Sourdough: It’s what all the cool kids in quarantine are doing. But what exactly is it, and what’s involved? This article will explain all of that, plus I’ll introduce you to Olivia and Amy, my sourdough starters. Maybe by the end of this article, you’ll be convinced to hop on the sourdough train.
What is a Sourdough Starter?
All sourdough bread originates from something called a sourdough starter. A starter is a mixture of flour and water in a specific ratio that undergoes a natural fermentation process over time to become a leavening agent. To the eye, the process may seem simple – just mix flour with water and wait for the vigorous bubbles – but many reactions occur to yield this result.
According to Discover, this is what happens: First, the starches in the flour split into sugars. Then, bacteria (specifically, lactobacilli), as well as yeast from the environment, interact with the sugars, converting them to lactic acid and acetic acid. These acids are what gives sourdough its characteristic tang.
You may notice that different sourdough loaves have different flavor profiles. Bread that is tangier comes from starters containing more acetic acid than lactic acid, according to King Arthur Flour.
Starter Feeding Explained
You may have heard foodies and bloggers talking about feeding their sourdough starters. To nourish the bacteria/yeast involved in the leavening process, starters need to be fed with a fixed ratio of flour and water. Since starters rise, it’s necessary to remove some of the starter before feeding to prevent overflow. The part of the starter that is removed is commonly known as sourdough discard.
However, just because it’s called discard doesn’t mean it has to be thrown away! If the discard is “fed,” meaning that it’s bubbly and active, it can be used to make bread or another recipe that requires rising. Even if the discard is unfed, however, it can still be used in many recipes to provide a sourdough-like flavor without adding bulk (see the coffee-cinnamon pancake recipe below). Sourdough discard can also be stored in the fridge for later use.
The word “discard” truly is deceiving, since it’s truly a shame to throw away something that makes baked goods taste so much better.
If you’re interested in making a sourdough starter, here is a guide from King Arthur Flour to start you off.
Why The Current Sourdough Craze?
The current sourdough craze could be explained by the abundance of time many of us now have, which comes with a newfound ability to “babysit” the multi-step bread-making process. Sourdoughing truly requires a lot of time, patience and maintenance.
The current sourdough obsession can also be explained by the recent yeast shortage. Since sourdough uses a natural fermentation process that makes use of yeast naturally present in the air, there is no need to add commercial yeast to sourdough bread. All you need is flour and water, which most of us have at home.
My Sourdough Journey: Meet Olivia and Amy
Many people name their sourdough starters, since caring for them – which includes feeding them, figuring out exactly how they like to be treated and stored, etc. – can in some ways feel like caring for a child. Like children, starters can be unpredictable, but you will get to know your starter’s unique personality, tendencies and preferences with time.
I have two starters: Olivia and Amy. Olivia, a whole wheat starter, was born the week after Passover. Amy, an all-purpose flour starter, was given to me by a friend, for which she is named after. The two cannot be more different.
If Amy came with a report card, it would say that she follows the rules and almost always exceeds expectations. Since Amy is a very active starter, especially now with the summer humidity, she always needs less time to rise than expected. If a recipe says to wait two to four hours for rising, she is almost always ready to go at the 90-minute mark. Amy is ahead of the game in that sense. She is predictable, always doubling her volume within four hours or so of being fed. All bread and pizza crust that she’s been a part of has come out fabulous – both in terms of taste and appearance. Her flavor is mild, earthy and soft.
Olivia, on the other hand, has a more mysterious personality. She has more of a tang than Amy and sometimes needs extra coaxing, care or time to meet her own goals or those of the recipe. I feed Olivia with slightly warmer water than I do Amy, and at times she has to be stored in an off oven or microwave since she is sensitive to cooler temperatures and drafts.
The few times that I’ve tried making bread with Olivia, it hasn’t turned out too great. However, Olivia makes the best pancakes, muffins and baked goods. Plus, being that she is almost 100% whole wheat flour, she is more nutrient-dense than Amy, which is a natural win.
Whether your starter is closer in personality to Olivia or to Amy (or has a different personality altogether), the recipe below for Coffee-Cinnamon Sourdough Pancakes should work well for you! It’s a great way to use up your sourdough discard.
Coffee-Cinnamon Sourdough Pancakes Recipe
Serves 5 to 6 people
These pancakes have the slightest hint of coffee and cinnamon and are the fluffiest ever. They won’t be a replacement for your usual cup of Joe, but will certainly taste great alongside it. Enjoy these sourdough discard pancakes topped with Greek yogurt, nut butter and berries for a balanced breakfast or brunch. Start this recipe the night before to have fresh pancakes in the morning. Since this recipe makes pancakes for days, you can pop any leftovers in the freezer to enjoy delicious pancakes at a later time. I always make this recipe with Olivia, my whole wheat starter, but any type of starter should work here.
Pro tip: Use a scale for this recipe rather than measuring cups to avoid extra dishes.
Ingredients for overnight sponge:
- 227 grams sourdough starter discard, unfed
- 1 cup (340 grams) skim milk
- ⅓ cup (113 grams) cold brew coffee
- 2 tablespoons (25 grams) dark brown sugar, packed
- 2 cups (241 grams) all-purpose flour*
*Note: You can use a mixture of whole wheat flour and white flour, as long as it totals 241 grams.
Ingredients to be added to sponge the next morning:
- 2 large eggs
- ¼ cup oil
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1-2 teaspoons cinnamon
- 1 teaspoon baking soda
- ¾ teaspoon salt
In a large mixing bowl, mix ingredients for the overnight sponge together well. Cover with a lid or plastic wrap. Let sponge sit at room temperature for about an hour before refrigerating overnight.
The next morning, you should see some bubbles scattered across the surface of the sponge. Add the eggs, oil, vanilla, cinnamon, baking soda and salt to the sponge. Mix well.
Heat some oil or butter in a griddle pan over medium heat. Once oil is hot, use a small ladle to drop the batter onto the pan in circles. Do not crowd the pan. Once you see several deep bubbles spanning the surface of the pancake, use a spatula to flip the pancakes. Continue cooking until pancakes are golden brown on each side. Repeat process until batter is finished.
Serve pancakes warm with Greek yogurt, nut butter, fresh berries and maple syrup. Pancakes can be stored in the fridge for a few days or frozen.