Sourdough for Beginners

“I Went With Quaran-Tina.” 7 Food Pros on How They Named Their Sourdough Starters.

updated Mar 31, 2020
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Credit: Photo: Joe Lingeman; Food Styling: Brett Regot

The practice of naming living things like cats, dogs, and goldfish is widely accepted as the norm. The act of naming things that aren’t living is a bit less typical. Dubbing your favorite pair of jeans “Jeff” is, without question, weird. But naming a golden retriever Jeff is both cute and hilarious. You see what I mean?

One thing that falls somewhere in the nebulous grey area between the two is a sourdough starter. A simple combination of flour and water that cultivates wild yeast, sourdough starter is a living, breathing organism that is responsible for the rise, or lack thereof, of sourdough bread. Then again, it’s certainly not a dog.

I reached out to a handful of food professionals to get a quick read on the starter-naming situation. When I asked, “Did you name your sourdough starter?” I got quite a few responses. Here are some of the best.

Credit: Christine Gallary

Edd Kimber, winner of The Great British Bake Off, was the first to respond. “I’ve had two starters that I’ve named,” he explained to me. “Both names were given to me by my Instagram followers. The first was Goldie Hawn — because why not? It’s Goldie Hawn. The second was the one I started for a sourdough bake-along during quarantine. I wanted to do something to connect with my followers — a fun project we could all do together. I got a ton of suggested names but I went with Quaran-Tina.”

Molly Yeh, host of Food Network’s Girl Meet Farm, was a bit less helpful. “On a trip to Alaska a few years ago I was given some sourdough starter that I was told had direct ancestral roots to the starter that came over on the Mayflower,” she explained. “I can’t remember what we named him, but we accidentally killed him almost immediately.”

Brian Hart-Hoffman, Editor-in-Chief of Bake From Scratch Magazine, shared a similar experience with a deceased starter. “My starter is dearly departed,” he told me. “His name was ‘Sebastian Le Starter’ — said in the most French accent you can muster.”

When I asked Erin Clarkson, the expert baker behind the popular food blog Cloudy Kitchen, if she had named her sourdough starter she quickly responded. “I have! Her name is Eunice. She is very old and smelly and I thought Eunice was a good, smelly old lady’s name,” she explained. “And, as it turns out, my husband’s grandmother’s name is Eunice, so I chose well.”

Eric Kim, a cooking columnist at Food52, named his sourdough starter “Timmy” after everyone’s favorite dreamboat, Timothée Chalamet. “True love takes time and care and attention,” said Kim. “The things in my life that I love most are the things that I feed regularly: my starter, my dog, and my unhealthy relationship with Timothée Chalamet memes.”

Bon Appetit’s Rick Martinez, who is currently traveling through Mexico, told me that his starter’s name was Aleyda. “Aleyda is my beloved landlord taking care of me in a city where I know no one,” he shared. “She once made me quesadillas when I told her I was going to be late driving into Mazatlán; and every day she brings me something special: tamales, nopales, farm fresh eggs, and whole fish.”

Jill Fergus, the genius behind the food blog Feed The Swimmers, named her starter after her daughter, Shea. “When my daughter was four years old, she was playing at a friends house and didn’t want to leave. Her friend said ‘her name is not Shea anymore, she’s our sister Beatrice now.’ On our drive home from her friend’s house she proceeded to hang out the window, screaming that she was being kidnapped. So, in honor of my daughter’s fiery spirit and her short-lived alias, my starter is named Beatrice.”

Our very own Meghan Splawn, the bread genius behind our ultimate guide to baking sourdough bread, also had some help from her daughter, Ella, when naming her starter. “I have a history of starters named after TV characters,” she told me. “Previously I had a starter named Stanley Hudson from The Office. He was happiest on pretzel day. My current starter is named Jerry Gergich, which if you’re familiar with the show Parks and Rec, means I expect him to live a long and happy life with many offspring,” she added.

Credit: Grace Elkus

And there you have it: According to my very scientific study, it turns out naming a sourdough starter is not only common practice, but a celebrated step in the baking process. It’s an opportunity to be silly, and to give a name to something you love, feed, and care for like your own. In times of crisis, when caring for others is as important and rewarding as ever, naming your starter is a moment to slow down and channel your uncertainty into a living, breathing being that rewards you for years to come. And whether you name it based on your favorite actor, musician, or loved one, I’m under the firm belief that any name is a good name.

So if you have recently acquired a starter — like so many others in the world right now — I implore you to name it. As a right of passage into the world of bread baking, and as a way to find joy in something simple. I’ll be naming mine Charli, based on my favorite pop princess. What will you name yours?

New to sourdough baking? Check out our beginner’s guide to baking sourdough: How to Start, Feed, and Bake the Bread that Will Get You Through. And if you want to make your own sourdough starter check out our step-by-step guide for making a sourdough starter from scratch.