Back in March, I noticed two topics beginning to monopolize my social media feeds: COVID-19 and Sourdough. The first one I expected; while, the second one caught me off guard. But, you know what… it makes sense. With the increase of social distancing and more time spent indoors, it was firmly time to pick up a hobby, and many folks thought the time was right to start growing and nurturing a sourdough starter.
If you haven’t heard of Sourdough before… The goal is to create a naturally fermented starter for your baked goods taking advantage of the yeasts that live all around us. This replaces the need for leavening agents (like commercial yeast, baking soda, baking powder, etc.) in many recipes. The lactic acid that naturally builds up in the starter also adds a slightly sour taste to your baked goods. (I’m no expert… so learn more from Sarah Owens, Ken Forkish, The Clever Carrot, and The Kitchn.)
When it came to following this trend, I was an outlier. As an avid home baker, many of my friends were surprised that I was not hopping on this bandwagon. I have been actively avoiding sourdough since I started baking bread last year. I had two books that dove into sourdough, but I never got that far in those books because the processes always seemed just a little too much. You have to keep these ecosystem of flour, water, bacteria, and yeast alive in a jar… That’s a LOT of responsibility. What if my starter dies, do I mourn?
Two months went by. The fad came and went. Many people created their starter from scratch (which takes a week or two), made a few loaves of bread, and then stopped.
Meanwhile, I was getting back into my groove in Minneapolis after being in Maryland with my parents during the first part of the pandemic. I was regularly baking and semi-regularly reading, which led me to open up Sourdough by Sarah Owens, just to see what I was missing out on. It’s a book that has sat on my shelf for a long time, untouched.
She had great philosophies on tapping into the food that is local to you, be it produce from a farmer’s market or edible weeds from your front yard. Her book really explained how sourdough can be used in much more than just bread — think pastry, pancakes, tortillas, cakes, donuts.
It seemed to be more of a lifestyle than anything…. Maintaining something that would serve as a backbone of most dishes you’d make.
I was sold. I knew that this was going to be a path that would likely consume my life, but I was in it for the journey.
To make things a little more streamlined, I decided to buy a piece of starter from a local bakery and work to maintain it instead of creating a starter from scratch. I called around and found that I could get a bit of starter from my favorite bakery & coffee shop in Minneapolis, Zoe’s Cafe on Lake Street.
I brought my new tub of starter home, moved it into a 32 ounce mason jar and named her Zeniba. The Z comes from Zoe’s to remind me of the beginning of the starter. The full name comes from the Studio Ghibli film, Spirited Away. Zeniba is a witch who lives alone in the woods, who is very kind to the main character, Chihiro.
So, you may be wondering, “Jack, what have you been making with this sourdough starter? Lots of bread, I assume!”
Well, there has been a lot of experimenting. I’ve had Zeniba for about 3 weeks now, and I haven’t yet made a loaf of bread that I am truly excited about from the starter. However, I have made some pretty great puff pastry, cakes, and pancakes out of Zeniba so far.
Bread has been a challenge so far. I haven’t found a recipe that I’ve liked yet. All of the doughs I’ve tested have been too wet for my liking and aren’t jiving well with my pretty basic baking setup that I have in my kitchen.
These are the projects that I have tackled so far. If there is a link, I’ll link it, otherwise, A lot of these recipes were born from a combination of Sarah Evan’s recipes from Sourdough and ingredients/thoughts from my brain. I’ll hopefully dive more into the recipes later in separate blog posts.
When it comes to maintaining Zeniba, every day is different. I’ve been feeding her 1-2 times a day. That process involves me keeping 100g of the starter in the jar and mixing in 150g of water and 150g of bread flour. The amount of starter in the jar fluctuates all day long, and I am consistently surprised by what I find in the jar — a strong glutenous sludge, a bubbly surprise, or a soupy ooze.
We shall see where this sourdough adventure takes me next. It requires a lot of effort and flour, but I think it is truly making me a more adventurous and intuitive baker and cook. I’ve heard of starters staying around for 100+ years, so we shall see how it goes with Zeniba!
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