No matter where you grew up, there are some flavors that transport you back home in an instant. Being a native of the San Francisco Bay Area, there’s nothing that reminds me of childhood breakfasts and afternoon snacks more than a slice of toasted sourdough bread, slathered in butter (or, rather, Imperial Margarine, if we’re going to be really authentic.)
I’ve lived in New York City for nearly 10 years now, and even though there’s no shortage of good bakeries, I still crave that inimitable taste of really sour sourdough bread. On a visit home last winter, I was rebuffed in my attempts to buy some sourdough starter from a couple of San Francisco’s noteworthy bakeries. So I was left with no other choice but to make my own.
Just like wine, naturally leavened sourdough bread has a sense of terroir — the flavor and character of the land from where it came. This is because, rather than using commercial yeast to leaven the bread, sourdough is made using the wild yeast that occurs naturally in the flour and in the air all around us. That’s why any bread I might make in my Brooklyn kitchen will never taste quite the same as if I made it in San Francisco (or Kansas City, or Paris …), but it was still worth a try.
Creating and sustaining a sourdough starter is a bit like having a pet — a low-maintenance one. It’s a living thing, and it needs regular feeding.
You begin with a simple mixture of organic stone-ground flour and spring water, and continue to add more flour and water to it each day for four days, after which time the combination of wild yeasts in the flour and from the air should be thriving, creating bubbles and an unmistakable funky, tangy aroma. I happen to live up the street from the Sixpoint Craft Ales brewery, the kind of place where the air is especially rich with yeasts. So I negotiated a deal with the brewers: a corner of shelf space in the brewery to get my sourdough started, in exchange for some fresh loaves once the starter came to life.
A dough leavened by wild yeasts won’t rise as quickly as one made with commercial yeasts. It can take six hours or more to mix, ferment, proof, and bake a batch of bread. The result of that extended fermenting and proofing time, though, is a texture and complexity of flavor that simply cannot be duplicated by any quickie bread-making method. It’s not for the impatient, but it’s an enchanting labor of love, and immensely satisfying to share bread this good that you baked yourself.
If you’re ready to take on the adventure of growing your own sourdough, here’s the book I used to guide me on my way: “Bread Alone: Bold Fresh Loaves from Your Own Hands” by Daniel Leader and Judith Blahnik.