It’s alive!… Wait, is that sourdough bread I smell?

August 30, 2006


I remember a scene from one of Vogue critic Jeffrey Steingarten’s books (either It Must Have Been Something I Ate, or The Man Who Ate Everything), where he determined to make a homemade yeast starter and master the art of breadmaking. The episode is — as usual — a bit fuzzy in my memory, but I think it had something to do with him keeping his apartment dark and chilly for a matter of days in order to cultivate a particular kind of yeast. His wife had to walk around their dim apartment in a winter coat, muttering bitterly, while he and his yeast had a good old time under some darkened stairwell.

Recalling this, I was a little trepidatious when my husband approached with a foamy, dough-colored substance in our little-used cocktail shaker — now re-purposed as a yeast nursery. “I’m making a homemade starter!” he declared. I waited for the lights to go dark and the air conditioning to kick on. But, thankfully, there was no such inconvenience to me (my sympathies, Mrs. Steingarten) in my husband’s yeast-making, bread-baking endeavor.

So, I can now endorse the proposed methods my husband describes below for yeast-making — knowing that spouses everywhere won’t have to suffer. The one drawback is that when you think about how a homemade stater actually works — yeast (fungi) in the environment have a party in some nasty flour-water — it makes you want to wrinkle your nose, not open your maw. But trust me, you quickly get over it when you smell the bread a-baking. (Just don’t knock over that yeast nursery. Ew.)

Before we begin…
This is an experiment. We need help. I know from the statistics some of you must be very good bakers and bread makers. So, input here we would be fantastic. This bread doesn’t have me down, just needing perhaps the guiding thoughts of more experienced bakers. So please send your thoughts and comments our way!


Now that I’ve pleaded for assistance, welcome back to the MHC Test Kitchen. This time we are playing with one of God’s magical, tiny, little creatures: yeast. More important, we are experimenting with sourdough bread and sourdough starters. Now, these two don’t seem related at first, but they are. A sourdough starter is a medium of flour, water, and sometimes a few other items; this brew creates a sometimes spectacularly smelly medium that gathers the “wild yeast” in the air.

This fragrant concoction is easy to make. Take equal parts of flour and water, leave the mixture in a warm location… and just walk away. That’s right. Walk away. At least in principle you should be able to do that. When you return in a couple of days to look at it, the starter should be a frothy mixture of fun-ness. You’ll be able to see how the flour and water have developed, there should be some smelly water on top, and in general, you’ll have a magical starter of wild yeast.

IMG_0827.JPG IMG_0865.JPGThis is very neat. It’s like a nature show of your own culinary mastery. What is going on? Well, yeast has three awesome properties.

First, it’s everywhere. It’s in the air. You are likely breathing in yeast right now, unless your are a bubble person or in a hospital. (If you are one of those two people, I’m sorry. You are missing out.) The culinary benefit to everyone else is that you can make a starter anywhere. This also means that starters have different tastes depending on where you live. San Francisco is famous for sourdough bread, partially because of the starters used to make the bread there. So you are adding your own local flavor when you make your starter yourself.

Second, yeast produces carbon dioxide and alcohol when it eats the starch in the flour. This causes the bread to rise and contributes to that distinct flavor that only yeast breads have. This same magical fermentation process gives many alcoholic beverages their flavor and intoxicating effects. In fact, many breadmakers used the “brewer’s yeast,” which was formed during the making of beer, to raise their breads.

Third, and likely revealing the science geek in me, the yeast make the environment less hospitable to various hostile organisms by producing both some anti-bacterial chemicals as well as an acidic environment. This is why what seems like something that should go rancid actually is full of life.

What the MHC test kitchen has done so far:

We have run two trials so far. Both require some assistance and perfection. The first was a traditional, straight up starter: water, flour and air. The beginning was very promising. Over three days, it frothed, it bubbled, and then it hit a high level of stink-oscity. I was hesitant to even try to make bread from it. But being the intrepid cook, I gritted my teeth and made the dough. My wife was scared. However, the culinary gods saved her from the sampling process… the bread never rose. I’m not sure if I didn’t put enough of the starter into the bread, or if I had done something along the way to undermine the little yeasties. The results were unsatisfying either way.

What did I do next? I cheated. Oh, don’t get all holy with me. I wanted to make good bread. So, I made a slight adjustment. I added a small amount of yeast to the mix first. My hope was that it would minimize the other factors undermining the process. It would also allow the yeast to build up the anti-bacterial environment, and hopefully, be more conducive to the growth and development of their other yeast-friends. Not sure if my logic works, but the starter after three days seemed healthier and the results are the recipe below.

SourdoughSourdough Bread v 1.0


1 cup flour

1 cup water

1/8 tsp. yeast


  • Mix all ingredients and place in warm place not in direct sun.
  • Over the next three days, pour off any excess water.
  • Notes: What you are looking for is something bubbly that has a tangy aroma. You can keep this going indefinitely by regularly adding water and new flour. I’ll give you a full report about where the starter stands as I go forward. This potentially is an indefinite cycle of yummy.


    2 cups bread flour

    1/2 cup water

    1 1/2 tsp. salt

    1/4 cup yeast starter

    2 tbsp. olive oil

    For wash:

    1 egg (for wash)

    2 tbsp. water


    1. In a large bowl, mix all ingredients together. You are looking for soft dough. It should be tacky to the touch. If it isn’t soft or isn’t coming together, add more water. If it’s sticking to everything in sight, add a bit more flour. Add both of these, one tablespoon at a time until you get it right. Another clue, if using a stand mixer, the side of the bowl should be clean and the dough should stick to the bottom of the bowl.
    2. Coat the dough with olive oil. Let dough rest overnight.

    Note: This is my failure on this dough. I am still working on the recipe, but it was slow to rise. So I felt I needed to let it rest overnight. Later incarnations will adjust the amount of starter I put into the bread.



    1. Knead the dough and then roll it out, shaping it into a loaf. Let it rest in this shape for about 30 min. This is bench proofing. You are letting it rest in the shape it’s going to be cooked in. This is important as it builds up again.
    2. Preheat the oven to 375 F.
    3. Mix the egg and water in a bowl to make the wash. Brush the wash over the loaf. Then, with a knife, cut slits across the loaf to allow the bread to expand during cooking.
    4. Using a bread peel coated with cornmeal, move the bread to a pizza stone in the oven.
    5. Bake for 30 min.

    Let cool a bit. Best served warm.


    1. just a few tips for cooking the loaf: hearth breads like this one do best in an extremely hot oven. like 500 degrees, and preferably a 500 degree oven with a pizza stone inside that has been warming-up for 45 minutes. put a pan in the oven, on the floor of the oven or under the stone, in the last 15 minutes. heat up a cup of water in the microwave for about 2 minutes, pop the bread onto the pizza stone (parchment paper does wonders), pour the cup of hot hot water on the pan and close the door (watch the steam, of course, cuz it’s hot). bake it at 500 degrees for 5 minutes, then reduce the temperature to 450.

      my apologies if you know this already and were trying another approach. love the website – thanks!

    2. Sean,

      Thanks on two counts. Its nice to know you are enjoying the site. The wife and I are as well.

      As for the advice, I want it. I’ve read a few cookbooks and few recipes over the years. But breadmaking is one of those talents that I’m trying to improve. I focus a good deal of my time in the kitchen working on the stove top not baking breads. But its a true art that people love and improves the meals we eat. So thank you. And I’ll be sure to try it on sourdough 2.0.

    3. Wow! I just made some whole wheat sourdough bread and did a series of posts about it! Looks like you used the “dough”-like starter. My starter is the potato flake type. Makes it really easy! This bread looks DELICIOUS! It makes me want to do a batch just plain old sourdough and not whole wheat!

    4. Thanks Claire. My poor wife doesn’t know what’s coming now. I’m going to try yours and have two yeast colonies running in our kitchen. I’m thinking I’ll start yours up and call it Sourdough Bread: Operation Vodka! I’ll let you know how they go off.

      Might be a chance to hold a tasting party. People will be all excited thinking I’m doing some fancy wine even, only to discover I’m going to make them eat tangy bread. Thanks for the idea. I’ll definitely be over to look over your work and get ideas.

      Thanks again.

    5. a great place to start is here: http://www.thefreshloaf.com. the guy who started it has some fantastic lessons and great book recommendations. i had been baking bread for the longest time, but i made sandwich-style breads – like the stuff one can purchase at the supermarket, but tastier. i had always wondered how one could bake those wonderfully chewy, tasty, rustic breads one encounters in europe (and in european bakeries) and this website got me going in the right direction.

    6. […] Despite the fact that my husband’s yeast nursery is ugly and disturbing, I still manage to choke down — no, devour — the bread that results from it. […]

    7. hello…i saw your bread pictures and they really interested me! those pics were really nasty and yeast is a really good thing to study about and cook with!

    8. this website sucks its awful u didn’t explain how to do it very well and everyone does this try finding another way to test if yeast is alive!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!lol

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