It’s been almost ten years since I really got serious about sourdough baking. That was when I retired and determined to learn as much as I could about how to bake a really good loaf of bread – and you can’t go about doing that without learning something about your subject! I wanted to pause and take a good deep breath today and recount some of what I’ve learned over the past ten years about sourdough.
I have grown to love microbes, both intellectually, and as my personal friends. Oh yeah, I know there are microbes that will kill us – but I also know that we are dependent on more friendly microbes for our very existence – and it’s easier to love these microbes, right? Especially when you know that your microbial friends are hard at work fighting against your microbial enemies. My sourdough starter is one of my microbial friends.
When I first started down this sourdough path, I was taken with the complexity of working with sourdough, and just how difficult it was to keep my starter alive and well – to my mind, it was a fragile life form that was just looking for an excuse to die off on me. Well, my friends, after ten years of living with my sourdough friend, the first thing I can tell you is that as a life form, my sourdough starter -and all his relatives- are FAR more likely to live on into the future than are we! In fact, with all our self proclaimed knowledge and intelligence, we are among the most fragile of the world’s life forms in existence today – and science is quite clear about our potential for long-term existence – and it ain’t good!
However, microbes have several life sustaining abilities that we -as supposedly smart as we are- simply do not possess. They can, when conditions get really bad, go into a hibernation that can go on for millions of years, or longer, and then begin their normal life activities again. Is this not the secret of life, or at least the avoidance of death, that mankind has searched for since cavemen began talking to each other?
And if that ain’t enough, recent research suggests that microbes have yet one more life advantage – when faced with the challenge of losing one of the very required elements of life itself -something mankind thought sacred- microbes seem able to literally change the nature of life itself, and to substitute a new element for a missing required element! Now that, my friends, is simply mind-boggling, and suggests that perhaps microbes may be indestructible!
And yet, we worry about our sourdough starter dying! No, my friends, I think our fears are ill founded – we should be worrying about our own life potential, and let the starter get on with its life. Here’s what my observations over ten years have thus far taught me.
Once your sourdough starter has sprung to life and is able to produce a loaf of bread, it will be almost impossible to kill it! Ooh, I can hear millions of novice sourdough bakers rising up in objection to such a thought! Now, please allow me to remind all that life is one thing, and health is quite another. I’m convinced that millions of jars and containers of sourdough starter are thrown out each year not because they are dead, but because they are not healthy enough to do their intended job. But every one of those bakers will then say that their sourdough starter “died”, when actually it was abused to uselessness.
So, how do we keep our starters healthy? Of course, I also have a few more radical thoughts on that too – all based, mind you, on simple observation over ten years. First, I think there is a perfect environment for a healthy starter – and I would not be surprised to learn that such perfect environments are locally dictated by the microbes that exist in your own locale. In other words, the microbes that will do best in your area are those which have already fought and won the battles of survival in your area. And if you agree with that, you’d have to also agree that the most logical way to create a local starter would be to capture the airborne microbes from your own kitchen. And yet, most of us have created our starters by “importing” our microbes from some other location. But, I think that even when we import our sourdough cultures, eventually, the local microbes -and those in the flours we are using- take over our starter anyway – so may not even matter.
Frankly, I’m not entirely convinced about the above theory, however strong the evidence, since there is contradictory evidence as well. For example, witness how well my own Oregon sourdough culture sprang to life and produced a beautiful loaf for Joanna, even when exported all the way to the U.K. I’d love to hear other baker’s theories on this.
But I’m more sure of the fact that your local starter will be healthier if it is kept warm than it will be if kept in a refrigerator. Personally, I never subject my starter to imprisonment in the fridge -except of course as a part of a fermenting dough- because I don’t think it does anything good for a starter. It’s not a matter of killing it -actually, I don’t think you can ever kill a starter in the fridge, no matter how long you leave it there- but each time you subject your starter to the cold, it will take many feedings before your starter is healthy enough to do a good job. And the longer it is in there, the harder the job of bringing it back to health. I also think that most of the negative comments of novice sourdough bakers arise from the fact that their starters spend most of their time in the fridge, and not enough time recovering, to ever be healthy enough for a good loaf of bread.
How important are starter feedings? Come on guys – how important is food to you? I’m a diabetic, and my doctor tells me that if I divide my daily ideal diet over my waking hours, and consume a tiny part every hour, I’ll be healthier than if I eat only two or three times a day. The same is true of your starter. Yeah, I know, it’s already a hassle – why make it even worse? Well, my intent here is simply to suggest the fact that frequency of feeding is the key to a really healthy starter, and then I’ll let you make whatever compromise with reality you want to. Personally, for normal maintenance, I feed at room temp once a day, but on days I’ll be baking, I usually try to feed twice daily before baking – and three times would be even better.
I end today with perhaps my most radical of theories with an attack on sourdough’s most sacrosanct belief -that the longer it has been maintained, the better it is. I know this is a widely held belief, but my own observations have led me to agree with the school of baker thought that suggests that over time, the ritual of refreshing a starter over and over actually creates the build up of acids and other substances that hinder the continued heath of the starter – those bakers correct that potential by occasionally creating a new starter, usually by simply capturing the local microbes from the air, and they start anew. Here’s what MC, bread baker and blogger extraordinaire, discovered when she interviewed Gerard Rubaud, French baker extraordinaire: “Interestingly Gerard renews his levain regularly (every 4 to 5 weeks, sometimes 6 in the summer and every three months in the winter) as he finds it impossible to control the acids otherwise.”
If you agree with me that over time, the local microbes become the dominant culture, then this theory will also make sense too. I’m a believer – and I no longer care about loosing a starter.
Do you have a few observations or theories regarding your sourdough starter – if you do, I for one would love to hear them. After all, as we wind down our own human existence, it can’t hurt to know more of the secrets of life of one of the creatures that will inherit our world.
Top- The private collection of drfugawe
Bottom- http://www.csmonitor.com/Science/2010/1202/Arsenic-microbe-in-Mono-Lake-may-reshape-hunt-for-extraterrestrial-life – Ben Margot/AP/file