After I started blogging about sourdough, people began telling me how they’ve always wanted to bake sourdough goodies—and why they can’t. The excuses started piling up in earnest when I launched the Sourdough Giveaway Experiment last month. Although I’ve been busy sharing my own starter for free, far more people have told me they won’t be joining the party.
Many excuses seem valid, but they don’t apply to the way I advocate caring for and using sourdough starter. So I’m kicking off this year’s Sourdough Month at Twice as Tasty by debunking a few of the most common myths about baking with sourdough. I’m also extending the offer of free sourdough starter through January. I’ll be sharing new sourdough recipes all month, so check out the current collection of sourdough recipes, drool over the latest treats, and get your free starter.
“I Can’t Keep a Starter Alive”
The first reason people resist baking with sourdough is fear they’ll be slave to the starter. They imagine a sourdough starter is like a puppy that will require scheduled feedings, daily exercise in the form of bread baking, and constant attention to avoid killing it or creating a monster that chews through the kitchen.
Caring for a starter is more like caring for a pet fish. You could feed it on a regular schedule, but you don’t have to. You could bake with it daily, but you don’t have to. Once you’re used to keeping a starter, it’ll work its way into your life, but you’ll never need to plan a vacation around it or skip a date night or family outing to care for it. If you’re a snowbird, you could even treat it like koi in an outdoor pond and let it hibernate all winter—no feeding, no using, no care needed until you return in spring.
Sound too good to be true? Here’s how I keep my starter alive without letting it rule my life:
- Keep one all-purpose starter. You could fill a large aquarium with a variety of fish. Or you could keep a betta fish in 1-quart tank. To keep things simple, I maintain one sourdough starter in 1-quart jar. To make a variety of recipes, I alter the flours, liquids, and ratios rather than having a specific starter for each baked good.
- Store a large jar. You could fit a healthy sourdough starter in a 4-ounce jelly jar; when you want to use it, simply transfer it to a larger jar and feed it until you build up enough starter to return some to the jelly jar and make your recipe. But I tend to keep about 420 grams of starter in my culture jar. Then to make Sourdough Cabin Bread, all I have to do is remember to set it on the counter the night before I want to use it—no additional feeding rounds required.
- Refrigerate it. Keeping your starter in the fridge slows fermentation. It’s still alive; it’s just hibernating. I regularly ignore my starter for a couple of weeks at a time and simply give it an extra feeding before I churn out loaves of bread. The Big Prairie ranger station in the Bob Marshall Wilderness has long had a resident sourdough starter that gets woken up for pancakes once or twice each winter when someone skis into the backcountry station.
The longest I’ve left starter untouched in the fridge is 3 months. When I returned, the dormant starter was sleeping under a layer of dark, liquid “hooch” that the wild yeast produced once they ran out of food. I stirred it in, fed the starter, made a couple of batches of Sourdough Pancakes, and was back in business.
- Back it up. If you’re worried about losing your starter, treat it like your PC and make a dehydrated backup. I’ve just recently started drying starter so that I can give it away for free. But the folks at King Arthur Flour say dried starter can keep up to 10 years. Dehydrating is also a great way to store your starter if you’re leaving town for several months.
“I’m Too Busy to Bake”
Baking seems time-consuming to many people: they can’t envision having a career, a family, or a life if they bake at home. But they’re confusing the resting time with the hands-on time it takes to make dough.
This is particularly true of sourdough. Sourdough behaves and tastes better the longer you let it sit and do its thing. If I want to make sourdough pizza for dinner, I set out the starter the night before, make the dough while I’m eating breakfast and answering emails, and throw it in the fridge until dinnertime. The total amount of time I spend actually doing something to the dough? 20 minutes.
If you think you’re too busy to bake, these tricks will help you fit sourdough into your life:
- Plan ahead. If you’re baking occasionally and refrigerating your starter, you’ll need to let it warm up before you use it. So if you want pizza Tuesday when you get home from the office, set your starter on the counter Monday morning and make your dough Monday after work. Then store it in the fridge until Tuesday. Get invited for drinks and a bite out that night? No problem: your dough is ready to go and will keep in the fridge until later in the week.
- Be a multitasker. Working with sourdough means spending a few minutes with your hands on the dough and then letting it rest. So when you get home Monday, mix your dough before you start preparing dinner and then do your quick kneads amid your chopping and cooking. By the time dinner’s on the table, the dough for Tuesday’s pizza will be in the fridge.
- Set a timer. Sourdough is forgiving: I’ve gotten halfway through making bread, needed to leave the house for a few hours, and simply stashed the dough in the fridge until I could bring it back to room temperature and carry on. But you’ll get the most consistent results if you follow the recipe’s timing. By setting a timer, you’ll know when to take a break from dinner prep or laundry and spend 30 seconds kneading your dough.
- Make it fit. Once you get comfortable working with your sourdough starter, you’ll start finding ways to fit it into your life. Perhaps kitchen multitasking isn’t your thing but you love crosswords: Make your pizza dough Sunday morning, and you have an excuse to curl up with a crossword and coffee between kneads. Sourdough pizza dough also freezes well: You can make a double batch on a free evening while listening to your favorite podcasts, freeze the balls of dough, and then simply move a dough ball from the freezer to the fridge before you leave for work.
“I Can’t Have Gluten”
“I’m gluten intolerant” is a popular refrain. But your limited- or no-gluten diet doesn’t have to rule out sourdough. Sourdough’s wild yeast starts the digestion process for you, breaking down gluten, neutralizing phytic acid, and releasing micronutrients. The long, slow fermentation makes it easier for your body to digest the dough’s wheat.
Homemade sourdough is about as simple as bread products get. It’s just flour, water, and salt—no added enzymes, preservatives, emulsifiers, or improvers. Studies have found sourdough can be beneficial for people with or at risk for diabetes and that people with digestive issues may have less bloating, gas, and other symptoms.
I’m not a nutritionist or doctor, so by all means talk with yours if you want to try sourdough but have health concerns. If your doctor still recommends gluten-free bread, ask whether you could try a gluten-free starter. The culture I’m giving away this month contains gluten, but you can buy gluten-free starters from other sources.
Twice as Tasty
If I’ve convinced you that you can and should bake with sourdough, check out the Sourdough Giveaway Experiment post to find out how to get your free sourdough starter. Then read through the current collection of sourdough recipes to decide what you want to try.
Once you’ve woken up your starter and practiced with a couple of sourdough breakfasts, I suggest trying your hand at Sourdough Pizza Dough, because I’ll be posting two new recipes that use the same dough next week. My taste testers have already given their seal of approval to the focaccia, bun, and cinnamon roll recipes I’ll be sharing over the next few weeks. Happy Sourdough Month!
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