Sourdough bread is different from other breads because the sour taste of the bread does not come from the yeast, but rather from a bacteria that lives in a symbiotic relationship with the yeast. This bacteria is called lactobacillus. The bacteria feeds off the byproducts from the yeasts' fermentation process. In doing this the lactobacillus produces lactic acid which keeps the starter from going bad but also gives the bread it's classic sour taste. Which is pretty cool.
When explaining this tidbit of information to my husband he summed it up like this; "So the yeast poops, and then the bacteria eats that poop, and the when the bacteria poops it makes the bread taste awesome." Yes dear, that is one way to put it. *sigh* Now back to the story.
Growing up I have the fondest of memories of a little brown crock sitting in our refrigerator. In this crock was my mom's sourdough starter. From that starter she would crank out pancakes for us every Sunday. That starter was also the source of the crusty loaves I came to love so much. My mom had that starter for over 20 years. I know it breaks both of our hearts that she doesn't have it anymore. But I was left with a carbohydrate imprint in my mind that never left me.
About seven years ago I started to make my own bread. It started as a once in a while thing and has since morphed into a staple in our house. I make all of our bread now, as well as our pizza dough. Last year about this time I started thinking about that brown crock my mom used to have. I began researching sourdough starters. Both how to make your own and where to buy a reliable starter. I was a little sketchy about trying to make my own since there is the potential to catch other things that you don't want as well as going to all the trouble and then having an unreliable starter. If I had bought a starter I would have gotten it from King Arthur Flour. For $6.95 they will send you a starter that has been around since the 1700's. The older the starter the better the flavor is, and the more reliable it is. But I found a third option.
There is a group of people known as "The friends of Carl". This group of people will send you some dried sourdough starter that was brought across the country on the Oregon trail by the ancestors of Carl Griffith way back in 1847. All you have to do is send them a self addressed stamped envelope and be patient, because it can take up to six weeks for you to get your starter. This was the option I went for. And for almost a year now I have been making my own sourdough bread.
Edgar is a good starter. It just took some time to get used to how different he was from a run of the mill package of yeast. Instead of busting out two loaves of bread in a morning, it takes me most of the day. It was frustrating at first. The dough was different to knead. Most dough has a great deal of resistance and feels like...well, like dough. Sourdough will feel like dough while you are kneading it but once you stop it will go all soft and formless on you. I also couldn't control how fast the dough would rise. It was more of a guesstimate for when I could move on to the next step, as opposed to an exact timetable. But I found it to be a more relaxed way of making bread. More flexible because I could go off and do a few things and then come back and finish up when I was ready.
I have found King Arthur's site to be incredibly helpful, not only with the directions on how to care for Edgar, but also with many different recipes for the sourdough starter. We now make waffles, pancakes, bread (this is a really good way to make a plain old grilled cheese sandwich into something really special), and pizza crust (more on the pizza crust in an upcoming post).
Anyway, if you also enjoy making bread I recommend you try out the sourdough variety. It is so low maintenance that it would really be a shame to pass it up. Especially since you can get it for free.