I’ll start by cleaning out the “drafts” folder. Deal?
“Treat it like a friend,” the man — a master breadmaker — said. “Check in on it every now and then, but don’t hover. Feed it once in a while. Don’t obsess.”
We were at a funeral service, he and I and a few hundred other lovely people, standing in a bright, sunny courtyard talking about sourdough starter, as appropriate a topic as any for the occasion.
I’d recently come into possession of two different starters, one very young, the other very old, and I had a notion to explore the early-pandemic-days frenzy (sourdough breadmaking) that I’d missed because I was otherwise occupied with work-work and mothering-work and sewing masks.
Years and years and years ago, when my children were very young, I’d gone through a sourdough phase, dutifully feeding the starter every Sunday afternoon until I didn’t.
Was I up for the commitment again, with a fresh attitude? Not sure. But curiosity had gotten the better of me, and I couldn’t resist doing an experiment to test old against new.
The “new” starter, which we’ll call red (because it’s in a container with a red top) was born during the pandemic, brought to life in a neighbor’s kitchen down the street. It arrived, bright and bubbly, with a note that it might be a little thin. He’d killed one starter, early in the pandemic, the neighbor said, so he made this new one and it was very much alive, but he might have used too much water.
The “old” starter, which we’ll call blue (because, blue top) was reportedly born a century ago. A different neighbor procured it through a network of family and friends. He hadn’t had much luck with it, he said. Maybe it was too old.
Out of respect, if nothing else, I wanted at least to have thought about how to care for the heirloom (geriatric) specimen. So I asked, and the master breadmaker (whose wife is an artist friend) answered, and I came home from the funeral and went for a walk instead of even looking at either Red or Blue that day.
A week later (OK, 2 weeks) I finally checked in on my new friends.
I retrieved both containers from the fridge and set them on the counter to warm up while I read through Emma Christensen’s instructions. (When in doubt, consult The Kitchn.)
“Sourdough bread is something you learn by doing,” Emma Christensen writes, in her sourdough bread primer. “You’re not going to make a great loaf by reading a recipe or hunkering down with a cookbook; you’re going to have to get your hands in the dough, and you might have to try it a few times.”
Through the sides of the containers, I could see that Red looked bubbly while Blue seemed flat. Something was happening to Blue, though, because the top had popped in one place while Red’s top was still firmly in place.
I opened both containers and took a whiff.
Red = Yeasty power.
Blue = Sleepy musk.
Time to make the leaven: 1 tablespoon of starter, mixed with 75 grams each of water and flour
I measured, weighed, and stirred.
Red, as promised, was a bit soupy. Blue had a little more tooth.
I covered both small glass bowls tightly and set them out of the way.
A few hours later, I checked in on them.
Red: a sticky sort of thing that responded to every hint of a touch, grabbed at the bowl edges and was everywhere all at once
Blue: a scraggly unshaven mess that resisted coaxing
I added a little flour to each, worked them over as best I could, and set them back in their resting places for a few more hours.
Blue: (hey, buddy, you awake?)
I worked in a little more flour, as the directions indicated, shaped them into loaves, and turned them into the floured dishtowels to finish doing their thing.
What happened, in the end, just to save you the trouble of a play-by-play that wouldn’t be so interesting, was this: the loaf made from the young, springy, bubbly, ready to burst out of its pants starter? Meh.
The loaf made from the musky, slow-to-wake, 100-year-old starter that didn’t look like much, required patience, and took FOREVER to stiffen up? Totally worth the wait.
It had, in all likelihood, survived starlets and home bodies, gas and electric, war and peace, countless kitchen color trends, and — not to put too fine a point on it — more than one pandemic.
I fed them separately, blue and red, for as long as I could. I made a few more side-by-side comparison loaves but found it easier to make just one loaf, from the blue starter, if pressed for time. I neglected them for a few weeks, surprised to find them both alive and well enough when I summoned the will to re-engage.
Months have passed since this little sourdough experiment, and the excitement of discovery has long since worn off.
Then this past weekend, preparing for a whirlwind August, I cleaned out the refrigerator to make room for having two teenagers at home, only for a week (ish) before both head to college. I looked at those red and blue topped containers and decided, on a whim, to lump wisdom and youth together., dumping half of each batch into a single, tall jar. I fed the new mixture, and set it back on the shelf, where it will likely remain for a week, or more.
Like everything else here, it is the start of something new.