Me and my sourdough starter

By Julia Guerrein, Editor-in-Chief

The author and Hugo, the sourdough starter. Photos by Julia Guerrein/The Forum.

During winter break an idea popped into my head: begin a sourdough starter. I do not remember if something prompted the idea, but soon thereafter I was researching how to make a sourdough starter, how to bake sourdough bread, and what I would need.

One video I watched included an array of fancy and expensive kitchen gadgets that I knew I could not invest in: a cooking scale, bread lame, Dutch oven, proofing box, proofing baskets, and a vessel for the sourdough starter. Not included in that list was all the ingredients to make the bread: pounds and pounds of flour (specific types), special seeds to cover my loaves in, special salts, and a sourdough starter.

So, before I left home, I asked my mother which of those gadgets or ingredients she had on hand. Instead, she took me to a nearby antique store, and we found a Griswold Dutch Oven. I am from Erie, Pennsylvania, so purchasing an antique Dutch Oven from where I was born and raised was extra special to me. And it’s super cool!

The starter was what mystified me the most. Flour + water = living culture of yeast that magically leavens breads and other treats, and is a thing of itself enough to warrant a name.

When I arrived in Vermont for the virtual spring semester, I got to work with mixing together flour and water using this recipe. I put my little monster inside of an old sauce jar with a loose fitting top. I even started a special sourdough starter log to track how my starter was doing.

Day 1: Yesterday I started my sourdough starter…The King Arthur Flour recipe that I’m using called for 1 qt-size jar (or 2 pints), but I do not have one that big, so I am just using the biggest jar I have.

Day 1 is also the day I decided to name my starter “Hugo.” That name popped into my head, so Hugo it became!

Day 3 of Hugo my beloved sourdough: BUBBLES!! And Hugo definitely got a lot bigger overnight.

Day 7: Fed @ 8 am. Has not risen much =( Troubleshoot?

I continued to feed Hugo and discard as the recipe above suggests, but Hugo was not rising like I had hoped. I went to Google searching for answers, determined to figure out what was going on. I researched the consistency (not runny but not too thick), temperature, type of flour, and more. I read that the starter should smell “fruity,” and Hugo currently smelled like Play-Doh. Finally, I decided to put Hugo in the microwave with the light on to provide a little more heat in my Vermont apartment in January, and lo and behold…

Day 11: After putting Hugo in the microwave with the light he smells fruity!!!! I just fed him—we will see if the temperature fixes everything.

Day 12: Hugo is doing much better in the microwave with the light on! =) Almost ready!

Hugo in the microwave. The rubber band marks where the starter was before so I can tell how much Hugo has risen.

My last entry in my sourdough log was about two weeks after my day 12 log and simply said:

HUGO IS STRONG

So, after some trials and tribulation, Hugo is going strong. I was beyond excited to make my first loaves. I am still figuring out the timing with baking my bread—the starter is supposed to be baked with when it is most risen, but before it starts to deflate.

I was daunted by all of the fancy equipment that “real bakers” use, but I discovered that I can make super tasty bread with basic equipment. I also am learning to use the discard because I feel bad wasting it when I feed Hugo every other day.

My first loaf!

I have also been experimenting with a number of other recipes that include sourdough. So far I have made bagels, soft pretzels, pizza crust, popovers, rosemary crackers, and two different recipes for bread.

Working with sourdough has given me a new appreciation for the time and attention baking takes. Before this year, I didn’t like baking because I had to measure everything and be meticulous. I love cooking because I can throw things in, taste it, and adjust based on my taste. Now, I am learning to understand my sourdough by the way it looks, feels, smells, and acts. Every recipe I do or redo is another learning experience and another chance to make it a little bit better.

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