On Sourdough Baking

While the world continues to panic over the latest developments in the COVID-19 pandemic, something is quietly brewing (or should I say fermenting?) in the stillness of people’s kitchens. All over the globe, people are suddenly taking new interest in sourdough baking. It makes sense in the new normal of grocery shopping far less frequently, that making bread at home would be more top of mind. Except for essential workers, most of us have more than enough time on our hands. But why sourdough in particular? Why not just regular homemade bread?

Because there’s a yeast shortage.

It’s temporary, of course, because yeast is quite literally everywhere around us—in the air, on those brown bananas sitting on my counter, hanging on the grape clusters out in the vineyards, everywhere. We’ll never actually run out of it. But the usually available commercial form of baking yeast—you know, in the little yellow square envelopes—has gone MIA. During the initial coronavirus pandemic freak-out, it seems people (some who have never even baked before) went bonkers and snapped up all the yeast. In the wake of that, we are learning that it takes a good bit of time to replenish (you can’t rush nature), and with the supply chain already stretched nearly to the point of breakage, it’s dicey. Thankfully, my baking hasn’t slowed down one bit amid the crisis at hand. You see, I’ve been riding the sourdough train for just over four years; this little critter was born in early 2016:

This picture of my starter still brings joy to my heart!

That’s my natural sourdough culture, and although I’m suddenly feeling slightly ashamed that I’ve not given appropriate thought to naming my culture, I am quite diligent about nurturing it and we most definitely have a solid relationship. And I’m thankful, because we all need sourdough culture more than ever.

I will have a lot more to say about sourdough, and that discussion will develop over time (pun intended). The main impression I hope to make today is that sourdough is not a flavor of bread. Sourdough is a method of natural leavening in baked goods, bread or otherwise. A sourdough culture is yeast. If that seems confusing, consider this visual example of two completely different breads I’ve made with my sourdough culture:

The crusty round bread (or boule, as the French would say) is most likely what you imagine as sourdough, with its slightly tangy flavor and firm, chewy crust. But the soft, buttery pumpkin sesame knots on the right were crafted from the same culture. Different ingredients, different ratio of liquid in the dough, different baking method—all amount to a different outcome, but still sourdough. I even make sweet things, like cinnamon rolls, out of sourdough. Because, again, sourdough is not a flavor.

If you’re pondering whether you could do this, too—yes, you can. And I’ll be happy to help you get started. Hey, if you live close by, I’ll even offer you some seed culture so you don’t have to build your own starter from scratch (though you’d probably be a better parent and give yours a name).

For now, check out this easy recipe I’ve been making recently, along with an alternate recipe if you happen to be among the lucky ones with a yeast packet in your pantry. Sourdough English Muffins, y’all!

Sourdough English Muffins

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