When I was a graduate student at the University of South Carolina (Columbia), I became a sourdough master, partly because I lived the life of a starving grad student but largely because I loved practicing a culinary art with spores going all the way back to ancient Egyptian times. And whenever I wanted, I could fast forward to the more recent and better-known traditions of the California Gold Rush miners who were known as “Sourdoughs.”
With equal speed, I could shift my focus from sourdough histories to sourdough geographies. Did you know that the flavor of sourdough differs from region to region? It does. The reason is simple. Microbes differ from place to place. Plus, bakers in different regions have varying flour preferences and differing ways of starting their starters.
Working with my own sourdough was so fascinating and my baked goods–primarily bread and pancakes–were so delicious that I kept my sourdough culture alive and well throughout grad school and throughout my subsequent career at the Library of Congress.
Oddly enough, when I moved from Capitol Hill to the Shenandoah Valley, my sourdough starter died. Maybe it didn’t like fresh country air as much as I. I doubt it. I probably got so blown away by country air and country living that I neglected to give my sourdough culture the care, attention, and regular use that it requires, even in the country.
Obviously, without my own starter, I had to stop baking my own sourdough bread. No big deal. I could easily buy some pretty good sourdough loaves in my local grocery stores. I say “pretty good” because store-bought sourdough bread always smacks of commercial yeast. A real sourdough aficionado would never, ever–absolutely never, ever–use commercial yeast to boost a sourdough starter that wasn’t strong enough to rise up on its own. No way. The beauty of working with sourdough is slowing down, taking time, and letting Mother Nature work her own Poppin’ Fresh, Pillsbury Doughboy magic. Rise up. Rise up.
But a few weeks ago, I got a hankering to bake some sourdough bread. So I decided to make room in my life once again for sourdough starter.
No big deal. It’s simple and straightforward. Using a wooden spoon, I mixed up 120 grams of whole wheat flour with 120 grams of water in a glass jar, covered it with cheesecloth, put it in a warm kitchen spot, and waited for my mountain spores to start their mountain magic.
By day two, little bubbles bounced gleefully up and down and all around. The magical sourdough dance of life had begun!
At that point, I knew exactly what to do. Discard half of the starter. Then feed the remaining starter 120 grams of all-purpose flour and 120 grams of water. As always, mix it all up with a wooden spoon, cover with cheesecloth, and return the jar to a warm kitchen spot.
However, I ran smackdab into a major crisis of monumental magnitude, ethical and economical.
Here’s the ethical part. The “discard” starter is filled with living microorganisms. While I had absolutely no qualms whatsoever about baking it to death for my own betterment and joy–not to mention the joy and betterment of those with whom I share–I was distressed thinking about throwing it out–discarding it–as of no worth.
Here’s the economical part. I am a big believer in “Waste not, want not.” I can’t throw away something that I might be able to put to good use. The mere thought makes every fiber of my being quake.
My compound crisis that day resulted in two jars of starter on my counter, instead of the single jar that I should have had.
On day three, I suffered just as much as I had the day before. Yep. You guessed it. Now I was parenting and feeding four jars of sourdough starter.
Day four doubled my joy and my responsibility: eight jars.
Day five, sixteen jars.
Now, come on folks. This is getting serious–alarmingly so–because it takes seven days or longer for a starter to mature and be so full of vim and vigor and little yeasties that it can transform any kitchen into a Sourdough Sanctuary.
You do the math. (After all, I teach English. What do I know about math?) But as near as I can figure, by day seven–if I continued to adhere to my high standards of sourdough ethics and economics–my counter would be covered with 64 jars of sourdough starter, each one needing love and feeding. I could manage the love. I could manage feeding. But what the heck! I don’t even own that many Weck jars. Besides, I don’t need all that sourdough. Neither baker nor bakery am I.
Thank God, I came up with a brilliant plan: reach out to friends and offer up my precious sourdough starters for adoption. Surely my friends would save me from myself.
Thus began my noble quest to rid myself of my own madness.
ME TO A FRIEND. “If you have any interest in adopting a jar [of sourdough starter]–with a full commitment to having it bring you baking joy for years into the future–I’ll be glad to share with you, and I will even forego the customary adoption process that I am told is customary in matters of bake such as this. Just let me know!”
FRIEND TO ME. “Well, I’d love to know about that ‘adoption process’ for hand-reared sourdough, but I daren’t risk actually adopting any cuz I have a feeling it would die before I got any use out of it and I don’t want to risk experiencing any ritualistic unpleasantness that might have made up part of the adoption process. If you want to give me a loaf or a waffle, though, I’d be entirely grateful!”
Well, phooey! How’s that for a friend? She wants all the gain without any of the pain. Hmpff!
At that point, I knew that my efforts to place my starters up for adoption were going nowhere fast.
Here’s what I came up with as an alternative. Rather than watch jars of sourdough starter double every day, why not bake with the sourdough discards?
I love to bake, you know. You definitely know that if you read and remember my post “Baking Up My Past.” (And if have not read it, read it. And if you have read it but don’t remember it, I won’t say, “Shame on you.” But, really! Shame on you. Re-read it to lessen the shame that you’re surely feeling.)
But returning to the serious matter of turning my sourdough discards into delights rather than tossing them into the compost heap as of no worth, I did as my friend–the same one who chose not to adopt one of my starving starters–always reminds me to do whenever I share with her one of my many and endless brilliant ideas: “Google that.”
And that’s just what I did! I googled, “Baking with sourdough discard.”
Dare I share with you my utter shock and amazement when I discovered that lots and lots of other folks had stolen my brilliant idea–just as lots and lots of folks have stolen my other brilliant ideas in the past–and had posted hundreds of recipes without giving me even the slightest crumb of credit, not even in Baking Notes. Well, I have never. (But rest assured: I have.)
The only thing that lessened my shock and amazement was the fact that some of those sourdough discard recipes sounded so good that I decided to try them.
I knew just where to start. Sourdough bread. I had made it before. Easy peasy, lemon squeezy.
Next? Sourdough pancakes. I had made them before, too, but these would be super special because I could open up my last bottle of Brattleboro (VT) Maple Syrup that I bought in 2019 when I was guest speaker in the town where Mary E. Wilkins Freeman launched her distinguished writing career. Oh, my!!! I was not disappointed. Those pancakes were well worth the wait.
Then came sourdough waffles. Vanilla one day. Chocolate, the next. Both days, Brattleboro maple syrup presided.
Then came sourdough muffins, lots and lots of jumbo, bakery-style muffins. Morning Glory. Blueberry. Triple Chocolate. Lemon White Chocolate Chip. Banana Chocolate Chip. To my great joy, the sourdough muffins proofed to be exceptional. My neighbors, friends, colleagues, students (and one stranger) gave rave (and ravenous) reviews.
I knew, though, that I needed to move past breakfast. How could I use my sourdough for dinner? Of course! Pizza. Imagine your favorite pizza, and I’ll guarantee that it will be better with a sourdough crust.
My sourdough chicken and dumplings were heavenly. I confess that I had some major doubts about sourdough cornbread, but it proofed to be the best ever.
And you can’t have dinner without dessert. How about Sourdough Chocolate Orange Bundt Cake? You want some? Excellent! You won’t be disappointed. What’s that? With ice-cream? Sure thing. Vanilla. Homemade. On the house.
I am happy to report that I have baked the good bake so successfully and so frequently that now I am the proud parent of sourdough-starter triplets. All three jars are in the fridge where they can chill with one another for an entire week before I have to care for them again.
At this point, I have a plan. That’s right: you guessed it. It’s brilliant. Here it is. I’ll spend this coming weekend having my own sourdough bake off.
To start, I will use one entire jar of starter–every last drop of it–for making several loaves of sourdough bread.
Then I will use the second jar–every last drop of it–to make assorted sourdough muffins.
“What about that third jar?” I hear someone asking. Don’t worry. It will be an “only,” but it won’t be lonely. I will love it and nourish it and use it forever and forever and forever, and I will bake really good bakes, bake by bake by bake.
Better still, every time I bake with it, I will do so with an abundance of bubbly joy, knowing that I saved myself from parenting the 64 jars of little yeasties that I nearly found myself parenting.
And, best of all, I will no longer walk into my kitchen sighing under my breath, “Oh, no! Sourdough.”