Cooking, Craftsmanship

Sourdough Starter Is a Living Thing

“Sourdough starter is a living thing,” author Stephen Yafa told us on a warm Saturday afternoon in August. “Think of it as being the union of lovers. Yeast falls in love with lactobacillus and together, they’re perfectly harmonious.”

Yafa had a bowl full of love with him when he joined us in our upstairs Grange to demonstrate his sourdough starter recipe and support his new book, Grain of Truth: The Real Case For and Against Wheat and Gluten.

Turns out, your main job with starter is simply to provide what Yafa calls a “honeymoon suite.” Yeast and lactobacillus, he says, “like to be left alone, fed, and to be safe in a warm, hospitable place.”

An award-winning North Bay journalist and screenwriter, Yafa fell upon the topic of starters and yeast and gluten and wheat and lovers when his wife came home from a spa day announcing that she had “gluten neck.” Whatever that is.

And indeed, what the heck is it? Yafa was intrigued.

Grain of Truth follows wheat from the good old days when it harmed only those with true celiac disease through to today, where the majority of the wheat consumed in the U.S. has been disastrously stripped of its nutrition and vitality and is quite literally making us all sick.

Like Tartine’s Chad Robertson — who also became interested in heirloom wheat and ancient grains in an effort to help his gluten-intolerant wife  — Yafa bakes whole wheat bread that has an extraordinarily long rising time, usually 16 to 18 hours. This extended fermentation produces loaves that those who are ordinarily gluten intolerant can consume with pleasure. (It is still not edible for those with celiac disease.)

But none of this yummy goodness can happen without the starter — a mix of whole flour, water, wild yeast, and bacteria that takes about two weeks to mature and, when properly maintained, can last a lifetime.

“The starter is the engine that drives the sourdough,” Yafa said. “It can be a legacy that you can pass to other generations.”

SHED’s pastry chef Lorrette Patzwald understands Yafa’s point of view.

“For me, the process of building a new starter is akin to bringing home a new baby,” she says. “You can glean advice from professionals and read about how to take care of it in books, but it’s entirely up to you to figure out what it takes to help it thrive.”

Patzwald has been so successful at keeping her starter thriving that she’s named it “Shirley.” Of course we’re not kidding.

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“Once I was able to get consistently good results with my new starter it was time to give her a name,” Patzwald explains. “Shirley is not just used for bread. She gives additional depth of flavor to the Little Shirley cookies sold at our coffee bar. She has also made appearances in pancakes, shortcakes, and waffles. Shirley has traveled to the Gold Coast of Long Island and to Greenwich Village for a bread baker’s competition.

“I often offer some Shirley to my baking students,” she says. “Hence there is little bit of her here and there around the Bay Area.”

Once you have a stable starter — regardless of its name — you have the basis for your bread. Using some of the starter, you add flour to create a levain basis for your loaves.

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“You’re doing a ‘build,'” Yafa explained. “The levain reduces the vinegary quality of the starter. You want to balance sour and sweetness.”

By taking some of the starter and mixing it with flour to make a dough, you’re also ensuring that there is enough starter to continue on to its next iteration. You want a wet dough, Yafa assured, and you want to slap it about to wake it up.

Several audience members gamely stood with Yafa slapping dough to awaken its gluten. He appeared to be delighted.

“You will screw it up,” he assured the audience happily. “Everyone screws up. So what. Throw it out and start again.”

Stephen Yafa’s Sourdough Starter Tips

  • Use non-chlorinated filtered water for both your starter and your levain to nurture the growth of good bacteria.
  • Use organic whole grain wheat or rye flours, not all-purpose. They’re more nutritious and offer more fuel to the microorganisms that will build your starter.
  • An electric plant propagation bed used to help sprout seeds is a nice way to keep your starter warm during its first few weeks. Place your bowl on it and leave it.
  • Buy a digital kitchen scale and use it. It takes the element of volume out of your recipe and reduces everything to weight. (Be certain, however, that you measure water and flour in the same signature. Yafa once tried to make bread with the water in ounces and the flour in grams. He needed a bathing suit, he says, to handle the ensuing tsunami.)
  • Try to use your clean, freshly washed and carefully dried hands to handle the dough, not a mixer’s dough hook. You can feel the gluten strands hardening and you can transfer more natural bacteria to your starter if you use your hands. Plus, it just feels good!
  • Need help, direction, or inspiration? The King Arthur Flour website is Yafa’s go-to site.