What to avoid, from the starter to the bake
Several friends have told me that this is the winter they’re going to “get into sourdough.” I commend them! Sourdough bread takes a lot of time to make (like, days) and can be very finicky. As the owner of two dormant sourdough starters in my freezer, I can tell you that this will not be my winter cooking project. However, if you’re itching for an adventure, find yourself a starter and get baking. Just make sure to avoid these common sourdough mistakes.
1. Thinking it’s too hard
Keeping a sourdough starter alive and baking with it (especially breads) is hard. But it’s not so hard that you shouldn’t try. There are hundreds of cookbooks and myriad personal blogs (the Perfect Loaf is a great one) dedicated to sourdough that often cover problems more likely to be encountered by home bakers—plus, they often include more process photos, which can be extremely helpful.
2. Feeding the starter too often
So you’ve found yourself a sourdough starter—aka a culture of wild yeast, water, and flour. Many outlets will say starters need to be fed often, sometimes as much as two or three times a day. Feeding means adding flour and water. Unless you work at a professional bakery, there is no need to feed your starter even once a day, much less several times. Depending on how often you’re going to use the starter, you should feed it about once or twice a week.
3. Not feeding the starter often enough
Of course, when you’re not doing something every day, it’s easy to get lazy. A starter isn’t the place to do that, as without regular feeding, the mixture can grow mold and die. However, if you’re going away or simply not feeling like baking for a while, you can put the starter in your freezer to keep it dormant until you’re ready to get back into it.
4. Throwing away excess starter
Feeding a starter involves adding more flour and water to the mixture and discarding excess. This is wasteful for so many reasons. Excess starter is actually a killer ingredient for other baked goods, from pancakes and muffins to crackers and biscuits. King Arthur has a whole collection of sourdough discard recipes, and the rest of the internet has millions more.
5. Following the recipe exactly
Recipes are important, especially when it comes to baking with sourdough. However, you can’t trust a cookbook to factor in your specific oven’s vulnerabilities, the varying temperature of different kitchens, and other discrepancies within the environment the recipe was tested and your own kitchen. Look for these details in blogs—and comment on them with questions, earnest questions are the only good thing about website comments sections. Ultimately, remember that this is still a tricky thing to do, and even if you do everything right, your bread may not be perfect. But that’s OK. You did your best and you can always run out to a bakery if you absolutely need a loaf for something.