Living Baking

I like the way we are rarely in control of bread dough, the way it appears to have a mind of its own. And why shouldn’t it – yeast is, after all, very much a living thing. We spend too much of our cooking time trying to be in charge of our ingredients, of making them do only what we want them to. Bread dough will often resist our attempts at complete control, and will rise or fall as it wishes, take its time or surprise us with its spontaneity.

— Nigel Slater

I love bread. I grew up first provided with nice fresh loaves from local groceries, and later—after Dad got his first bread maker—a cavalcade of elaborate breads containing nuts, cheese, olives… and so forth. Put a meal in front of me and I will sample the bread first. Whilst this could segue into a piece on how brilliant sandwiches are, I want to introduce you to something.

This is Eric. Eric is my new starter.

"Dough starter in a tub"

Local Mission Eatery is a splendid new spot on 24th Street, serving great soup and sandwiches during the day and very excellent set dinners twice a week. They also host labs, where members of San Francisco’s food community host 90 minute sessions on their areas of expertise. On March 25th, SFBI student and Sour Flour founder Danny Gabriner ran a session on bread, particularly the craft of creating and maintaining a natural starter.

A natural starter is as opposed to baking with commercial yeast. By combining flour and water, enzymes break down starch in flour, producing sugars for yeast and bacteria to eat. By feeding your starter with more flour and water on a regular cycle, you cultivate yeast and bacteria, and shortly, you’ll be able to break off a piece and use it as a base for bread dough. This cultivation will also produce strong flavours, which in turn affect the bread.

Danny’s class was a frantic, occasionally scattered affair to a group of around twenty active, interested and prospective bakers. I had no idea what a starter was when I arrived, but had done enough baking in the past that I was able to fill in or defer the knowledge gaps until later in the session. I wonder that someone with no baking experience might have struggled with the details, but would at least have come away quite inspired. The core learning I came away with though, was that whilst the creation and maintenance of a starter is a fairly scientifically careful affair (trying to feed on a regular schedule, maintaining a consistent ratio of flour to water), there also seems to be complete flexibility in what that schedule and ratio can be.

You can maintain a starter by feeding it daily, bi-daily, weekly, even slower if you keep it in the fridge to slow down the yeast. Likewise, you can maintain very dry, dough-like starters or super-hydrated, almost liquid starters that will fizz and bubble after you feed it. Danny was entirely unwilling to commit to any one kind of starter as being ‘correct’, nor does having a wet starter preclude you from making a stiff dough (nor vice versa.)

It was also clear that even if you screw it up, the starter probably isn’t dead and you can rescue it. The starter itself can live indefinitely; you break off a piece to bake with, and feed the remainder. Some starter maintenance techniques will have you discard some of the starter before you feed, to keep the overall size down, and keep it under control in its tub.

There’s a huge amount of information to it, and Danny has very helpfully blogged his presentation notes on the Sour Flour blog.

One thing that was definitely clear: You should give your starter a name. It’s alive, after all. Which brings us back to Eric. Everything in my family has gotten named Eric at some point, so in my slow progression toward Becoming My Father, this starter is named Eric, too.

In the interests of keeping this as simple as I possibly can for myself, Eric is a 100% hydration starter, which means he’s made up of equal quantities of flour and water (50g each, in this first mixture.) I’m using white, non-bleached bread flour (with a view to making French baguettes like sometime previous), and I’m going to feed him every two days, because I intend to bake once a week at the weekend, and that seems like a fair way to build up the quantity slowly. You see how I’m employing guesswork already? Right. Good.

Next weekend, or maybe in a fortnight, I’ll bake a loaf with Eric. Unless it doesn’t work.

You can read more about Danny Gabriner’s Sour Flour operation in a profile by Mission Local, which is an excellent read in its own right.


  1. Posted April 12, 2010 at 3:13 am | Permalink

    Glad to hear you have created a starter. Hard to tell exactly from the picture, but Eric looks a bit stiffer than 100% hydration. If you are indeed at 100% hydration, and want to feed him every other day, I’d recommend keeping him out of the fridge, but feeding him a somewhat large quantity of food. You might want to start with 1:2:2, which would be 20g Eric, 40g flour, 40g water. You could even try going as high as 1:6:6, but I’d start with less food, as he is still a baby.

    Good luck, and let me know how the bread turns out.

  2. Posted April 12, 2010 at 3:52 am | Permalink

    Thank you for the feeding tips, Danny. I’ll be careful to check the stiffness after measuring and adding the first feeding and see if it remains the same. The scales I’m using are a bit crap, so there’s a chance the ratio has come out erroneously. I should upgrade!

  3. Posted April 12, 2010 at 1:30 pm | Permalink

    I’m looking forward to the first bake with Eric. I’m not too clear on how you sub the starter for regular yeast and hopefully that’ll make it clearer.

    In the mean time I might give this a go and stay a day or two behind you. Food science++

  4. Posted April 13, 2010 at 9:56 pm | Permalink

    So, the yeast grows naturally in the starter. After cultivating the start for a bit, when you feed it the starter will grow in size. So when you bake with it, you feed it first, a few hours before (depending on the hydration of the starter) so that it’s near the height of expansion when you come to make the dough. Then you take some amount of the starter as the base for your dough.

    I need to read up on this a little more before I try, to get the quantities right, of course.

  5. Posted April 16, 2010 at 6:22 pm | Permalink

    So, that’s what you meant on Twitter when you said “I have to feed Eric and then, eventually, myself” or something along those lines. LOL.

  6. Posted April 17, 2010 at 7:59 am | Permalink

    Indeed, yes. I have become quite attached to Eric as a living, breathing, emotionally complex… pot of yeast.

    Everything seems to be going pretty good so far. Seems be smelling right, so I’m going to do some baking on Sunday and see what happens.

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