize they can make a smaller starter and save, or use their discard to avoid that waste, or that they can pause making their starter by stashing it in the freezer.”  

Philip says if you want to avoid wasting flour you just need to stick to a solid recipe instead of trying to get creative right off the bat. “First, realize that baking is not cooking. In baking, accurate measurements of ingredients and adherence to the recipe is important. Once you get your groove down and make bread that you (and maybe even the people around you) look forward to, THEN you can start improvising,” he explains.

Another option is to start with something easier than sourdough if you’re worried about difficulty and waste. “It’s a really good idea if you’ve never baked before to start with something easier than full sourdough, like Jim Lahey’s no-knead bread or an enriched yeasted dough like challah,” says Quint, which helps you test the waters first.

The Final Consensus: Keep Going

So, should you ditch the sourdough? “I don’t [think so]. Baking bread is an act of love —fresh things will find their mark, whether riding in a fresh tortilla, carrying butter, or emerging from the oven, crusty and crackling,” Philip says. Plus, you cannot get better unless you try. “I don’t think any kitchen experiment where you learned something is a waste of time or ingredients, even if all you learned was that sourdough baking isn’t for you,” Meghan says.