Sourdough is the oldest form of bread. Although no one knows 100% where it came from, we know that it came from ancient times most likely in the Middle East. Since we don't know where it came from we don't know what happened but there is of course speculation and personal thoughts. I'm a firm believer in the idea that someone accidentally left some type of porridge or other grain meal in a bowl for a couple days where wild yeast was able to build a colony. When this person found the mixture it was bubbly and curiously baked it and discovered bread.
In the late 19th century after many discoveries by Louis Pasteur, a pure strain of yeast was able to be cultivated and produced for mass scale. This lead to a downfall in sourdough as it was easier to store and didn't need to be maintained daily. Since then in recent years sourdough has made a new uprising. People have started to go back to our roots and make slowly fermented sourdough and bring this part of our culture back to life.
Now I can get into a lot about sourdough since it is one of my most favorite things but the health and benefits of sourdough can wait for another post. Here I want to talk about how to start and maintain a starter and why I call her Carmen.
In theory a starter is very simple to make. Mix some flour with water, let it sit on the counter a couple days, boom you have a starter. Although that would work, it's best to be more practical and make a strong starter that can make some really good bread. This is the way I learned how to make a starter in school, this is how Carmen started, and this is the way I teach in my classes.
Day 1: Mix 50g bread flour, 50g whole rye flour, 85g water, and a teaspoon of molasses in a glass bowl. Cover with a cloth and leave on the counter for the day.
Day 2: Mix 50g bread flour, 50g whole rye flour, 85g water, and 100g of mixture from day 1. Cover with a cloth and leave on the counter again.
Day 3 and forever: Mix 100g bread flour, 100g water, and 100g of starter. Cover and leave at room temp. Repeat this every day.
From day 3 and on simply feed the starter with the same ratio of flour and water with starter. After the first couple days there should be some activity depending on the time of year and the local yeast, if not just keep at it and your starter will take off. Once it is really active I put a lid on the container. The longer you keep it going the better the flavors can be. Bring it when you travel to catch local yeasts but it will always revert back to whatever local cultures are in the air where it's at.
Once your starter has gotten active is when I will start to smell it more and think about it's name. Naming your starter is not necessary. You can still make bread with an unnamed starter, but years ago when I first attempted sourdough I read that naming your starter helps you to remember to feed it. It's like a pet or a child. You must feed it daily and keep it in preferred conditions to thrive. Giving it a name creates a connection that will help you and the starter.
This is where the process can get a little weird. Come up with a name however you'd like but I want to talk about my process. After a few days and the yeast starts getting active I will smell my starter before feeding everyday. From the scent I will determine a gender for my starter. Ideally I'd like them to tell me but we are not at the time where we can communicate with the species. The smell is their way of telling me. When I smelled Carmen she was very fruity, floral, and a nice sharp acidic note. I knew she was a woman ready to make her mark in my life. Now while this is all happening I had music playing in the background like I normally do in the kitchen. At the moment of feeding and smelling my playlist had on Carmen by Lana Del Rey. One of my favorite artists. The song talks about a woman loved by many and it seemed that my starter was asking for the name Carmen as it will create a lot of bread in my life and I will share her bounty with many. I know this all sounds really weird but I am a baker and we are really weird.
Since then she has been called Carmen. I feed her everyday and she has made a lot of good bread. She turns 2 years old in December 2019. I'm very proud of her and she has helped me to spread sourdough knowledge through multiple sourdough classes. There of course have been times where I traveled without taking her with me. I prefer to feed her, ferment for a couple hours before I place her in the fridge until I get back. I always make sure shes back to being active before I use her when I get home. I have taken her sometimes and came close to killing her, but she always comes back and is thriving. At the end of the day, if you want to embark on a sourdough adventure remember that this is an ancient technique. When you feel like you're fucking up just take a step back and let nature do it's thing.