It’s a relationship. A conversation. Dare I say therapy, even? It dives even deeper when you delve into turning it into something. And even more so when you make bread with it.
There are books on this subject. I don’t mean the how-to’s… but the relationship aspect. Even I have my own story with my starter- and it would seem silly to everyone who does not have one, while simultaneously entirely recognizable to anyone who does have one.
I created my own starter. It isn’t hard. I used and would even recommend referencing King Arthur’s method for making your own starter if you want to make your own. If I had to do it over again I would definitely purchase a live or dried starter - I remember looking at the options out there and ultimately deciding I would just make one. But in retrospect, that jump forward would have been well worth anything under $100! And you can purchase live or dried starter from so many very good sources for under $20. Worth it, completely. I sell them in my shop, even! But if you’re stubborn like me, you can also just make it. It is easy, just time consuming.
This is the story of my starter. It’s the same one I sell today - both dried and live. But this is the story of where it began, a few years ago.
Ryan loves sourdough. (I do not). Comically, we have a kid who loves it and one who does not. So that splits us in half for what kind of bread is best suited at the table. But, since I already made lots of sweet breads, a few years ago I decided it was time to learn how to make sourdough, too.
So enters my jars, flours, what kind of lid to top it with… all these things that I read and read and read about and finally took the leap. I had three starters initially - because I couldn’t decide on methods and I figured if I was testing one, I may as well do three. I can't imagine the amount of money I have spent on flour to feed since the beginning. But… these are things I didn’t know when I was debating to make my own or just buy one.
When we would go on vacation, I had printed instructions and babysitters just for the sourdough. Phone conversations and texts on how to handle this stuff. It was kind of like another animal on the list of caretaking. It’s not tricky, but still can feel overwhelming for someone who hasn’t ever handled starter. And because I was new, too, I probably made it more nerve wracking for the also newbie babysitters.
But it survived.
(This is the first thing sourdough taught me. It’s stronger than you think. It’s a survivor. Sometimes despite me and my inexperience.)
Eventually I graduated from having a starter that I fed - to making pancakes and english muffins - and then the super scary leap to bread. Not actually scary at all. It’s just bread. It took me a long time to realize how simple it is and how many right ways there are to do it all. And that a few really good tools make a world of difference. I will share all of those this week.
But when I first started making bread, I didn’t know anything. So every loaf, I’d question - how big are the holes? How high is the rise? How long was the ferment? I’d read and read and read some more. Fancy books. Chill, relaxed how-to’s online. And I’d start to play with it all. How to make it MORE sour. How to get it loftier. How to get a beautiful, crusty shell. What is scoring?
This was all still a very SOUR sourdough adventure for me. And since I don’t even like sourdough, it was a dinnertime classic to sit at the table and ask the sourdough-loving eaters for a review. It was a goal to conquer. Good sourdough for my sourdough loves.
Then we had the fire that we had to evacuate from.
We tossed the cats and dogs and kids and all our important documents and as many special things as would fit into the car - and we drove away. I had taken a video of the THINGS in our house incase we needed it - I wasn’t even sure what for - for memory or to list items for insurance or if I was re-building what would I forget that we loved? Ryan stayed behind to defend our home and community. Driving away was hard.
That whole time was intense and filled with everything from very intense moments to goofy and oddball things. Like I packed three bottles of Technu - why… I don’t know. At some point I realized in a panic I had left my great grandma’s photo on top of the kitchen table - intending to put it in the cellar or take it, but then forgetting at the last minute. I called Ryan to ask if he could save that for me.
What never, ever EVER crossed my mind - was the sourdough starter. It had no printed instructions. No babysitter. It was sitting in a fridge that went from having no power to being emptied as everything in it was spoiling. And then sat for days before the evacuation was lifted and we were allowed to return.
We came home to a very dusty, dirty mess of a house. The power came back on. We started to put things back together. We were exhausted and slow. I don’t remember what day it was that I found the container that had the starter in it. It was on the back porch and I thought - oh, hey, I forgot about you. But it’s been a long journey and I’m not sure I was even very good at this and now you’re probably dead and I don’t know if I even have it in me to make bread again. But it seemed wasteful to just give up while we were working at piecing things back together.
So I made deal.
I’ll feed you once. If you come to life, we’ll keep at it. And if you are gone, I will move on.
I added in the flour. Water. Mixed it up. Set it aside. Zero expectation. Moved on to the next task.
But it bubbled up and over the container - happy, bubbly… definitely alive.
And that was my moment with the starter. Where we went from kind of getting by - to besties. It’s my dear friend at this point. Which I know, sounds absurd and silly. But I changed how I dealt with it - not at all in its flour or water or feeding schedule - but just in that we were in it together. We got this. Let’s make some bread.
And so we did.
Believe it or not, dramatic event Number Two was yet to come. For all the realities around the pandemic, one of the more simple ones was that I no longer could find conventional yeast. My starter was how I made sourdough. But conventional yeast was how I made all my bread rolls, hot cross buns, French bread, challah… so many of my favorites.
I puzzled over this for a long time. How to find conventional yeast. Where. How much did I need? Flour was also an issue, so in all reality I slowed way way down on baking at all. All of the shortages definitely changed my thinking - and my methods. It pushed me to do what I could with what I had. What can I grow myself? What can I preserve and save? What can I make? It took a little practice - trial and error for sure - but eventually I learned how to use my starter for ALL my recipes.
So much so that at this point, I am very out of practice with conventional yeast and never even opened the last conventional yeast I was able to score during shortages. It’s sitting in the fridge, probably expired and not even opened. I use my starter for everything. I hit that same place with it where I was stuck - but decided to stick with it and try it out together. Let’s make some bread. And so we did. Relationships. Besties.
So a million lessons learned. A starter I have found a rhythm with. And I make more bread now than one really should. We recently went on a trip and I had to put my starter in the fridge because we were going to be gone too long for it to be on its own. It made me realize - it hadn’t been in the fridge for over a YEAR. How crazy is that?!
I am not an expert. In fact, every single bread making account that I follow - every fancy bread book I own - every internet search I have done for methods - they all do it differently! But that’s the magic, I think. There are more right ways to make a loaf of bread than there are wrong.
And every imperfect attempt - is a bundle of experience you wrap under your belt.
I still burn loaves. Sometimes my scoring is a giant mess. I’ve learned some of my personal preferences aren’t the textbook ideal - like I actually like an even crumb more than I like giant holes. But it’s fun to play with and be ABLE to make the big ones. A bread expert could critique the heck out of me. And, that's ok! Not the critiquing, I don’t really need that… but the differences. That’s completely ok.
The moral of this giant drama story is - making bread is just a conversation. It’s a relationship you keep going. A lot like a friend. That’s how I feel about mine. And I hope you do, too.
If you have a starter - I’d be just as giddy to hear what flour you use and how long you’ve had it going. I have a lot of fun learning what others do. Even if my method might be different. And if you don’t have a starter - go get yourself some! You can PM me or grab some of mine in my shop. Or you might have a neighbor who has one. Or there are GOBS of ones you can purchase online. What ever you do, keep the conversation going. It’s worth it.
My favorite TOOLS for making a starter -
You can make your own - King Arthur has an easy to follow, great recipe
OR Purchase a Dried or Fresh Starter to jumpstart the process IMMENSELY. Mine can be found here.
A Fabric Lid - not necessary but I love these because it’s perfect air flow (which is needed for the health of the starter growing) but keeps all dust & bugs out and is washable reusable and lasts
For tips, photos & Inspiration... https://www.instagram.com/pieceofmypeace/