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Sourdough starter: no harm in trying

I bought the crock at a junk shop in Madison for 99 cents.

I’m sure I would have experimented with sourdough years ago, were it not for the fact that, while I was working, I didn’t have much time for baking. Plus, I lived in San Francisco for 17 years. Baking sourdough bread at home in San Francisco would seem a bit odd, since the city is full of good sourdough bread.

As a nerd, I could never be content to just blindly follow some directions and end up (hopefully) with sourdough bread. I need to understand what’s going on. As usual, Wikipedia supplies the fundamentals. Because I’ve made homemade sauerkraut, all the concepts are familiar to me. Even experienced sourdough makers often seem to think that what makes sourdough is just yeast. But it’s more complicated than that. Wikipedia explains that sourdough is a symbiotic combination of yeast and lactobacillus. Now we’re getting somewhere…

Yeast is a fungus. It eats sugar, and the useful byproducts of this metabolism are carbon dioxide and alcohol. When we bake with yeast, the carbon dioxide bubbles cause the bread to rise, and the alcohol is baked off.

Lactobacillus is an anaerobic bacteria. It eats sugar and produces lactic acid. Lactic acid is a food preservative. It’s what makes sauerkraut.

In sourdough, the lactobacillus feed mostly on the metabolic byproducts of the yeast. The lactic acid produced by the lactobacillus gives sourdough bread its sour taste. It’s the same process that makes sauerkraut sour. The lactic acid has another important effect in the sourdough starter, which can sit at room temperature for weeks without rotting. The lactic acid lowers the pH of the concoction. This acidity prevents unwanted bacteria from growing. This is the same principle that makes vinegar a preservative, and it’s what keeps bad bacteria out of sauerkraut.

And now we can see why most recipes for making your own sourdough starter start with pineapple juice. The acidity of the pineapple juice keeps the bad bacteria from growing until the starter is mature enough to produce enough lactic acid to do the job. Then we can use water.

So where do the yeast and lactobacillus come from to inoculate the starter? They’re all around us, especially on the grains of wheat.

If you’d like to make a sourdough starter, I’d suggest Googling around for recipes. Read several recipes. I’m using this one, more or less.

I’ll post more photos as the process continues. It may take up to two weeks before I’m ready to make sourdough bread.

Not much to see yet

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