I have kept a sourdough starter alive for nearly a year now and count it as one of my greatest accomplishments. Samson the Starter has survived four seasons, a cross-state move, and occasional neglect when I've forgotten to feed him a time or two, but never has he missed an opportunity to rise to the occasion.
Bread making is the most common application for a starter, and I've fallen in love with the whole process. It's slow, honest and steady, an art that requires little manipulation but precise actions, and the end result is wholesome and simply delicious. The hearty, complex flavor of sourdough bread makes for the best toast, sandwich or tartine, and croutons, and I've been told it makes the most amazing bread pudding by someone I recently gave a loaf to.
Samson originated in Paris, France over 100 years ago. Claire Meneely, owner of Nashville's Dozen Bakery, brought the starter back from Paris after learning sourdough bread baking from the best, and graciously shared it with me. As you can imagine, I felt greatly responsible in keeping the centenarian starter alive.
A sourdough starter is a concoction of flour and water that ferments and becomes cultured by yeast from the air. This was the original method of leavening bread and other baked goods, but it was replaced by commercial baker's yeast in the early 20th century, thanks to advancements in microbiology. If you really want to geek out, watch Michael Pollan's docuseries Cooked on Netflix. In the 3rd episode, "Air", the science behind bread baking is investigated, revealing how sourdough bread is potentially better for our systems, especially those of us who are gluten-sensitive.
- Purchase a kit
- Ask a friend who keeps a starter for a sample of theirs and just start feeding it
- Start your own — here are easy instructions on how to make your own sourdough starter
Whether you acquire a live starter from someone or begin the process from square one, it will make you flashback to high school chemistry. You will need a digital scale to accurately measure the weight in grams of flour and water, which acts as food for the starter and keeps it alive and active. That, and all recipes that call for starter will request the amount in grams, so you'll need a digital scale to make creations with your starter once it's up and going.
The tangy starter gives baked goods depth and balance, a point Sarah Owens makes in her cookbook Sourdough: Recipes for Rustic Fermented Breads, Sweets, Savories, and More. I highly recommend adding this to your cookbook collection. Not only is it beautiful and useful, it explains the art of using starter in daily kitchen applications, including the best recipe for sourdough pizza crust. Life changing.
Coconut Tahini Bars
adapted from Sourdough: Recipes for Rustic Fermented Breads, Sweets, Savories, and More by Sarah Owens
115 grams 100% hydration starter
220 grams tahini
160 grams honey
15 grams coconut milk
1 teaspoon vanilla
30 grams chia seeds
30 grams ground flax
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
125 grams desiccated coconut (pulse 50% coconut flour + 50% unsweetened coconut flakes in processor)
130 grams nuts and seeds (I used 50% sliced almond, 50% sunflower seeds)
105 grams dried cranberries
25 grams candied ginger (optional)
- Preheat oven to 350°F. Prepare an 8.5 x 11-inch baking dish and set aside.
- Combine starter, tahini, honey, coconut milk, and vanilla together in a medium bowl.
- In separate bowl, combine chia, flax, sea salt, baking powder, coconut flour, coconut flakes, cranberries, and ginger.
- Pour wet ingredients over dry ingredients and stir until thick batter comes together.
- Pour into baking dish and spread evenly with a spatula (or good old fashioned fingers). Sprinkle extra coconut flakes on top.
- Bake 20 minutes, or until the edges turned golden brown and coconut is toasted.
- Allow to completely cool, cut, and serve or store in refrigerator (for up to 5 days).