Meet my new project.
It’s a sourdough starter that I purchased from Tara Whitsitt, a self-proclaimed fermentation evangelist who is currently traveling across the country in a converted bus, teaching fermentation techniques and bartering or selling starters to people like me. I read about Tara in the New York Times (where else?!) and took note that she would be in the NYC area for a while. I saw via her website, Fermentation on Wheels, that she’d be leading a workshop in Greenwich Village and so I ventured down there on a recent Saturday afternoon to learn more.
Fermentation is definitely having a foodie moment, but I must admit to a previous lack of curiosity, especially around the kombucha trend (it’s a bit sour for me). But I was intrigued to read that part of Tara’s presentation would be focusing on sourdough starters. I made a sourdough starter about a year and a half ago and though I didn’t stick with it at the time, I wanted to learn more and possibly try again.
That first attempt at sourdough starter was actually unintentional. A friend and I set out to make a really simple mozzarella-like cheese from scratch, and in the cheese-making process learned that we would have a lot of whey leftover as a by-product. Google kindly informed us that whey can make for a key ingredient in sourdough starter (if memory serves correctly, that’s because whey is a good protein-rich food source for the bacteria that make up the sourdough culture), so at the end of that afternoon I went home with a batch of cheese and a brand new sourdough starter. I kept that starter alive for a few weeks, feeding it weekly, and eventually made one batch of bread with it. The bread was yummy but to be honest didn’t taste like sourdough. My guess is that the culture needed more time for the flavors to develop. I’ll never know, alas, because I neglected my poor starter and eventually had to toss it out.
This new one, however, is a different matter altogether. It’s actually a piece of living history! Tara explained that this particular starter originated with an Alaskan pioneer woman 90 years ago. One of the many cool things about sourdough is that the starter can be passed down through generations or within a community. Since you have to feed the bacteria in your starter, you’re always creating more of it, and you’ll theoretically never run out.
I’ve gone through some bread baking phases, but it’s not possible to make that a regular thing with my currently crazy schedule. During her presentation, though, Tara mentioned that she makes sourdough pancakes all the time, which should be an easy way for me to regularly use my pioneer woman starter. (Famous last words.)
With my new-found motivation to jump on the fermentation bandwagon, I purchased some of the starter from Tara at the end of her workshop and was on my way. Thankfully, by the time I got up to the table to request some of it, the bowl was running pretty low, so she simply stirred in some flour and unpasteurized milk to make more. Not only was I going home with some historic culture (the bacteria kind!), whose age, happily, makes the starter all the more robust, but it had just been fed by the fermentation whisperer herself and would be happy for a while longer.
I was out of town this weekend so haven’t yet baked with the starter, but I did take it out of the fridge on Friday morning for a little maintenance before leaving town.
All of the many helpful website about baking sourdough informed me that I would see some liquid on top of the starter, and I should pour that out.
Once drained, I added about a third a cup of water, and about two-thirds a cup of flour.
I don’t think the type of flour matters, so I used what I had on hand, which is actually an heirloom flour from North Carolina. (Note to self: buy more flour.)
Then I stirred it all together, and back in the fridge it went.
Most of the websites recommended that I let the starter sit out for an hour or so after being fed, but also that it wasn’t the end of the world if I didn’t have time. For now, I just have to practice the feeding regiment about every seven days and plan to get cooking soon. Stay tuned for my first cooking adventure with this little pet, which will likely feature sourdough pancakes!
Here are the resources I’ve looked at so far: