Sourdough Pet

In late March last year, very soon after we were married and moved here to the Farmlet, I decided we should make a sourdough starter to mark the beginning of our new life here. I wanted to make a special “Farmlet Sourdough” with wild local yeasts rather than using commercial yeast to get it started. Though I’d heard some reports that trying to catch your own wild yeast could yield less-than-satisfactory results, I felt we had nothing to lose by giving it a go. Of course, there is a lot of advice about making a sourdough starter on the internet. I found this site especially helpful, as it has clear instructions on how to get the starter going. I’m not crazy about his bread recipe, though.

Sourdough crackers

Once our starter began to bubble, I tried to bake a loaf of bread with it. The bread came out with a promising sour smell and taste, but had the consistency of a brick. As a novice, I had obviously tried to use the starter too soon. We tasted (nibbled) the loaf, and Kevin made polite comments about the taste and flavour, while I lamented at having baked a horrible brick. Still, I didn’t give up, and kept hoping that the sourdough would mature enough to raise a loaf properly. Our patience was rewarded a couple of days later when the starter literally started bubbling out of the jar. I tried again to bake a loaf of bread. Success! The sourdough yeast colony was our first “livestock” on the Farmlet; our first “pet.”

In the course of the year, our grain mill arrived, and we were able to start feeding the sourdough with freshly ground wheat. With time, the starter has mellowed and matured, and I’ve continued to refine my sourdough baking techniques. Our starter seems to be reliable and robust, surviving occasional neglect and not getting contaminated by outside organisms. The bread we make is dense and sour, and leaves us feeling nourished in a way that store-bought and commercial-yeast bread never has.

Lately, as per one of our goals for the Year of the Pig, we have tried a number of new sourdough recipes — trying to expand our repertoire beyond the sourdough bread (and occasional sourdough pizza crust) that we enjoy so much. We have now sampled batches of sourdough herb-cheese scones, sourdough crackers, sourdough crumpets, and sourdough pancakes. All were delicious, and look set to become regular fare for us. Kevin says the crumpets are probably his favourite new sourdough treat. The crackers are my pick. I’d like to have some of those in the cupboard at all times. The success of these new recipes is really heartening, since last year I had a couple of less-than-stellar results from sourdough scone and pancake recipes.

Sourdough pizza

All of these new and successful sourdough recipes came from Jessica Prentice’s Full Moon Feast. I love this book! Prentice uses the seasonal rhythms of thirteen lunar cycles as a framework to deliver thirteen chapters of intelligent and thought-provoking insights into our cultural relationship with food. Starting in the dead of winter with the “Hunger Moon,” the book moves through the seasons — “Sap Moon,” “Egg Moon,” “Milk Moon,” “Moon of Making Fat,” — until it ends in winter again with the “Wolf Moon.” Each chapter includes a selection of delicious recipes. (At least, all the recipes we’ve tried so far have been delicious!) The author lives in Northern California, but I’m pleased to say that the recipes seem to contain relatively few ingredients that we couldn’t hope to find here in rural New Zealand. Often the recipes suggest adaptations and alternatives that take into account local variations in ingredients. I really appreciate that. When this book first arrived, I read it from cover to cover. Now we are enjoying it as a recipe book.

If anyone reading this post lives locally and would like some sourdough starter, we’d be more than happy to share it.

13 Responses to “Sourdough Pet”

  1. Christopher says:

    Hmmm – I’ve tried doing sourdough as well, although mine would be a Parnell sourdough. There is a site around that I stumbled across that suggested leaving the starter for a month, which I duly did, and it looked promising.

    Well one day I decided to make some bread, which had the taste and smell of sourdough combined with all the attributes of a brick. Hmmm. Then my starter upped and died on me – well it kinda went very smelly and slimy. So much for my second go at sourdough.

    Now I’m energised by your post so methinks I’ll have another go… one day hopefully I can do some Parnell sourdough!

    I’ve enjoyed reading your posts. Keep it up!


  2. Rebecca says:

    Hi Christopher,
    We come down to Auckland sometimes, and my mother is travelling back and forth all the time at the moment. If you decide you’d like to try some Farmlet sourdough, it probably wouldn’t be too hard to get it to you. Just let us know.
    Of course, if you are determined to make a Parnell sourdough, our starter won’t be much help. I certainly found it fun to make our own special Farmlet starter from local yeasts.
    Good luck with your next sourdough attempt!

  3. Karen says:

    Hi Rebecca,
    I have just started making a starter this week and sadly forgot to feed it for the first 2 days. It smells and looks ok and was even starting to go bubbly, so I fed it just now and we’ll see how it goes. Funny thing is, I got my instructions from the website you recommend, but I found it before I found you! I was so glad after reading your blog to find my site was your site! Makes me feel more confident it will work. I’m sure my first loaf will be a brick too, but I’m looking forward to it! Thanks for the encouragement :o) I’ll let you know how I go.
    PS have you read the book “By bread alone”? If not, read it.

  4. Rebecca says:

    Hi Karen,
    I’ll look forward to hearing how you get on with your sourdough starter. Thanks for telling me about that book. I’ll try to get my hands on a copy.

  5. Ailsa says:

    This is awesome. I think I’ll have a crack at making this. is there a consensus on how long the starter should be left undisturbed before trying to make bread?

  6. Rebecca says:

    Hi Ailsa,
    I think the length of time very much depends on conditions, and on the particular wild yeasts that you happen to catch. All I can say is that the starter should be really active and bubbly.
    Good luck!

  7. Sandra says:

    Hi Rebecca,
    I tried baking lot’s of sourdough bread with my own and bought starters using 100% wholemeal rye flour. Unfortunately I produced lot’s of good smelling bricks. Do you have any experience with rye? I have lot’s of rye and a grain mill waiting here, but my brick production really put me off, so I am buying organic rye sourdough bread – but still very keen on getting it right….
    Thanks a lot

  8. Rebecca says:

    Hi Sandra,
    I’ve heard that rye is meant to be really good for sourdough. The sourdough bread which I posted about not so long ago is actually about 1 third rye. It seems to work well.
    I’m not sure what advice to give you, but I suspect that the rye is not the problem. Maybe it will help to keep feeding the starter for longer, until it becomes more active and then stabilises a bit. . . Sorry if this is annoying advice that you have already tried!
    Good luck! I hope your efforts will result in some delicious bread.

  9. Tara says:

    Hello! I just stumbled upon this as I was searching for a good cracker recipe to use with my sourdough starter, and I noticed that you had used the same website I had to create our sourdough starters! I have had my starter for quite a number of months now, and every time I make bread with it it always tastes fabulous, but my bread too has always been a “brick”! Until now I had been trying all different things to try and fix it, thinking it was just my novice bread making skills, or perhaps my flour, or my timing, but I didn’t think it could be my starter. It always proofs fine and seems alive and well, but I have never kept a live starter before so I have nothing to compare it to. It’s been this way always, since I bore the yeast into existence. You said you waited a bit more before making bread with your starter, what do you mean? You let your starter proof a long time? I tried to find info on the web about fixing this issue of mine, but I couldn’t! Please tell me your secrets to fixing the brick issue!

  10. Rebecca says:

    Hi Tara,
    By waiting a bit longer, I meant that I just kept feeding and tending the sourdough starter as per the instructions for getting it started. I had to persevere with this for quite a while longer than I expected before I could bake with it successfully. I had thought it was nice and active when I baked my bricks, but after a bit more growing time it was literally climbing out of the container because it was so active.
    I have heard some people say that catching wild yeast and making a sourdough starter can be a bit of a hit-and-miss project. Some colonies of yeast seem to be more robust and lively than others, and some conditions are more or less conducive to getting a good starter going. In particular, I know of someone who has made several starters, but never managed to get a good one going during the colder months of the year. I don’t know where you are, but this is one possibility to consider.
    Sorry I can’t give you a more definitive answer. Good luck with your starter, anyway.

  11. Jessica says:

    ok i have found several web sites on making starter and they all say keep it in a warm place…. sadly the warmest place i have down here in Dunedin is my hot water cupboard. this one recipe im trying says leave it for two to 3 days and it should be foamy…. when your starter is ready is all of it foamy or just some of it? today the top was all foamy siting on top of a layer of hooch…

  12. Rebecca says:

    Hi Jessica,
    When it really gets going, it should have air bubbles pretty much all the way through. The whole mixture will have swelled up with the air it has taken in. Mine was nearly climbing out of the jar when it was finally ready to bake a loaf.
    Good luck with your sourdough project.

  13. Trish says:

    Hullo – thank yu for your amazing site. How do you make the sour dough starter ?? Help !!