If you’ve ever baked bread using yeast, and you are like me, you can stare into the bubbling starter, mesmerized by all the activity going on in that bowl. As you watch, bubbles surface and then disappear, over and over again. Happy yeast munching away.
The typical bread I bake is a sourdough ciabatta loaf. I created the sourdough starter that I am using from scratch, using a recipe I found online. Pretty basic stuff, I took a potato, put it in water and boiled it, then used the potato water with all its starchy goodness. I placed that in a mason jar, covered it with cheesecloth and left it on the kitchen counter. It attracted wild yeast in the air. Every day, I uncovered it, gave it a stir and put the cheesecloth back on. After about 5 days, it was bubbling away. At that point, I fed it, adding warm water and flour. Ta Da! Sourdough starter! If you have grapes around when you are doing this, it is good to leave your jar of potato water near them, as that white film on unwashed grapes is actually yeast.
The starter I made back then (about 15 years ago) is still what I use today. Anytime I want to make bread, I take out the starter from the fridge, bring it to room temperature and then add some warm water and flour in equal parts to feed it.
Starters are coveted, they are unique in the flavor and characteristics that they bring to a finished loaf of bread. Some sourdough starters are passed down through generations and make my little ol’ starter look like a baby by comparison. In fact, there is a project being conducted right now that is examining different starters. It’s pretty neat and can be found at Rob Dunn Lab. They are even soliciting sourdough starter samples for their project to research the DNA of sourdough.
I signed up, figuring that I would put my starter into the mix, if they’d like to have it for research purposes. To learn more about the project and sourdough starters in general, here’s an excellent NPR article.