Sourdough Starter

Recently I’ve been sharing my sourdough starter as fast as I can bulk it back up. Two women two weeks ago, two more last week, and some for Dean who made sourdough dinner rolls and said they were kind of ugly, but delicious!

Here’s what I gave to Dean…

Typically my starter lives in my fridge, where I feed it once a week or less, if I’m not baking with it. It gets tucked all the way to the back left side, and usually has apples in front of it, or tubs of salsa, or a jar of homemade plum jam.

When I’m in a sourdough frame of mind, then the starter gets moved to the counter, where it lives in the open air and I feed it once, even twice each day. It goes bad out in the warmth if you don’t pay attention, so I keep it where I’ll always see it, right by the drawer that holds the dinner napkins and the phone charger. For the last two months, my starter has been working overtime.

Fido. I know it’s silly to name a sourdough starter, but Fi-means faithful and Do-is a lousy but fun version of dough. Catchy? Ha. Our family’s lore says that we Garaicoetxea folk (Ga-ra-ee-ko-eh-chay-uh… that’s the way you write our very Basque surname) brought our levain–our sourdough starter–all the way to the new world in the 1890’s. Since we were bakers in the Basque country, and immediately opened a bakery in California, it’s probably all very true! Here are some photos from my last trip there.

Anyway, what’s the big interest suddenly in sourdough? Well, articles are popping up everywhere about fermented foods, and so I thought I’d share a few links so that you might know a little more about this sour magic.

On food sensitivities

One person’s story on going grain-free, then reverting back to eating grains and their health benefits

The science behind sourdough, and a bit about San Francisco’s claim to sour fame

So, if you live near me and are tempted to try your hand at baking some of your own sourdough-based recipes, send me a message and I’ll put you in the giveaway lineup. If not, just make your own. Here are some sourdough starter recipes from trusted baking websites:

The Fresh Loaf

King Arthur

Bon Appetit–with some nods to Richard Bertinet, one of my favorite bread book authors, and a recipe for sourdough bread to boot!

Just be careful if you are inspired, but don’t want to bake sourdough bread yourself. Many of the commercial varieties aren’t all that special. Instead of using the traditional method of allowing the bread to ferment and rise over a long period of time–thus gaining that sour flavor and the benefits of fermentation, many of the large commercial bakeries simply add vinegars or souring agents to a typical loaf of industrial, yeasted bread… The ingredient list will be long, and you won’t gain any of the health benefits. Real sourdough bread has these three ingredients: flour, water, and salt. 🙂


Sourdough toast with butter and homemade plum jam. Stew and sourdough. French toast from sourdough bread. Bread pudding made from stale loaves. Egg in a hole. Grilled panini on homemade sour. Sourdough pancakes and waffles! Hot sourdough baked in a pot, on an open flame.

Are you hungry yet?


My Long Lost Sourdough

Giant three pound loaf of pain a la Suzanne–made two nights in a row–first night only unbleached flour with some starter, second night, added some rye and whole wheat, plus sour…

Mixed: 9:45 pm at night

Folded: 12:45 pm next day

Molded: 1 pm

Baked: 3 pm

Gave: first loaf to brand new neighbor across the street (she just moved in and already has her Christmas tree up!), second loaf to the Harris Family, who are much bigger and better givers than I’ll ever be…

After rising over night

Sitting for the two-hour rise

Hot and in the pot

I’ve already told you that I grew up as a baker’s daughter. The bakery was not a small artisinal shop on a corner, it was a large operation that sat on an entire city block in Venice, CA. Pioneer French Baking Company began in 1908–so bread was plentiful in our home, even when shoes were not.

Our family’s bakery made hundreds of different types and shapes of bread. From Squaw bread to classic French to sourdough. Our sourdough was famous all through Southern California–made the old fashioned way with only patience to allow the yeast to work, not commercial additives–and it’s the bread that my father brought home most days when he returned from work. I ate a lot of sourdough growing up.

Then, I left the house, and moved to the Bay Area. There was plenty of sourdough there to keep me happy.

But alas, when my husband and I moved to Colorado for an eight-year stint, despite the fact that we were in the “bread basket” of the States… we were in Wonder Bread heaven. It was depressing…

My dad even flew out for a two-day baking retreat to try and teach me how to bake sour in my own kitchen. We bought all the necessary equipment: wooden bowls for keeping the sour alive, special flour with high protein content, dough scrapers, etc… And yet, all I could manage to make were golden weapons. Beautiful baguettes that never rose properly, that weighed much more than I did–I would lean them by my front door to use as a weapon for bad guys.

Now, I’ve returned to California and have improved in my baking skills slowly. There’s plenty of good bread to choose from–all around me–not just coming out of my own oven.

Look at that delicious crumb!

But!!! I’ve finally been able to produce a loaf of sourdough that mimicks that amazing bread from my childhood. Made in an unconventional way–this No Knead recipe I’ve mentioned a few posts back that I’m calling Pain a la Suzanne–has me completely captured!

So, for you sourdough enthusiasts who live in Wonder Bread world… I urge you to give this one a go. You’ll need to follow the recipe here: No Knead Dough Recipe

and add a bit of sourdough starter to the initial mix (I’ve been adding about 1/2 cup). Despite all my excitement about using our ancient starter from France, you (really :)) don’t need all that nostalgia to make a good one. Just a bit of flour, water and time. There’s good information for making sour here: Sourdough Starter information though it is not the only way of doing it. There are resources all over the web…

Three pounds of sourdough--yum

So, what about you? What sorts of things do you make from scratch because you just can’t find the same thing on the market? And how long did it take for you to perfect it? Me and sourdough–well, perfect isn’t the best word, but looking back, it’s been about twenty years of trying…

Twenty years. Not bad!

A Gift

No mixing, molding or baking. But we did refresh our beloved sourdough starter before heading home.

That lucky starter. What fun. We fed it water from la source, and wheat from the French country side. We toted it to the village church and to the bank of the Nive and to visit the lambs–we even brought it with us in the car the day we visited three neighboring villages. Now, it’s home; its second trip across the Atlantic a success. No messes in the suitcases, no explosions in the cargo bay. I remixed it last night and, ooh, does it smell good.

And I’m ready to bake. After a week of touring and translating I’m itching to get my fingers worked into some dough, which I’ll do in an hour or two. My son’s school is sponsoring a homeless dinner this evening, so I’ll be sharing molassas bread and cranberry preserves, but more on that later.

This week spent in the Basque country was an absolute gift. To spend six days with my two brothers, laughing, recounting stories, making new memories was an unexpected treasure. I made a pact with myself at the beginning of the trip that I would rejoice in every twist and turn of this adventure. No moaning, no complaining–only a grateful heart. I was there to work–to be the media woman–to take photos and video, and to translate and help guide. And there were a few times whenI had to remind myself that being tired didn’t matter, that being squished in the middle seat of an airplane for eleven hours didn’t matter. That this was a gift and I should rejoice!

And in the spirit of sharing that joy, here are some photos of our time together. Though not a single loaf of bread was baked and given away, the spirit of giving was a part of every day–between ourselves, with the villagers, with our cousins and aunt… I am grateful!

Shoulder to shoulder in St. Jean de Luz

Communicating with Pantxo on the other side of the valley

Two baker brothers and me

At our great grandfather's old bakery

Our sourdough starter on the road

Johnny in Espelette

One of Pantxo's lambs

Etxea Maitea--the family house

The boulangerie

Leaving Les Aldudes

Baguettes from Baigorry

Feet in the Atlantic

La Source

Reviving the starter, but no baking today.

Yesterday was all about meetings. By the end of the day I decided that the French habit of going on strike, wasn’t such a bad idea. I had translated back and forth for hours and was running out of words come midnight. My brothers had brought me to France to work, and that I did!

But today the meetings had ended and it was all about reconnecting with this beautiful place. Sure, I did a bit of translating, but there’s not much interpreting when it comes to visiting the petits cochons. Pig language, I believe, is universal. Here’s a pair of particularly cute cochons that I caught roaming around their pen. These pie noirs pigs are a breed exclusive to the Basque country, and they almost went extinct in the 50’s. The breed was revived and has become a thriving industry for the village. They live in little huts when they’re young, then get to roam the mountains freely when they’re a bit older, munching on wild apples and grass and local herbs. I noticed that the largest of this litter, and the runt, are friends…

One of the great pleasures of the day was feeding our sourdough starter. We first lit a candle in church (the candles are enormous, about two feet in length and thick–they cost 1 euro–quite a bargain!), then visited the local baker, who lives and bakes on the very same property where my great grandfather used to run his business. We toured the property, marveling at the old brick oven and chatted for a while, then bought a baguette. Christophe makes mighty fine bread.

Then we headed to La Source. It’s a spot along the road where an underground stream comes gushing out of the mountain. The local villagers love this spring, and people from even an hour away will come here to fill up their empty bottles to transport them home. They say it’s filled with minerals and helps all sorts of ailments–plus it runs just as strong and clear when it’s summer and hot, as when it’s winter and freezing… We bottled some of the water that they’ve channeled through a large pipe and later fed it to our starter. Every starter needs a little dose of mountain spring water from Les Aldudes, don’t you think?

The afternoon was spent at my aunt’s house, where we visited and laughed and loved each other… And in the evening we ate the rest of the baguette, fed the starter some type 55 flour, munched a bit of cheese with a taste of tomato, and sipped a small glass of local wine. We admired the fresh air after a very warm day and transported the starter to the backyard to hang out with the ferns that grow so well here in the mountains.

And now, it’s late. The church bells will be chiming 11pm soon and tomorrow the starter’s journey will continue. It’s lambing season so we hope to visit Pantxo, our friend the shepherd across the way, and soak in our last moments here in the valley before we’re off. The starter will go where we go. We want it to see the lambs, too. Meanwhile, I’ll have one more glass of water from La Source before bed.

oop… better hurry. The church bells are chiming.

Bonne nuit, mes amis…

Back to the Beginning…

No mixing or molding or baking today. Just unveiling the sourdough starter, allowing it to breathe…

We were welcomed again with open arms. My brothers and I have arrived back in Les Aldudes, a Basque village of 360 people tucked in the Pyrenees mountains that separate France and Spain. This is the village where my great, great grandfather was born. I am writing today from the house in which he lived for those short fifteen years before he ventured to the new world. And though 100 years have passed, the people of this place always treat us as though we’ve only been gone a few years, and that we’ve finally returned to the land and air that was partially made for us.

The church bells just chimed six. I also heard them at four and at five. Who needs sleep! I am anxious for the sun. Yesterday, as we drove into the valley at dusk, we marveled at the autumn colors–the deep rust of the sleeping ferns. The yellow and oranges and some still green leaves that painted the mountains. And the three of us, my older brother, John, and my younger brother, Charlie, couldn’t stop our gushing.

I am so grateful for this home away from home…

Sourdough through Security

No mixing, or molding or baking. Or giving today…

I’m flying out to France and all week I’ve been wondering if sourdough starter qualifies as a liquid. I thought about putting a call in to someone at the airlines, but that was just a quick thought. You know what it’s like to call the airlines. Who knows how many people I’d have to talk to before they got to anyone who even knows what sourdough starter is…

Last night I floured up my starter to make it more dough-like. What I’m most worried about is that the yeast might go crazy in the altitude and blow up in my luggage! My ancestors, when they brought it from the Pyrenees over the mountains, across the ocean etc… didn’t have to worry about cabin pressure, did they…


Since we do have a washing machine in the house in France (granted, it’s a bizarre machine that requires 10 green balls to move the clothes around the interior, although we’ve lost a considerable amount of the balls, because when you remove the clothes the balls fling out, too, and bounce all over the floor and under the fridge and such…) anyway, since we do have a washing machine, I figure if the starter does somehow ooze all over, I can just wash the clothes and continue on with life.

I’ll also have a wee bit of starter in my hand luggage, just as a back up.

And the point of bringing the starter is purely nostalgic. I want to recapture some of the home yeasties and bring them back. I want the starter to finally see its birthplace. I want the mother dough to have this opportunity to reconnect with its roots. Aren’t I a nice caretaker? Plus, it’ll be fun.

Okay, wish me safe travels.

Starting with the starter

It’s a glorious Sunday morning, and I’m trying not to be intimidated by this blog. The accessories and options are endless. I have no idea what a css or trackback or a pingback is. As much as I love learning new languages, this web-language doesn’t seem quite as romantic as, say, learning Romanian.

But where was I. It’s Sunday.  And though today I won’t be baking, I will be freshening my starter so I can bake like a mad woman tomorrow.

I’m terrible at keeping starters going, and every now and then I kill mine and have to run to my brother to get a new one. He doesn’t kill his starter–ever. That starter is the one that came across the Pyrenees mountains, carried in a rucksack, traveled by boat over the ocean, then hopped a train to California in the late 1800’s and has been present in thousands, maybe millions of loaves of sourdough bread. I ate a lot of that sourdough growing up…

Anyway, I’m not going to kill my starter today. Not right now, when I’m trying to be good, trying to launch this new blog! I’m going to feed it some flour, and water, and say nice things to it. I’m going to leave the cover off while I go to church so it can soak up some of the yeasties floating around my kitchen.

And tomorrow, I’m baking bread. I’m baking sourdough.Sourdough starter--lovely Any takers?