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Sourdough 101

Yesterday afternoon, I led a workshop about sourdough bread at the UC Santa Cruz Farm & Garden's Annual Harvest Festival. (Fun fact: Green Guy and I met at this same event five years ago when we were tabling for student sustainability organizations!) A whole lot of people showed up to the workshop, and nearly everyone was able to take some 150-year-old Yukon sourdough starter home with them. I received the starter from a coworker's mother-in-law a couple years ago after baking with my own homegrown starter for a few months.  It's resilient and amazing to bake with!

If you're particularly intrigued by sourdough and live in the Santa Cruz area, you're invited to sign up for another workshop that I'm leading October 11 at UCSC. It's $5, and it's limited to 12 participants; sign up here! By signing up for the workshop, you can join me on a journey into the wild world of sourdough, an ancient and delicious fermentation art that is easy and fun for folks of all ages! Participants will learn how sourdough starters are created, how to feed them and keep them "alive," and how to prepare and bake delicious loaves of sourdough bread at home. You'll take some well-established sourdough starter home with you, and fresh sourdough bread baked right on the Farm will also be available for tasting!

Before I launch into what I did in my workshop, I want to share a quote I just came across while reading on the bus this morning. It's by Amy Halloran in her book The New Bread Basket: How the New Crop of Grain Growers, Plant Breeders, Millers, Maltsters, Bakers, Brewers, and Local Food Activists Are Redefining Our Daily Loaf:
 "How we eat is ingrained in us as individuals, and in our cultures. For millennia, bread provided the bulk of our calories. That's why breaking bread means more than just sharing food. When we work for a living we are breadwinners, and dough often means 'money.' These terms are so ubiquitous that they have become almost invisible metaphors. And the process of growing bread is almost invisible, too. Pictures of wheat stalks grace cracker boxes, but most people don't know the first thing about grains or how we grow them."
Her book brings that invisible world to light, and I'm feeling inspired and excited to find local grain growers and experiment with their flours. I just picked up some local flour from Pie Ranch in Pescadero, where they grow and mill their own grains, in addition to many other projects from veggie production to fruit trees to pie baking to farmer and youth education to food justice to supporting native foodways to barn dances, and more!

In the workshop, I also shared a quote by Sandor Katz from The Art of Fermentation. I don't have the book with me right now as I write this in the Stevenson Coffee House at UCSC, so I can't include the quote, but he essentially points out the relationship between "culture" and "cultivation" and the passing of food and farming knowledge and fermenting starters from generation to generation. Just as we share a common cultural vocabulary related to bread as Amy Holloran writes, we also share cultures with each other literally when we pass along sourdough starter to friends and neighbors. Just as the sharing of seed stories and their journeys from person to person and garden to garden are significant in how we relate to seeds as living entities that we have a mutual relationship with, the passing of sourdough starters from person to person and kitchen to kitchen can connect us so much more deeply with the loaves of bread we enjoy. It's also empowering to recognize that we can foster and bake our own deliciously local sourdough bread and share the means to do so with our friends and neighbors for simply the cost of time, flour, water, and electricity.

Also at the beginning of the workshop, I briefly reviewed the science of fermentation and sourdough. My level of knowledge around this subject is limited (but I'm working on learning more!), so I essentially explained that flour and water mixed together become a sourdough starter when air bubbles form and froth from the creation of carbon dioxide. The wild yeast on the grains you're mixing in water, along with wild yeast from the air, are interacting with bacteria to break down sugars in the grain.

For more about the science of sourdough and a little history, here are two NPR stories:
After discussing some background information, I launched into my demonstration, using my favorite bread recipe: "Sourdough: A Beginner's Guide" by the Clever Carrot. She does an excellent job explaining how to prepare sourdough bread with an easy-to-make loaf that is delicious. I essentially walked through her process and showed the different stages of starter (fed and unfed) and dough (just mixed and some that had been sitting for hours). I also showed how I mix spices and herbs into my dough at the same time that I add salt, as well as how I fold spices, herbs, and even things like peppers, garlic, and olives into my loaf when I shape it. After walking through the demo, folks got to come up and try some bread I baked that morning as well as get their own jar of starter. Special thanks to Green Guy and my Aunt Laurie who was in the audience for helping me with distributing these treats to folks while I answered questions. (Thanks Uncle John for helping with cleanup after, too!)

Before the workshop, I printed about 20 copies of a handout about how to care for your sourdough starter with some additional tips and resources. Because nearly 50 people showed up to the workshop, I had folks sign up to receive their handout via email. Here's the information I shared on the handout:

Taking care of your 150-year-old starter
These guidelines are based on my experience with the 150-year-old starter. If you make a new starter or get one from someone else, you may need to feed it more often and take it out of the fridge to bake with farther in advance. This article from The Kitchn has some general guidelines for taking care of "younger" starters.
  • Always feed your starter equal parts water and flour by weight. If you don’t have a scale, look up conversions online. Remember: one cup of water is not the same weight as one cup of flour!
  • Keep your starter in the fridge when you don’t plan on using it anytime soon.
  • Take it out of the fridge to feed it at least once a month to keep it alive. At a minimum, feed it 1 ounce of water and one ounce of water, stir and let sit for 12 hours with the lid ajar. Then you can put it back in the fridge, or use it.
  • To use the starter for bread or other goodies that require an active starter, take it out of the fridge and feed it at least 7 hours before you need to use it in your recipe. Feed it as much as you’ll need for the recipe, making sure you’ll have enough leftover to keep in your jar. Always leave the lid ajar or not tightly closed when it’s not in the fridge so that carbon dioxide can escape.
  • If your starter develops a sour smell or a thin layer of liquid, do not fear! You can pour off the liquid (or not) and feed it. It should bounce back soon and be better than ever.
  • Don’t forget to explore sourdough pancakes, waffles, pizza dough, and other tasty treats! If you find yourself with extra starter and aren’t sure what to do with it, look online for inspiration.
  • Share your starter with friends and family who express interest in sourdough, and make sure to give them enough information to feel confident about keeping it alive. Host your own workshop with them!

Ingredients for the beginning sourdough loaf
  • Active, fed sourdough starter
  • Flour
  • Water
  • Salt
  • Olive oil
  • Cornmeal for dusting the bottom of your Dutch oven or pan (could also use flour)
Basic timeline (varies by recipe)
  • Hour 0: Feed your starter the weight of flour and water needed for your recipe. For the recipe used in this workshop, you’d need 5.35 ounces of starter, which is roughly equal to 2.7 ounces of flour + 2.7 ounces of water. It doesn’t hurt to feed a little extra; always make sure you’ll have enough remaining in the jar to keep your starter going. You may want to feed the starter in a separate bowl if you’re making a lot of bread so that it doesn’t spill out of the jar. Always keep some amount in the starter jar when you do this.
  • Hour 7: Check to make sure your starter is frothy and bubbly. You can scoop a small amount into a cup of lukewarm water, and if it floats, it’s definitely ready to make your recipe. If it sinks, give the starter more time before preparing your recipe. You can feed the starter up to 12 hours before making your recipe, but 7 hours seems to be the minimum amount of time needed for it to froth up. Experiment with this, and keep in mind that on hot days or during the day, fermentation happens much more quickly than on cold days or during the night when it’s cooler.
  • Hour 19: Assuming your starter was ready to make your recipe at hour 7, let the dough rise for a minimum of 12 hours, or until it’s doubled in size (which can happen quicker in warmer temperatures). Carefully scoop the dough onto a cutting board, making sure to get as much of the dough from the sides of the bowl as possible. You can use a bench scraper for this, or your hands. You can add additional ingredients at this time if you wish. Shape the loaf and place it in your Dutch oven on a thin layer of cornmeal.
  • Hour 20: Check that the loaf has grown. If you have time and it hasn’t gotten larger, wait another 30 minutes or move the Dutch oven to a warmer place. When it’s ready, score the top of the loaf so that the inside of the loaf will cook more evenly. How you score the loaf affects how it bakes; experiment with this! Multiple scores lead to a wider and flatter loaf. One score leads to a taller loaf. Criss-cross scores can be beautiful. Add salt, herbs, or spices to the top if you wish. Place the entire Dutch oven with the lid into the preheated 400 degree oven.
  • Hour 20 and 20 minutes: Remove lid from the Dutch oven.
  • Hour 20 and 50 minutes: Open the door to the oven slightly. This helps the crust develop, but it isn’t required. If the loaf looks ready at this time and you don’t want to leave the door open, you can take it out.
  • Hour 21: Take bread out of the oven (unless it is still very pale and needs more time) and place on a cooling rack.
  • Hour 22: You can slice and eat your bread now! (The bread continues to cook after you remove it from the oven. Slicing too early leads to gummy texture inside.)
Additional items needed for making sourdough bread
  • Scale (strongly recommended) - I use this one by EatSmart.
  • Butter knife or chopstick for mixing starter when feeding
  • Spoon for measuring out flour
  • Mixing bowl and small pitcher for measuring out water
  • Oven and oven mitts
  • Dutch oven / large cast iron pot (strongly recommended but not required)
  • If not a Dutch oven, then a baking sheet or loaf pan
  • Sharp knife for scoring the loaf, or a lame for more precise scoring
  • Sufficient time and forethought – you need to feed the starter ~22 hours before your bread will be ready!

Thanks for reading, and have a great week!
Green Gal


  1. Thanks for sharing the results of your presentation and for your inspiring words about culture, cultivation, community, and baking bread. (Just typing this makes me hungry for sourdough!) Your photographs, too, are great. Congrats on a successful event!


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