In “Adam Real-Last-Name-Unknown,” the twenty-third chapter of Anthony Bourdain’s seminal Kitchen Confidential, Bourdain writes that Adam “could throw a little flour and water together and make magic happen.” Described as a security risk, a disgrace, a megalomaniac madman, Adam is the best bread baker Bourdain—who was then a chef in NYC—knows. Famously, Adam sometimes didn’t show up to work to feed his starter, and, without giving too much away, this results in an epic mess. But Bourdain ultimately forgives Adam, because good bread is always worth the trouble.
With uncertainty at an all-time high, mandatory social-distancing in place across great swaths of the U.S., and restaurants closed in 26 states, baking bread at home, for an increasing number of communities, is no longer just a hobby, but a necessity. And while bread, an age-old staple food, can be put together with a little shelf-stable dry yeast, a growing number of bakers are craving the rituals and rhythms of sourdough.
“I'm relatively new to sourdough,” says Pooja Makhijani, a home baker and author of Labor of Loaf. Though Makhijani has been baking bread for years, she only started her first sourdough starter in November of 2019. “It’s just flour and water and two weeks of time, in my case,” she says. “Starter isn’t as fussy as I was led to believe. It’s actually quite robust and resilient.”
Perhaps a metaphor for ourselves in times of crisis, starters are how bread was born some 10,000 years ago. Called a levain in French, a starter is a combination of (ideally stone-ground) flour and (ideally non-chlorinated) water. (It can contain other ingredients, but usually does not contain any commercial yeast.) Left alone at room temperature, the wild yeasts that were on the husks of the grains before they were milled come alive next to lactic acid bacteria. These microorganisms eat the sugars in the flour, releasing ethanol and carbon dioxide as a byproduct.
This process doesn’t happen immediately or overnight. It takes time for a starter to strengthen enough—to contain enough yeast—to bake with. Baking with an immature starter will result in dense bread, or even bread that does not rise at all. Like a sapling, a starter needs care and attention in the early stages. To strengthen the healthy microbes, the combination of flour and water must be fed for up to a week—some say two—before it’s yeasty enough for bread baking.
Once it’s established, the process is cyclical: The wild yeasts and lactic acid bacteria will feed on the sugars in the flour. They’ll create lots of bubbles in the starter—which is how bakers know it’s healthy—and grow until they run out of fresh food. At the end of this cycle, which can be altered by the baker to last anywhere from 8 to 36 hours, the starter needs to be refreshed, or fed with additional flour and water to sustain its new, happy microbial population.
Most recipes for sourdough starter instruct bakers to throw out half of the starter mixture at least once during the initial process. This is true even in recipes from bakers who loath waste, like Rose Levy Beranbaum, author of The Bread Bible. The primary reason home recipes for starter call for some of it to be discarded is “because as the starter is fed (refreshed) with flour and water to keep it alive and active, it continues to grow and expand to a far greater quantity than is practical, especially for home baking,” Beranbaum writes.
“Every time I send excess active starter down the drain, I feel a pang of regret.”
After the initial start-up period, a regularly refreshed starter can be used to make bread. Some of it gets mixed with additional flour and water, plus salt and perhaps other ingredients (like whole grains, oil, olives, dried fruit, nuts, or spices), kneaded into a dough, left to rise, and then baked into a lofty loaf. Using some of the starter to bake bread with is the same as “discarding” it, for the purposes of keeping a starter alive and well. A baker always reserves a portion of their starter for the next batch of bread.
“We keep our starter in 80-gallon tubs,” says Carissa Waechter of Carissa’s the Bakery in East Hampton, New York. “We use most of it up throughout the day, for hundreds of loaves. When the tub is low, we mix in equal parts flour and water and leave it outside for an hour to get the process activated, following a method learned from John de Cuevas, the late scientist who gave us his starter. Then we roll the bins into the fridge overnight.” By the next morning, the good microbes have done their job in those big bins, growing into new batches of robust starter.
But, if you’re not running a massive bakery operation, and only need a loaf or two to get through the week—or, don’t feel like baking daily or even weekly—do you really need to keep feeding and throwing out some of your starter every day?
2 weeks. 10 days. 28 days. 3 months. Almost a year. That’s how long some bakers—home hobbyists and professionals—say their bread starter survived without any attention. In other words: If you have a sourdough starter that you only use occasionally to bake bread, you simply don’t need to feed it every day.
“For home bread bakers who don't have to make identical bread every day, the dirty little secret is that you can use a mature starter that's not at its absolute peak and the bread will still work,” says Niko Triantafillou, an avid home baker whose full-time job is at Citigroup. Triantafillou started baking his own bread about five years ago for fun, and because, at least for him, naturally leavened breads taste better and are easier on the digestive system.
Waechter agrees, noting that at her bakery, on odd days off and two-week holiday breaks, the starter waits patiently in the walk-in cooler. A day or two before she’s ready to start baking again, the starter gets another feeding, which seems to wake it up from its long rest.
In Los Angeles, pastry chef and baker Rose Lawrence keeps a sourdough starter for a wide variety of baked goods, whether for her nomadic kitchen Red Bread or her work at the restaurant Rossoblu. “Two feedings and it bounces back,” she says. “One to wake it up, and the second to get it ready to raise bread. I compare this to someone hungover, since the starter produces hooch, or excess alcohol that’s a byproduct of the fermentation process. The first meal is to make you feel human, the second actually makes you feel really yourself.”
Francisco Migoya, co-author of Modernist Bread, accepts that this system works, but suggests that what is happening is not what most people think: “When you keep a starter in the fridge and starve it, surrounded by cold temperatures, it’s going to die, as any living thing does,” Migoya says. “So you try and bring it back by feeding it water and flour and then in a few days it’s back to life, but what you really did was start a new starter. The stuff in the fridge was incidental to the process.” Migoya acknowledges that others may disagree with this assessment, but notes that “yeast and bacteria are living things, and all living things die. Yeast is not immortal.”
And, even if you avoid the daily or weekly discards and refreshes, you still have to refresh your starter to bring it back to life enough that you can bake bread with it. But there’s good news: You can use that discard in other ways.
“There’s no need for any waste in bread making, especially if you’re willing to cook and bake other things,” says Tara Jensen, the baker behind Smoke Signals, a sourdough baking school in Asheville, North Carolina, and author of A Baker’s Year. Jensen often lets her starter go weeks without feeding it, and uses any discard in pancakes, waffles, cookies, or scones.
Dayna Evans, a home baker and journalist based in Paris, mixes discard with “a little salt and a little cheese” and fries it into a pancake for lunch. Brett Cooper, executive chef of Sightglass Coffee in Los Angeles, uses his discard in pancakes and crackers. At BonTemps in LA, bakery sous chef Neidy Venegas uses discard in a batter for sourdough fried chicken that the restaurant serves to staff for family meal.
“Discard is not strong enough to add loft to baked goods, so anything you put it in will have additional leavening, usually baking soda or baking powder, if it’s needed,” Jensen explains. “But even a weak starter adds incredible flavor to all sorts of baked goods.”
We have the lactic acid bacteria to thank for some of this flavor, since it’s still at work, tenderizing wheat proteins in pastry dough, and adding a slight tang to scones, muffins, cakes, brownies, and cookies. In her book, Artisan Sourdough Made Simple, baker Emilie Raffa adapted a lime-ricotta cookie to include excess mature starter that might otherwise go to waste. It helps produce a cookie that she describes as “delightfully soft, almost cake-like.”Emilie Raffa
To use some one- or two-day old starter discard, follow a recipe for sourdough pancakes or waffles. But keep in mind that the older the discard, the worse it will be at actually leavening anything.Emilie Raffa
To use up discard older than two days, go rogue, using some starter to replace an equal weight or volume of flour and liquid in recipes for standard baked goods like crackers, shortbread cookies, or anything with additional leavening like baking soda or baking powder.
“With cookies, you can leave the dough in the fridge for three or four days, and it takes on more and more flavor,” Jensen says. Start small, but keep in mind that a starter is just flour and water—all of the other ingredients remain the same, and will act the same. In bread baking, as in life, experimentation is half the fun. “Flour, water, yeast, bacteria—these things are all predictable. I like to joke that the most unpredictable element of sourdough starter is the human,” Jensen says, with a laugh.
Originally Appeared on Epicurious