Bubbles, my sourdough starter turns twenty years old this year. She and I have been through a lot over the last twenty years. We’ve fed dozens of people and even won some culinary competitions together.
I guess I have personified this extraordinary mass of living matter, because she has meant so much to me and has been a large part of my professional life for so long. I like to call her my “flour child”. You see I, also, have two other sourdough starters as well.
For me baking bread is like yoga– very calming and relaxing. The origins of Bubbles began in the Fall of 1996 when my husband was working very late, and I was waiting for him to come home. I had been reading about the baking guru Nancy Silverton and her La Brea Bakery in Los Angeles. Her methods of creating a natural sourdough starter using no commercial yeast intrigued me.
I had read that bakers that do a great deal of baking had an ample supply of natural or wild yeast floating around their kitchens. Going along with this train of thought I felt that because I did a lot of baking perhaps I, too, had an abundant amount of yeast that would help to create a great starter. Or maybe it meant that I was just a lousy housekeeper. Either way I was willing to give Nancy Silverton’s method a shot.
Late that evening I wrapped some unwashed, organic red grapes in some cheesecloth. Most fruits have natural yeast on them so hopefully there would be enough wild yeast on those grapes to help my starter to develop. I placed the grapes into a clean, food grade gallon container and added some water and flour as food for the yeast. I covered it tightly and placed it in a closet to develop for about 14 days.
After 14 days I opened it up and WOW! It looked so very terribly GROSS and NASTY (words cannot describe what I saw and smelled) that I threw it out. Actually I made my husband throw it out. He is such a good guy!
After doing more research to see what went wrong I realized that the beginning of a starter should and will look like baby vomit and smell quite sour before it fully develops. Feeling brave I started a new starter.
Once I started adding more flour and water, after the 14 days, the natural bacteria and wild yeast became more balanced. It developed a wonderful yeasty aroma and became quite bubbly. Hence, the name– Bubbles!
What I soon learned was that wild yeast and natural bacteria share food nicely– each consuming different sugars within the flour. Yeast and bacteria each have their own enzymes that break down the starches in the flour into sugars. They also give off their own byproducts.
A true symbiotic relationship begins. The yeast, giving off carbon dioxide and alcohol through the process of fermentation, and the bacteria giving off their own byproducts of acetic and lactic acids. That is why bread from a sourdough tastes a bit tangy. Each physical location has its own species of yeast, so breads made in different areas of the world may taste differently. Think of the wonderful sourdough bread in San Francisco.
Sourdough breads taste much better than your average breads that don’t use a starter. The time it takes to create a starter helps to form wonderfully, flavorful organic compounds that provide a complexity and character that cannot be tasted in a white bread from the grocery store.
I strongly urge you to try to bake your own yeast bread even if it is not a sourdough. Even once just to taste the difference. People who bake bread get it. It is so worth it.
Happy 20th to the best partner in bread making. I look forward to many more years of wonderful bread with you, dear friend!