Yeast & You: We All Start Somewhere
Hints on Sourdough Starters and Trans Life
So, my friend and one of the best contemporary LGBTQIA+ journalists, James Finn, has asked me to give tips on making a sourdough starter. I don’t vouch to be an expert on this. I’m just a chic who bakes. If you want expertise, bake at the side of Richard Bourdan or read The Tartine Bread Book.
The fact of the scuhvitiation is that “sourdough” has become a hipster craze, like it’s going back to your roots and being authentic. Really, though, sourdough bread tastes, well, sour. Some folks have the idea that this was the way all bread tasted till modern yeast-processing methods. [Right now in France and Italy, the people rise in revolution at anyone thinking all their bread tasted forever like *that*.] Bread is bread! Human beings have been making it for roughly 10,000 years, if not longer. For 99% of that time, we didn’t have modern yeast-processing methods. So, we used trial and error to cultivate strains of yeast that could reliably produce bread that tastes much BETTER than sourdough, thank the goddess!
Uh, Do You Really Want Real Sourdough?
What we commonly call “sourdough” was actually the stuff produced by folks on the American western frontier who lived in extreme climates and conditions in which the only yeast available in the air was the kind that churned out sour-tasting dough (think of the Mojave, the Bonneville Salt Flats, and the base of the Grand Canyon). Ask yesteryear’s spinner of authentic western gibberish if they’d rather had their chuckwagon sourdough or a fine French baguette, and they’d look at you like you were a peyote hallucination. Of course they’d want the cultured bread that’s the result of the centuries it took perfecting it, but chuckwagon provender was all they had to go with.
I say all this because you’re gonna be disappointed if you make loaves of bread solely from the starter you create. Unlike European and American colonial bakers who had millennia of communal life and a mixing of diverse localities from which to draw wholesome varieties of yeast strains, you’re at the mercy of whatever circulates in the air of your domicile. (And here I want you to think about what you saw the last time you replaced your home’s HVAC filter.) You’re not getting the variety and centuries of tried-and-true baking of bread. Your sources of yeast consist largely of
what yeasts were hanging out at the mill where your floured was ground;
the microbes lounging at the market where you got your flour; and
whether your kitchen has a window or is adjacent to your teen’s hellhole-smelling room.
That’s gonna be your bread if all you use is your sourdough starter.
Goin’ All Louis Pasteur
If you set up a mini lab on your kitchen counter, replete with microscope, gels, and Petri dishes, and if you grow, harvest, and mill your own wheat, and if you’re willing to spend years trying and failing to derive a reliably replicable source of the perfect bread yeast, then you’ll be doing what Richard Bourdan, the Tartine Bakery, and millennia of pre-industrial-era home bakers did (after centuries of their ancestors’ ancestors’ ancestors trials and errors).
Or, you may just have a thing for sourdough bread, like some folks enjoy the skunky smell and taste of Heineken. No judgment here. You do you, boo. (Okay, so a little judgy.)
Add It On, People
But if you’re wanting to make a good loaf of bread every time (go here for my handy-dandy bread recipe), and if you wanna do it with a healthy, powerful supply of yeast, then you’ll keep a sourdough starter on hand to supplement the active dry or instant yeast you buy at the store.
I use sourdough starter not to impart its own distinct, smell-like-my-apartment-carpeting bouquet but to punch up the prove and flavor of a well-rounded bread recipe and bake. And that’s why you should think about making your own sourdough starter—not because you wanna be a microbiologist bent on revolutionizing bread. (Again, though, if that’s your mission, I’d question why you ever found my Substack, let alone read this far. You do you, boo.)
When Transition Is Like Bread & Vice-Versa
Bread is like anything—it’s up to YOU! And yes, I’ll again use my transition as an illustration, as I do with a lot of subjects because I like me and I believe my experience, like yours, shows something of the truth of the cosmos. Just like you being you and you baking your own bread show the truth and authenticity of life at its humble best.
When I began my transition, I had at my fingertips literally centuries of trans history and an internet’s worth of ideas. The best route to take, though, was the one I chose, after spending 50 years of my life not choosing it—namely, I asked myself, “What do I like? What do I love? Who is the happy me I want to be?”
So, when it comes to baking bread, perhaps ask yourself, “What kind of bread do I like? What meals with bread do I love? Who are the happy folks I wanna enjoy this bread with?”
The answers to every one of these questions can only be made better with a dollop or two of sourdough starter in your recipe. And you don’t have to pause and parse and dither about making your starter. Let your local microbes do their thing. All you’re doing is creating a nurturing environment and supply of water and food that’ll make them happy.
Isn’t that what we all really want?
Prep Time: 5min a day for 10-14 days Cook Time: n/a Total Time: 10-14 days Difficulty: Easy
Lg mason jar
Spoon or thin silicone spatula
Supply of whole wheat flour
Water (I prefer charcoal-filtered)
A few grapes or other small fruit, diced
1. Chop up a few grapes and/or blueberries and place in mason jar. (This will give you a source of microbes perhaps more pleasing than just the yeasts floating in your kitchen.)
2. Measure 60g (1⁄2C) whole wheat flour and put in mason jar.
3. Measure 60ml (1⁄3C) filtered water (like from a Brita or Pür dispenser) and pour into mason jar.
4. Stir, till mixture is combined.
5. Screw on lid and place in dark cupboard at room temp, around 70°F/20-21°C.
6. For the next 7-10 days, each day, add the same amounts of whole wheat flour and water from Steps 2-3, and stir till combined.
If at any point, you notice a layer of brown alcohol form on top or in the middle of the starter (and you will), pour off that liquid before adding more ingredients. Alcohol is the waste byproduct of yeast; too much of it is like you and me trying to live in our own sewage. YUCK!
7. Once jar is 3⁄4 filled with starter and bubbles have formed (anywhere from 7-14 days), your starter is ready to use in baking.
8. To maintain the starter, daily pour off about 1⁄4 to 1⁄3 of existing starter (and any brown liquid), and add the same amounts of whole wheat flour and water from Steps 2-3, and stir till combined.
You can perpetuate your sourdough this way indefinitely. Don't worry if you miss a day or two. You can resume the routine, and your yeast will be happy symbiotic producers of the bread of life.