Meet Audrey III, our sourdough culture
I have a new pet.
No, it’s not a chicken. Or other urban livestock, though I have been tempted. After all, chickens are the gateway livestock, and I’ve been eyeing goats and miniature cows.
This new pet lives on our counter in the kitchen. It doesn’t make a peep. It quietly bubbles to let me know it needs fed. No, it’s not a goldfish.
Meet Audrey III. She’s a sourdough culture, made of fungus and bacteria. My dad gave her to me and so far, she’s going great. I was a bit skeptical when he brought me what looked like a cupful of Elmer’s glue in a plastic container and told me it was delicious, but he’s right. Sourdough is pretty awesome.
At first, I just couldn’t believe that you could mix together half a cup of flour with half a cup of water, let it sit on the counter, and watch the magic happen. But now I’ve fallen under sourdough’s spell.
Audrey III is a little needy, I must admit. If I leave her out on the counter, she needs stirred, fed and watered daily. If I get tired of dealing with her, I put her in the refrigerator (which is not recommended for other types of pets).
The first week I had Audrey III, I started singing, “Feed Me, Seymour” from Little Shop of Horrors while I fed her, so that’s how she was named.
Sourdough, an ancient technology utilizing fermentation to help leaven baked goods, is easy to do at home. Since it dates to the ancient Egyptians, bakers have had plenty of time to develop techniques and tips on how to use it. The culture of sourdough (ha, ha!) has a long history in the United States, particularly with the Westward Expansion and prospecting.
In his article “Housekeeping in the Klondike,” printed in Harper’s Bazaar in 1900, Jack London describes sourdough as an all-important tool for miners in Alaska. Despite sourdough’s fickle nature and the fact that it was sometimes difficult to maintain in such a cold climate, he said each miner proudly doted on their particular sourdough starter, relying on it to make their daily bread, lest he be blamed for creating “vile concoctions.” The highest compliment a grubstake cook could receive was to be called a “sourdough boy.”
“Each has his own recipe (formulated, mark you, from personal experience only), and to him it is an idol of brass, like unto no other man’s, and he’ll fight for it — ay, down to the last wee pinch of soda — and if need be, die for it. If you should happen to catch him on trail, completely exhausted, you may blacken his character, his flag, and his ancestral tree with impunity; but breathe the slightest whisper against his sour-dough bread, and he will turn upon and rend you,” London wrote.
Bakers today continue to reap the harvest of sourdough. If you’re not lucky enough to have a relative give you a starter, ask around to see who has one. There are stories of families who have kept sourdough cultures alive for more than a hundred years.
You can purchase starters from bakery supply companies, but you can also make use of the free yeast floating around at home. These little yeast beasties grow along with bacteria that produce lactic acid, resulting in a tangy glop that smells sort of like beery yogurt. In the process of converting sugar to alcohol and carbon dioxide, naturally occurring yeast work their magic.
Although purposely encouraging fungus and bacteria to grow in your house sounds gross, it produces the best pancakes I’ve ever had. And it’s an economical way to bake and put your original stamp on food. The balance of the yeast and bacteria over time produces a unique mix of microorganisms, which ultimately results in a signature sourdough taste.
That’s why San Francisco sourdough is so famous. Its lactobacillus sanfriscensis is unique to the area and produces a distinct culture. A region’s climate definitely affects the sourdough culture.
Sourdough has a mighty following of bakers keeping this tradition alive. Enthusiasts in search of the ultimate bread with a tangy, ripe taste opine over cultures in online forums. I’m counting on their advice to help Audrey III flourish.
Hopefully, this goes better than the composting worm experiment, and I’ll keep you posted.
For information on putting your home’s fungus and bacteria to delicious work, check out kingarthurflour.com, joythebaker.com or thekitchn.com.