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Meet the new guy I’ve been obsessing over for the last couple of weeks.

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He’s a sourdough starter and I raised him myself! Back in the old days, before you could get those packets of yeast at the supermarket, bakers would have to catch and raise their own yeast if they wanted leavened bread. The cool thing is that when you catch wild yeast, some beneficial bacteria get caught too; these are the bacteria that give sourdough that tangy flavor. And the combinations of yeast and bacteria are different in every region, which is part of the reason why a French pain au levain tastes different from San Francisco sourdough.

Raising a starter is as simple as mixing together some flour and water, then letting it sit in a warm spot for a few days. The yeast and bacteria in the air work their way into the flour and water slurry and start eating the carbohydrates in it. Then you “train” the little guy by discarding a bit, then feeding the rest with more flour and water. Eventually the culture grows, eats, and burps little carbon dioxide bubbles in a predictable manner, and that’s when it’s ready to use for baking. It really is very much like having a pet: daily feedings, a little warm corner for him to sleep in, and he has the potential to give you many years of joy.

His name is Jean-Bapyeast. I wanted a really French name, a friend suggested Jean-Baptiste, and Edna punned it into Jean-Bapyeast. Excellent, non?

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There are a lot of things you can do with a natural sourdough starter, including, of course, making bread. I’ve tried my hand at a couple of loaves but haven’t quite nailed down my perfect recipe yet. The loaf above was my first, and unfortunately it deflated a bit while I was transferring it to the baking vessel, resulting in a denser loaf than I prefer. We’ll get there, and until then, try raising a sourdough starter for yourself. There’s really nothing cooler than making tasty bread out of nothing but flour, water, salt, and some microorganisms you gathered from the air.

Sourdough Starter

Inspired by xo breakfast.

  1. You’ll need a bunch of flour. I used a combination of unbleached white bread flour and whole wheat flour, but a lot of different flours will work. Experiment with rye, spelt, etc. Just make sure it’s unbleached, as the chemicals used for bleaching flour can kill some of the natural yeast in the wheat.
  2. Mix equal portions of water (filtered or bottled) and flour in a clean, preferably clear container. I used 100g each of flour and water in a pint-sized mason jar. Use your clean hands to mix everything together, clean up the sides of the container, and cover with a thin, clean cloth.
  3. Leave the starter in a warm place for about three days. There might be some bubbles in your starter, and it might smell like stinky cheese. If it does, congratulations! You’ve caught yourself some wild yeasts. If not, leave it for another day or two until you see bubbles and smell stinkiness.
  4. Now start feeding your starter. Discard all but 20g of starter, and mix with 40g water and 40g flour. You can actually feed it in any ratio of 1:2:2 of starter:water:flour, if you want a bigger starter to work with.
  5. Feed it every 24 hours or every 12 hours; depending on how doting a mother/girlfriend/guardian you want to be. I found that a 12-hour feeding schedule made my starter much more active.
  6. Watch and smell your starter often. After a day or two of feeding, it should stop smelling like gym socks. After feeding, it should smell slightly sweet and flour-ey, and then a bit like overripe fruit, and then like beer. It should rise for a few hours, then deflate.
  7. After 14-21 days, your starter should be expanding to about twice its original volume after 4-6 hours, then collapsing. Once this expansion becomes predictable, your starter is mature enough to use in recipes!
  8. Eager to get started, but intimidated by bread? Try these sourdough waffles or pancakes!

Music to cook by: Breezeblocks [alt-J // An Awesome Wave]

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