I arrived home from work the other day to a pretty devastating discovery. After months of careful tending, Abigail, my sourdough starter, was dead. While there had been ups and downs over the course of our time together, the grey scudge on top of the non-risen foundation was a sign that I had reached a point from which an attempted return might be of more harm than use. What had I done wrong? I cannot say for certain. It is possible that during one of her regular feedings she became contaminated with food residue from something else cooking or soap not fully washed off a tool somehow. Perhaps I had not fed her enough, though I have difficulty accepting this as I did my best to feed her weekly at least while keeping her in the fridge and kept a close eye (as well as nose) on her in the meantime to discern if she wanted a feeding sooner. Or perhaps it was the fridge time, our fridge running colder than some, pushing it over the edge into dangerous inactivity. Whatever the case, my voracious research, preparation, and care had not been enough, and down the drain Abigail went.
I started my sourdough starter journey back in June around my birthday, on the tail end of the sourdough craze that had taken everyone’s quarantine lives by storm. I had recently graduated and was getting a grip on living at home in NH again and working a remote part time job while beginning the search for the next, and I felt like I finally had the time to devote to the undertaking. We were also finally able to get some whole wheat flour from a great little flour mill in North Carolina, which had been a huge barrier of entry for a while as any whole wheat flour had been out of stock both in stores and online for most big companies since March. After polishing my skills with some whole wheat, ciabatta, rye, and brioche, remembering the wonderful sensory pleasures unique to bread baking, I was ready to take it to the next level.
I named her Abigail after Abigail Adams. A life-long fan of 1776 and currently in the throes of David McCullough’s John Adams biography, I felt there was no better person for my starter to aspire to emulate. The quintessence of a hearty New Englander, ever thoughtful, discerning, caring, and perseverant, her spirit was all I hoped to cultivate in my bread. I wrote it down on a piece of masking tape and affixed it to the mason jar that would become her home.
After lots of googling and youtubeing, I mixed my whole wheat flour with my tepid water, checked the first box off on my starter beginning spreadsheet, and set in for a week full of careful tracking, note tacking, and lots of discard. And while the first day or two saw little change, the warm June days helped coax her to life on the third, and in the span of an afternoon Abigail was so ripe and bubbly she was ready to jump her container. I lovingly discarded, and kept her fed and healthy.
After over a week of creation, I was eager to turn her beautiful, bubbly, yeasty lifeforce into the lofty, crusty loaves that had bombarded the internet. She smelt a beautiful mix of fruity and funky, was consistently growing and receding as she should, and I was ready to put her into action. So, I discarded and mixed with water, left her to ferment, mixed, let sit, folded, rested, folded, rested, folded, rested, and folded and rested maybe a million more times as the dough sat in the perfect warmth of a summer day. After some solid growth and clear bubbling, I formed it into a ball and transferred it into a forming container (which took the form of a flour dusted tea towel lining a strainer, as I don’t have a brotform) to let it further proof before baking in our beloved Dutch oven on the third and final day of bread work.
And after three days of prep it came out….fairly flat. While a deep, toasty brown and so crusty that the serrated knife had a hard time getting the bottom crust to break off cleanly, there had not been much oven spring, and the crumb was quite tight. Tasty and tangy, yes. Perfectly serviceable for some savory morning toast or soup dipping, but not the sourdough loaf I was looking for. Back to the drawing board it would be.
So I let her develop some more through weekly discards and feedings, and learned more about what she could do in other contexts. Banana bread, while not noticeably enhanced by Abigail, turned out as moist and sweet as banana bread should be. A loaf of cinnamon raisin made a treat of toast with its iconic sweet swirl. Brownies got an extra depth of flavor. English muffins an enjoyable tang. Waffles reached new levels of crisp and airy, and became the go-to for any chicken and waffle occasion. She stepped in for buttermilk with a couple batches of biscuits with which sausage gravy was happy to mingle. She turned out some fluffy chocolate cupcakes for a distanced celebration. Cherry and walnut scones worked wonderfully with her additional sour notes.
Perhaps the most loved discard use of them all, though, was the simplest. For the past few months our house has been relishing the modest glory of sourdough crackers. If ever I did not know what to do with a discard, or was too exhausted after work to do any intensive baking, I had only to throw the discard together with a mix of AP, whole wheat, and rye flour, water, olive oil, salt and a dash of Herbs de Provence, let it sit in the fridge for an hour (or 24 if I really didn’t feel up to the task) roll it out and bake for 15 minutes. After cooling, all there was to do was aimlessly crack the crispy sheets and we had crackers good for just about any dip you can imagine. Even dipless they became a favorite afternoon snack. They never lasted long, which worked out fine because there was always more discard in need of a route to avoid waste.
I made a couple handfuls of loaves that pulled from a few different recipe sources in between discard experiments. Some worked better than others – this one using supplemental yeast from King Arthur turning out most reliably the best – but I never got the airy artisan loaf I was looking for. Despite this, though, and despite the loss of Abigail, I am determined to continue the journey towards a more ideal loaf! Bread baking continues to engage the senses and mind, opening my eyes to new and exciting things that I take with me into my baking and culinary life at large. Working with sourdough through all its ups and downs is the epitome of that educational journey. So while I will likely take a bit of time to not only further research, but commit to the deluge of baking that this time of year demands, I will dust myself off and begin my sourdough journey again.
If my experience baking has taught me anything, it’s that excellent loaves (or cakes, or pies, or cookies) aren’t easy! But also, that a good loaf of bread can not only make anything a meal, but a great one at that. And while I wholeheartedly advocate giving baking your own bread a try, I also advocate giving your local baker your patronage if you so have the means. Personally, I am waiting for the right time (and feeling of preparedness) until I even attempt making my own bagels, and I do not expect NYC bagel greatness on my first try. So when the nostalgic cravings hit we get a dozen from Hot Rize here in NH, whose bagels have served as my Essential Image of a Bagel for my entire life. And up north a bit you can get some loaves even I would not usually churn out at home from The Crust and Crumb Baking Co. As we head into soup season, give a google for wherever is local to you and make your sweet potato soup extra special with an expertly made rye on the side.