If you’ve spent much of the quarantine channeling your inner Gold Rush pioneer, baking sourdough bread and feeding your named starter, well, welcome to the secret floured handshake society.
Sourdough baking was a thing long before the pandemic — the earliest risen loaves date back a few thousand years — but you’ve got to move beyond banana bread sometime, especially if you can’t find any bananas or commercial yeast. You can get starter from a friend, and these days many bakeries are giving it away. It’s also easy to make yourself, requiring only some old whole grain bread, water, flour, consistent feeding and the wild yeast in the air.
I’ve made starter with pineapple juice, potatoes, grapes, dried cultures from Bahrain and Finland, torn-up old bread and locally grown and ground rye flour. I’ve been given it too, which is the most fun: in an exchange behind a truck at a local farmers market, from a baker with instructions in Japanese, sealed in a sous-vide bag at Fäviken’s bakery in Sweden. (Yes, my starter is named Magnus.)
Which brings us to the ritual joy of feeding your starter. This daily feeding (of equal parts flour and water) insures that the starter becomes active enough to bake bread — and in the process produces a daily excess of starter, which has come to be called discard, a word I greatly dislike.
Extra starter is not discard so much as it is a kind of secret ingredient, one that can be spooned into any number of recipes — rather than down your drain, which is not a good idea for your plumbing (compost it instead) or your current frugality. Here’s a list of what to do with your extra starter, other than — or after — baking boule after boule of sourdough bread.
2. Add starter to Sqirl’s sourdough scones. Jessica Koslow’s toast shop is currently feeding restaurant industry workers as part of the Lee Initiative; her jam is also very good atop much of what you make with sourdough starter.
3. As starter is a roughly 1:1 ratio of flour and water, use a spoonful of starter to thicken soups and sauces. This tip came from cookbook author Naomi Duguid, who was also the first person to tell me I could make starter using a slice of old bread rather than the slightly more complicated recipes requiring fermented fruit or vegetables.
4. Do a deep dive into King Arthur Flour’s website, which includes recipes that use starter in many things, including biscuits, pancakes, cakes, cookies, crackers and pizzas, as well as the obvious breads. (The site also has handy Zoom backgrounds so you can pretend you’ve gotten a job at the Vermont bakery.)
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There are two comments we hear from you on a regular basis: 1. You want to use your sourdough starter in more recipes, and 2. You LOVE pizza. These are things we can work with, friends! Enter sourdough pizza crust. Its chewy, open-crumbed crust is the perfect solution for both using up sourdough discard and satisfying your never-ending pizza cravings. Tap the link in our profile for the recipe, grab your sourdough starter, and start grating cheese — it’s pizza time! #bakewithus
5. For maybe the most straightforward method, take a cup of starter, stir in 1/4 cup of olive oil and spread the mixture on a Silpat-lined baking sheet. Sprinkle with salt and herbs or spices (fennel pollen!), bake at 350 degrees until golden and crispy, then crack into pieces. (Great with a cheese plate. My dog loves them too.)
6. Make crepes or waffles rather than pancakes. The starter can be used as a replacement for a leavening agent or in addition to one. Mostly the starter adds some acidity and depth of flavor, in much the same way that adding yogurt to recipes does.
7. Make scallion pancakesor “trash brownies.” And then just start exploring Instagram, where bakers and home cooks have recently been documenting a pretty spectacular array of recipes using starter.
9. Make Nancy Silverton’s warm sourdough chocolate cake, the recipe for which predated the pandemic — and Instagram. It’s on page 239 of her “Breads From the La Brea Bakery,” published in 1996, in which you’ll also find recipes for onion rings, pancakes, doughnuts, dog biscuits and a lot more, all using starter.