The Quarantine Cookbook | The rise and fall of Ziggy Sourdough-Starter

As we settle in to self-isolation, we're sharing some of our favorite delicious, easy-to-make recipes for the hungry at home.

The+Quarantine+Cookbook+%7C+The+rise+and+fall+of+Ziggy+Sourdough-Starter

Eli Savage | Contributing Editor

In the wake of society’s near-shutdown, I’ve found myself browsing Pinterest more often than might be healthy or productive. One night — or morning, however you choose to classify 2 a.m. — I found myself overwhelmed with the urge to bake bread. It seemed like a good project to relieve stress — comforting, creative — but not in the same way writing or drawing would be. 

Within seconds, my Pinterest feed was flooded with different bread recipes, ranging from rosemary herb bread to challah to sourdough. After reading an article on sourdough that contained a link to creating your own starter, I decided I would try my hand at making one.

For anyone who doesn’t know, sourdough starter is a source of wild yeast — different from the yeast you can buy in packets or jars at the grocery store. Wild yeast is, well, wild, and as such, it gives a different flavor to anything baked with it — it truly puts the “sour” in sourdough. 

In preparation for creating my starter, I researched different methods and recipes. I watched Youtube videos, read blog posts about bakers’ starters — including some heirloom starters that had been passed down through generations. Eventually, once I’d gathered what I felt was enough information to make my own sourdough, I journaled about my decision, hoping that writing everything down would make me hold myself accountable.

“Hell, it’s not even gonna be real, San Francisco sourdough,” I wrote. “But it will be mine. It will be something I cultivated … and that’s more than enough for me.”

The next morning — day one of my sourdough starter journey — I got up, made a cappuccino despite my probable lactose intolerance and set about making my sourdough starter. 

Instructions for making a sourdough starter:

Materials:

Kitchen scale

Glass or plastic bowl (anything but metal)

Rubber scraper/something to stir with 

Day One: 

4 ounces (a little more than ¾ of a cup) of any flour — all-purpose, whole grain, rye, etc.

4 ounces (about ½ of a cup) of water, lukewarm 

Mix the flour and water in a glass or plastic bowl, and use a rubber scraper to clean the sides of the bowl. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap or a towel secured with a rubber band and place it somewhere to sit for the next 24 hours until it’s time to feed it again.

Day Two: 

4 ounces flour

4 ounces water, lukewarm

Mix in the flour and water again, the same as day one. There might not be any bubbling yet, but that’s okay! Scrape the sides of the bowl, re-cover it and let it sit for another 24 hours.

Day Three: 

4 ounces flour

4 ounces water, lukewarm

On day three, there should be bubbles in your starter, and it should be smelling pretty sour. At this point in the process, I scooped out about ½ cup of the starter and discarded it before feeding, but this is optional. Mix in today’s flour and water, scrape the sides of the bowl and re-cover.

Day Four:

4 ounces flour

4 ounces water, lukewarm

By now, your starter should be pretty bubbly and it will have a stronger smell. Discard some of the mixture if you want, then mix in today’s flour and water. You know the drill.

Day Five:

4 ounces flour

4 ounces water, lukewarm

Discard some of the starter before feeding if you feel like it, or if your bowl is getting too full. Mix in the flour and water like normal. This is the final day of the “cultivation” period. After this, the starter is ready to be used in bread or whatever else you can make with yeast. Consult the Internet for instructions on feeding beyond day five — there are a few different directions you can go (feed it daily while leaving it at room temperature, feeding it weekly while keeping it in the fridge, etc.).

While these instructions feed the starter only once a day, some particularly attentive bakers feed their starter according to its rise and fall (the natural cycle by which the yeast consumes sugars found in the flour and … I won’t bore you with the science of it), feeding the starter when it falls. 

I hope to be so attentive, so nurturing. After learning of the rise and fall that my starter would eventually undergo, I affectionately named it Ziggy, after “The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars” by David Bowie. Initially, my starter seemed to be an outlet for my stress and creative instincts while the world descended into madness. At the same time, it is a distraction from my classes, from the news, from the stillness that’s taken over my town since the pandemic began. 

With everything going wrong everywhere I turn, I’ve started to fear that there is little in my life I can control. I cannot guarantee I won’t be infected with an internationally infamous virus. I cannot stop coffee shops, bookstores or my own college from shutting me out. I can’t even come and go as freely from my own home as I once did — both because of the pandemic and the fact that I moved back into my mom’s house. When The New York Times tells me things are bad, getting worse, I take it to heart. I know it’s true and I know there’s nothing I can do to change it.

What I can do, however, is care for my starter. I can watch its rise and fall, feed it every day. When something goes wrong — when it fails to produce bubbles, or acts otherwise unusual — I have the power to fix it. Yes, it is a responsibility of sorts, but it’s well within my power to troubleshoot whatever challenges it presents. 

It is as alive and as active as I am, and it is proving to be far more high maintenance. It needs attention, careful cultivation. It is something I can pour devotion into, as if it were my child. 

I was born with my sun, Mars, Venus and Mercury all under the sign Cancer, the combination of which, if you believe in astrology, makes me fundamentally emotional and nurturing. I hope to be a mother someday, and I’m looking forward to it. My close friends tell me I’ll be good at it when the time comes. For the most part, I believe them. However, while cultivating my starter, there have been moments when this belief wavers. 

By the third day, doubts about my motherly potential started to creep in. While Ziggy had developed a distinct, sour smell — a good sign, my recipe assured me — it was nowhere near as “loose” or “bubbly” as the recipe says it should be. I tried to ignore this, hoping the yeast in my house was simply a less active strain. In the late afternoon, I took Ziggy down off the top of the fridge to check on it — gaze lovingly at it as I suspect parents might do with their newborn — and discover a layer of liquid had separated and now was sitting on top of the starter.

My very first instinct was to panic — what the hell is going on? — but I calmed myself down and simply reincorporated the liquid into the mixture. As I placed the plastic wrap back over my starter, I paused, realizing I had no idea what I’d just done. Ziggy went back on top of the fridge, and I went upstairs to ask Google for advice.

I consulted a baking website that told me the liquid was “hooch” secreted by the yeast during fermentation. Yum. The website says it’s okay to stir it back in, though many people choose to pour it out. Either way, relief floods my mind. I’m not a bad mother, or caretaker, or whatever it is I am to my starter.

On the fourth day, I attempt to be more attentive. I’ve learned that the liquid separation occurs when the starter gets “hungry” between feedings, so I make sure to check on Ziggy every three or four hours, watching for any discernible fall, or for the formation of a liquid layer. I feed it at the first sign of separation and feel like a good mother. 

By the fifth day, when the starter should contain enough wild yeast to bake with, I instinctively go downstairs to feed Ziggy at 9:30 a.m. When I uncover the bowl, I smell the sour smell that I’m growing fond of and see a plethora of bubbles both at the surface of the mixture and permeating it. 

As I weigh out the flour and water for the morning, I wonder if I would adjust so easily to caring for a child. Sure, parenthood is certainly far, far in my future, but — I hope — it will be part of my life eventually. I hope that by nurturing this starter, by cultivating a life of a strain of wild yeast, I am becoming a more attentive, more nurturing person. 

Leave a comment.