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I Think I Joined a Cult: All About Sourdough

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Bread is life. It is history and culture. It is fascinating.

In the age of GF everything, I am here to proclaim that I love bread (I know that there are real conditions that require gluten-free living... and you have my deepest sympathies).

Bread-making is an ancient and beautiful art. Did you know that bread is older than metal? Or that bread existed long before the written word. Michael Gaenzle writes, "the origins of bread-making are so ancient that everything said about them must be pure speculation. One of the oldest sourdough breads dates from 3700 BCE and was excavated in Switzerland, but the origin of sourdough fermentation likely relates to the origin of agriculture in the Fertile Crescent several thousand years earlier." I feel connected to history in a tangible way when I knead dough- it squishing between my fingers. This act that women and men have participated in for centuries transports me to another time.

I was fortunate enough to grow up with a mom that made bread, but I didn't learn much about the different kinds of bread-making until recently.

I feel connected to history in a tangible way when I knead dough- it squishing between my fingers.

When I was 10, my mom went to bread classes and came home with some new kitchen appliances, a 5-gallon bucket of "wheat berries," and a lot of excitement over her new bread knowledge. I had no idea that wheat could come in "berry" form and I certainly did not know that you could grind your own flour from said berries. She dutifully got to work, determined to provide nutritious and delicious bread for her 5 children. My dad appropriately oohed and aahed over her labor of love, fresh from the oven. It smelled amazing, all hot and buttered. How did her children thank her? "We want REAL bread from the store," we moaned. Oh, youthful ignorance. Now looking back, I can't believe my mom didn't slap us silly. This was my introduction to bread making.

Though I started out skeptical and unappreciative, I quickly learned to love the nutrient dense, supremely flavorful homemade bread. It became a treat and remains one of my favorite foods to this day. During my early stay-at-home-mom days, making bread together became an excuse to go to my mom's house and catch a little break. We could make 4-5 loaves in a matter of hours. I say "we" would make it, but she did most of the work while I rested from the sleepless newborn nights. Truthfully, I was a bit intimidated by the bread-making process.


Fast forward some years and I am asked to join a cult at playgroup.

Durning playgroup I hear whispers of "starter" and how to "feed your starter." Finally, someone asks me if I want some "starter." Wait, what? What is this starter you speak of? "Bread," they say. But I am confused because I have watched my mom bake bread for years and have never heard of a starter. They tell me that this is sourdough bread and it requires a starter. I don't ask any further questions. You had me at "sourdough bread." All I knew was that I love sourdough bread. I didn't really know what this starter business was all about. And I honestly didn't know the first thing about sourdough bread.

I started doing some research when I got home (because that is what I do). What is sourdough bread exactly? Sourdough bread is made by the fermentation of dough using naturally occurring lactobacilli and yeast. The "starter" that I need from the bread cult, I mean, my friends, is this fermentation. (Interestingly, the fermentation process and bacteria present in sourdough have similar health benefits as yogurt and kefir. Amazing!) The purpose of the starter is to produce a leaven and to develop the flavor of the bread. This method of bread leavening was used for centuries before the more recent creation of baker's yeast. Baker's yeast allows for a faster rising time, making it the popular method of bread baking today. My mom and I baked with the faster baker's yeast. Sourdough bread needs much longer to rise and has a mildly sour taste not present in bread made with baker's yeast.

"There’s something in the air… at least that’s what you hope when you embark on the wild adventure of making a sourdough starter. You will need patience, but you won’t need special tools or expensive ingredients. The end reward is something you can eat warm from the oven, slathered with sweet, creamy butter"

Maria Helm Sinskey

All About Starters

Many sourdough starters contain only flour and water and the fermentation occurs naturally. Wild yeast is captured from the air (crazy cool) as the flour and water mixture sits. Nature takes its course and after roughly 7 days, you have a mixture that contains enough leaven (yeast) to make bread rise. Who knew doing so little could yield such an amazing result?! I plan to try this method soon. There is something about the idea of creating something from nothing that I love. There are also numerous sourdough starter kits. I have heard good reviews about the Cultures for Health starter kits.

My friend was kind enough to share some starter with me and give me her recipe. From my research, I learned that there are numerous varieties of sourdough bread. This variation is an Amish variety that is fed with potato flakes and sugar. If you know me in real life, I would love to invite you into our cult, I mean, give you some of my starter.

To keep your starter alive, you have to feed it regularly. Depending on the type of starter you have and where you keep it, it is fed either daily or weekly. I keep mine in the fridge and only feed it once a week before I make my new loaves. I have gone nearly 2 weeks between feedings, though, and my starter is still alive. The refrigerator slows the yeast growth considerably, so it does not need to be fed as often. If you leave your starter at room temperature, it needs to be fed smaller "meals" more frequently. How do you know if your starter is still alive? If you see bubbles forming on top of the starter, it's alive! if there are no bubbles... it may be dead.

Sourdough bread is extremely easy to make. The "hands-on" time is only about 15 minutes. However, it does take some planning ahead due to the hours it needs for rising. I usually make my bread over the weekend.

Recipe for Amish (potato flake) Sourdough Bread

Makes 2 large loaves or 3 small loaves.

If you have received a starter from a friend (this bread is sometimes called Amish friendship bread), make sure to ask when it was last fed. If it was fed that day, you can either leave it out at room temperature to bake with or put it in the fridge for a week. I store mine in a glass mason jar with holes in the top so that it can breathe. Do not store your starter in a metal container.

The starter needs to be fed weekly (though I have sometimes gone nearly 2 weeks without it dying). To feed, I pour my starter into a large plastic bowl. Feed starter with:

3/4 cup sugar
3 tablespoons instant potato flakes
1 cup warm water

Mix together well and then add to starter. Cover with plastic wrap. Puncture plastic wrap 4-5 times with a knife. Let sit out of the refrigerator all day or night (10 hours). Take 1 cup starter to use in the following recipe and return the remainder of starter to the fridge (or share some with a friend).

In a large bowl, make a stiff dough with:

1 cup starter (this is your leaven/yeast)
1 1/2 cups warm water (not hot, it will kill the yeast in the starter)
1/2 cup oil
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup sugar
6 cups bread flour

1. Knead dough until rubbery.
2. Grease a large bowl (plastic or glass, no metal).
3. Put dough in bowl and cover with a dish towel. Let stand all day or all night (8-10 hours) in the oven with the oven light on.
4. After it has risen, take out and knead again until rubbery (10-12 times) and place into greased loaf pans. Let it rise in the oven with oven light on until it has risen enough to bake.

Bake at 300 degrees for 35 minutes.


I like to take my starter out in the morning, feed it, and let it sit on my counter until after I have put my kids to bed that night. After my kids are in bed, I make my dough and put it in a bowl to rise overnight in the oven. In the morning, it has risen and is ready to be kneaded again. I knead the dough, divide it into 2 greased loaf pans, and place them in the oven to rise again. I keep my eye on the dough and how quickly it is rising at this stage. It usually only takes an hour or two until it has risen enough to bake. The bread is ready just in time for lunch!

Amish "friendship" bread starter is usually passed with love from kitchen to kitchen, but, If you would like to try to establish your own starter, this is a great resource!

I hope you have enjoyed this introduction to sourdough bread! I would love to hear your thoughts! Are you going to try making sourdough bread?
xoxo, Mary

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