I Love My Sourdough Starter, But Never Use it For Bread
Here are 7 things to do with it, plus pro starter tips from Lionel Vatinet.
During COVID-19, Lionel Vatinet, of La Farm Bakery, in Cary, North Carolina, dropped off a sourdough starter on my stoop. It was a “pinch me” moment as Vatinet is arguably one of the country’s most talented, expert bakers. I brought it inside, looked at it, and put it in the fridge for a few days—not really acknowledging it was there. Naturally, I decided that I'd become this kickass baker overnight and make loaves of bread for my household each week.
Confession: I haven’t made bread yet and it’s been weeks now. I tried to, twice. I even created levain both times and got sidetracked once for over 24 hours, and well, my bread making window had long been closed. You see, breadmaking is a science; a true art. The consensus of my fellow non-baking friends is we try once and think we’re going to be masters of a loaf of sourdough, only to be left with a mediocre (but still worthy of a ‘gram shoutout) loaf—because we’ve spent the past 48 hours trying to make it happen, for crying out loud. It deserves a photo! Sure, it still tastes good but will never satisfy quite like a fresh loaf from a neighborhood bakery.
Most people give up and say a quick RIP to their starter. Like a one night stand, it was fun while it lasted but it’s time to move on. The starter itself is quite high maintenance, I get it, but I’ve become super obsessed with mine—hawking it and watching it bubble and grow, at least six times a day. I call it my blob, as one morning I woke up to it oozing out of its container, which to me, was an exciting note that it was alive and thriving. Vatinet suggested keeping notes on it, which I thought was silly at first, but earlier this week I started a starter diary. Not even joking. I write about its bubble size and what the weather is outside. My dad would be stoked, he journaled daily about the weather for gardening purposes. It’s kind of the same idea.
Each morning I make coffee and observe my blob. I touch it, taste it, smell it, discard (into my discard container) and feed it. “People are reluctant to discard, but it's important to do this,” notes Vatinet. And you can tell when it’s not healthy. I use the comparison of being a hungover adult and needing a little extra TLC. “You need to have your coke and burger to get back on track,” a friend says, and she’s completely accurate. It matures around 6-8 hours after feeding it and according to Vatinet, it should be bubbly from the CO2. “You know it's becoming weaker when the bubbles are getting smaller and when you see separation,” he adds. And don’t forget it needs to breathe, so whatever covers it must have holes for air.
Some other tidbits I've learned by trial and error, and having Vatinet at my fingertips, are that it’s best to keep it on the counter and try to keep it temperature controlled—75 degrees is best and you can adjust it and move it to warmer spots in winter and cooler spots in summer. Plus, always wash your hands before touching it or your germs could ruin your blob. “Make sure your hands are clean and don’t have any soap on them,” says Vatinet. “My hands are full of yeast—everything I touch is going to ferment,” he laughingly adds. If you’re having a hard time with your starter, try wearing gloves.
Enough with blob tips, you get the gist. Aside from maintaining a healthy starter, I also cook religiously with it—making everything but bread. Here’s why you should keep that starter alive and what to make with it because I've found that you can basically add a little starter discard into everything that calls for flour. Trust me, it’s simple and amps up the taste.
Most people will tell you to make sourdough discard pancakes, and yes, turns out they’re on to something. Pancakes are always enjoyable but think of the discard like a taste enhancement. They’re more fluffy, still sweet but have a perfect little tangy bite—best accompanied with fruit and whipped cream toppings.
This has been my favorite discovery and new hobby: sourdough pizza dough. I began this journey with so much discard and no idea what to make with it, and it turned out that pizza dough is such a solid bet. The sourdough makes for a more flavorful crust, with a perfectly crisp, slightly chewy texture. And during these COVID-19 times, I've enjoyed doing roulette toppings with whatever leftovers are lying around in the fridge—including pulled pork.
“Crackers don’t usually have yeast,” says Vatinet, while highly recommending adding to a simple cracker recipe, as it adds ample flavor plus shelf life. What we don’t think of often is the shelf life note: Your starter really is a solid tool to extend the life of baked goods.
A galette is one of my favorite things to make all-year round. Whatever is in season in the produce world and whatever herbs or leftover brisket or sausage in the refrigerator is going into the unperfectly, freeform style delight. A few weeks ago I made the best galette dough to-date and I can thank my sourdough discard for that. The dough was more flaky and again, the slight tangy flavor goes far in my taste book.
Another fast favorite is tortillas. During COVID-19 my local stores and markets have been sold out of tortillas. While normally team corn tortillas, as I say flour tortillas are basically like eating a tasteless piece of cardboard, the sourdough starter really gives flour tortillas more life. And everyone needs tortillas. You can pile anything you want/whatever leftovers you have on hand into a fresh tortilla and you have a satisfying meal.
Muffins & Coffee Cakes
I’m not usually a muffin person as I fall on more of the savory side of baked goods, so I was curious to see if the starter would convince me otherwise. I didn’t have a muffin pan so I ended up making a double layer blueberry muffin cake with cinnamon sugar crumbles on top at random, and it did not disappoint. The muffins were slightly less sweet but still really fluffy, which I greatly appreciate.
Bonus: A Sourdough Powder
If you’re worried about your starter dying, create a backup. Vatinet suggests drying some starter in the sun and grinding into powder form. “Use it to restart a starter or add to anything you’re baking,” he adds. It will come in handy when you least expect it.
Point in case, when it comes to baking the serious, science-y stuff, I recommend staying in your own lane. And by your own lane, I mean enjoy the starter in many other ways that are just as delicious and exciting as a homemade loaf, but that won’t take 48 hours to complete.