The Rocky Horror Sourdough Starter
You Are Going To Have To Kill A Few
When I was taking a Master Gardener's class at the University of Vermont, one of my instructors said, "You cannot be a great gardener without killing plants." While I am glad to say this principle does not translate to child-rearing, it most certainly applies to cultivating sourdough. Throughout my career as a professional chef and baker, I have killed many sourdough starters. Some of those deaths were tragic, and I can vividly recall them today, probably due to the fact that I name my starters—as I do my beers and children. I have witnessed violence in professional bakeries over the mishandling of starters and Pâte fermentée. I am not saying this as an exaggeration. (Perhaps consider removing the period after "Pâte fermentée"). There have been times in a professional setting when I considered calling 911 because of what was happening in the kitchen. Now, though the death of a starter may be lamentable, you can always pick up the pieces and move on. Hopefully, this article will demystify sourdough starters and encourage you to persist in this culinary endeavor.
Cleaned Versus Sterilized
In professional kitchens, health departments emphasize the distinction between cleanliness and sterilization. Their typical illustration is that a kitchen floor can be clean but never sterilized, whereas the kitchen counter can be both clean and sterilized. This distinction is crucial because your kitchen might be more sterilized than simply clean. You may wonder why this could be a problem. Well, in the process of making sourdough, you depend on ambient yeast and bacteria to colonize the starter.
In a typical kitchen, starting a sourdough might involve the following steps:
Mix equal parts of flour and water.
Cover the mixture with cheesecloth.
Let it sit on the counter for 24 to 72 hours, stirring every 8 to 12 hours.
I prefer to use a wooden bowl, which I typically employ for making bread loaves.
I adore Daniel Leader's bread from Bread Alone. While living in the Hudson Valley, I made weekly trips to his bakery with my 2-year-old "human starter." Leader visited the Culinary Institute of America to teach a bread-making class. Despite his expertise, he found it impossible to cultivate a bread starter there. As it turns out, the school's kitchens were too sterile to harvest the ambient yeast and bacteria necessary to kick-start the starter for his demonstrations.
The Ambient Harvest
In your kitchen resides an unseen realm teeming with life—some harmful, some beneficial. Think of it as a microbial battleground. On one side, you have bacteria that cause foodborne illnesses; on the other, our bodies utilize probiotics for good. This invisible skirmish transpires on countertops and within your fruit bowls, pantries, and refrigerators. Whether it's bacteria souring your milk or mold on your brie fending off yeast, these microbial interactions are constant and crucial.
The Science Behind the Dough
When it comes to sourdough, the trick is cultivating an environment that favors yeast growth. In this fermentative ecosystem, yeast, primarily wild strains like Saccharomyces cerevisiae, takes the initial step. It metabolizes carbohydrates from the flour, releasing carbon dioxide and alcohol, which begin to leaven your dough. Soon after, lactic acid bacteria—mainly strains of Lactobacillus—join the party. These bacteria also consume carbohydrates but produce lactic and acetic acids. Importantly, they further metabolize the alcohol from the yeast into additional acids. The resulting acids not only impart that characteristic sour flavor but also create an inhospitable environment for undesirable microorganisms, thus naturally preserving your bread.
The result? A self-balancing microbial community where yeast provides the leavening, and bacteria enrich the dough in terms of taste, texture, and preservation. Your sourdough starter is a snapshot of your kitchen's unique microbial climate, transforming simple ingredients into the nuanced flavors and textures we associate with quality sourdough bread.
One day, while scrolling through a Facebook group dedicated to sourdough starters, I encountered various experiences. The page was a dichotomy of stunning bread that sparked envy and sad stories of dead starters, failed attempts, and inadvertent biohazards. This led me to a realization: At its core, sourdough is essentially a colony of yeast and bacteria coexisting symbiotically. Intriguingly, kombucha—a fermented tea enjoyed for its probiotic benefits—also relies on a symbiotic community of yeast and bacteria. In kombucha parlance, this is known as a S.C.O.B.Y., an acronym for Symbiotic Colony Of Yeast & Bacteria.
Exploring Symbiosis: From Kombucha to Sourdough
It occurred to me: What if one could expedite the sourdough starter process by introducing a live kombucha culture? The notion is more plausible than it may seem. Kombucha contains live microorganisms that could potentially offer a "head start" to a new sourdough culture. In theory, by replacing the water in the process with live kombucha, you might create a thriving microbial environment more quickly than starting from scratch, preventing toxic colonization. This environment would benefit from the kombucha's yeasts and bacteria and open the door for your kitchen's local biome to recolonize and adapt the starter over time. This was the inception of what I've coined as the "Rocky Horror Sourdough Starter," an unconventional yet potentially effective method to jump-start your sourdough journey.
The Rocky Horror Sourdough Starter
I coined the name "Rocky Horror Sourdough Starter" because, much like its namesake, it flies in the face of the sourdough purest. It is representative of the multi-layered narrative of the movie, capturing the spirit of experimentalism, unpredictability, and perhaps a touch of audacity. Just as Dr. Frank N. Furter defies convention in the film, this starter intentionally flouts the norms of sourdough purism by inviting in a guest star: kombucha. It's a move that could be considered heretical by sourdough traditionalists, who often advocate for a more "pure" approach, relying solely on flour, water, and ambient yeast. The "Rocky Horror Sourdough Starter" disrupts this purist dogma. It introduces kombucha, creating a unique blend of microorganisms that shake up the establishment, so to speak. And just like the film, this audacious move is not merely for shock value—it has its practical benefits. The starter gets a head start from the live microorganisms in kombucha, speeding up the fermentation process and adding an intriguing layer of complexity. This culinary deviation dares bakers to embrace the unexpected beyond traditional boundaries.
The starter, therefore, is a bit like culinary theater, with the microbes playing the starring roles, and the script is ever-changing. Anticipate surprises, diverse flavors, dependent on your kombucha, and a likely twist in the end—no two "Rocky Horror Sourdough Starters" will ever perform quite the same. With a bow to a movie that celebrates the non-traditional, the "Rocky Horror Sourdough Starter," I invite you into a world of possibilities and encourage you to question the status quo and maybe—maybe—do the "Time Warp" in your kitchen.
The Rocky Horror Sourdough Starter
Mix: In a clean glass jar, combine 100 grams of King Arthur's flour with 100 grams of Kombucha. Mix until no dry flour remains.
Cover: Place a cloth or a lid loosely on the jar to allow gases to escape.
Rest: Allow the mixture to sit at room temperature (ideally 70-75°F or 21-24°C) for 24 hours.
Check: You may see small bubbles; this is a good sign. If not, it's okay.
Feed: Discard half of the starter (about 100 grams). Add 100 grams of King Arthur's flour and 100 grams of GT's PURE Kombucha. Mix, cover, and let rest for another 24 hours.
Day 3 to Day 7:
Feed: Continue the feeding process from Day 2. By Day 3 or 4, you should notice more bubbles, a pungent aroma, and some volume increase.
Daily Feeding: If you bake often, keep your starter at room temperature. Feed it daily with equal parts flour and water by weight.
Weekly Feeding: If you bake less frequently, store your starter in the fridge and feed it once a week. Take it out 24 hours before you plan to bake, feed it, and let it come back to life at room temperature.
Always use a clean utensil when feeding your starter to avoid contamination.
If you notice a layer of liquid (hooch) on top, it's a sign your starter is hungry. Simply stir it back in and feed your starter.