Sourdough bread was not a part of my childhood. My mother was a wonderful baker who created fluffy baking powder biscuits and delicious cookies every day – the house smelled like a pastry shop when we came home from school. But she rarely made bread. In the 60s, Wonder Bread was the star of the bread world. My mother was frugal yet trendy, and our school lunches started with white bread sandwiches cut into triangles and wrapped in crisp waxed paper.
As an adult, I held my own in the kitchen, but never really found success with yeast breads. I found great artisanal breads at the farmers’ market, and searched the grocery stores for chewy sourdough loaves made in Vermont.
Recently I noticed instructions for sourdough starter on the internet, and I became curious. This was the doughy mass that hopeful gold miners carried in their packs to San Francisco during the days of the Gold Rush. The Boudin family bakers even saved their beloved “Mother Dough” from the Great San Francisco Earthquake of 1906.
That’s dedication to the craft.
I could already smell the aroma of baking bread drifting around my own kitchen. I could taste warm doughy slices loaded with butter and jam. As a budget-conscious homeowner I liked the idea of mastering a staple in my kitchen. So I carefully measured and mixed and allowed the flour and water blend to sit on the counter – a gooey trap for those wild yeasts in my kitchen air. And after reading how important it is to name the resulting starter, I dubbed mine Mannie.
I told my two young friends the next morning when I arrived at their house to send them off to school. “Yeast?” said 10-year-old Simon (not his real name). “How does that work?” Now, the general thought is that wild yeast and bacteria are attracted to the flour and water – but it may be more logical to acknowledge that the microorganisms are actually flour hitchhikers, waiting for a chance to drink and be merry again. But hey, I love a good story. I launched into a kid-friendly explanation of wild yeasts and bacteria that, after traveling for days, had a great hunger. They rested on the floury communal table I made up for them and began to eat, munching loudly and laughing with each other. Because they ate so quickly, and the food was so good (at least, in a yeast’s eyes – if they had eyes), they began to…well, give off gases. In other words, the yeasts began to toot.
Eight-year-old Solomon (not his real name, either) rolled with laughter. “They toot? Does it smell? Then what do you do? How do you catch them? Can we catch them? We want to do it, too!”
So began the experiment.
We gathered together materials and created two separate but equal batches of flour and water. We covered the mixtures carefully and labeled them with their respective names.
“Mine is called ‘Frenchy,’” said Simon.
“What is your starter’s name?” I asked Solomon.
He closed his eyes and thought. “White Fang,” he finally said.
So Mannie, Frenchy, and White Fang were born.
The baby starters ate and ate, and rose and bubbled and tooted, happy little yeasts that sometimes looked healthy and sometimes didn’t. We divided and stirred and made some wicked good sourdough pancakes while we waited for the starters to mature enough for bread making.
And then they died.
We found White Fang first, black and unmoving, at the back of the refrigerator after a long vacation. I pulled out the container and said solemnly, “White Fang is dead.”
“What? No!” Solomon slumped on his stool, and began to cry, just a little. “White Fang… he’s dead.”
I patted his shoulder. “It’s okay. We’ll make more starter.”
“No. Mom doesn’t like the smell. She won’t let me.” He wiped tears and sniffled.
“I’m sorry.” I gave him a moment to absorb the situation.
A few seconds passed, then he jumped up. “Okay. I’m over it.” And he ran off to play.
I love the resilience of children.
When Simon came home from school, I told him Frenchy had passed on. “Oh, wow,” he said. He dropped his book bag on the floor. “What do I do with the body?”
“We can pour it down the sink.”
“Ok. Then it can go back to nature through the septic tank. That’s good.”
We slowly poured Frenchy down the sink. “Goodbye, Frenchy,” he said quietly. “Be free.”
As expected, their mom said no to future sourdough pets. But not long after, she said yes to a pair of young guinea pigs. The pigs are thriving.
After the passing of Mannie, I created and subsequently killed Julia and Fred. But I couldn’t give up. Somehow, sourdough starter becomes more than just an ingredient. It becomes a living part of the household. I have now learned more about the care and feeding of sourdough starter than I ever imagined, and I still don’t know enough to completely understand how to care for it. I looked at dozens of online posts about starters, and found they were all different in some way. My favorite was the instructional post by King Arthur Flour – a Vermont company that is a short distance from my house.
My newest starter, William Butler Yeast, sits happily bubbling away on my counter. He is older and healthier than all my previous starters – perhaps because he is fed with filtered water from Berkey, instead of tap water filled with fluoride and bleach.
To date, I have not made a successful loaf of bread.
I have managed one step up from pancakes, with successful batches of muffins, and I make some rock star noodles. I’m still shy of a full loaf. And you know what? I don’t care anymore. William Butler Yeast is more than just a dough machine. He is family.
Before you think I have gone off my rocker, I am not alone. I recently discovered that an airport somewhere in the world has a sourdough starter sitting service for travelers. I thought, for a brief moment, that Frenchy, Mannie, Julia, Fred and White Fang might still be alive today had I known.
“When you know better, you do better,” I whispered to William Butler.
As I walked away, I thought I heard him toot.
UPDATE! I have been making yummy loaves of sourdough bread for a few months now!Here is a picture of this week’s loaf (hanging out with some super-simple butter cookies – if I turn on the oven, I usually bake more than one item). Lovely, isn’t it?