The Website Advised Me To Name It…

…But I found that excessive.

I do have a strong desire for a pet. The image in mind, however, has fur and a prominent snout. It would be warm and companionable—and preferably not require a whole lot of training.

None of those criteria was operative here. In fact, the lack of warmth was a particular sticking point, and the fault was decidedly mine.

I’m still reserving judgment whether my initial error was to trust the advice provided by a person (assuming it’s a person) who calls his website “The Clever Carrot”—heretofore known for our purposes as “TCC.”

TCC was showing me that the right kind of bacteria is my friend. I know that’s true, but I’m not sure they warrant a name other than Lactobacilli. 

Perhaps I should back up for the sake of clarity.

In my quest for healthier eating, I’ve been avoiding processed foods. But on the low fat, low sugar diet intended to prevent my blood sugar’s propensity to increase, I seem to be sort of, well, disappearing. The incredible shrinking blogger.

So homemade bread seemed to be an idea worth trying. And my spouse found that sour dough bread is especially healthful. Voila! I’ll make my own whole wheat sourdough bread—starting with the sourdough starter. 

Image by Margaret Jaszowska; found via unsplash.com

Of course I could have ordered the starter online, but what fun would that be? And doing so doesn’t fit my new purity obsession. I want to control the processing process.

I discovered from a year-old article in Discover (appropriately enough) that our forebakers were making sourdough bread some 14,000 years ago. Using a well-worn tradition, archeologists fairly recently followed the bread crumbs and found burnt pieces near a hearth in Jordan. 

These were apparently left by an untidy tribe of hunter-gatherers—a full 4,000 years before the advent of agriculture. They spent enough time away from the hunt to mix the flour and water, watch the bubbles rise, and save some for the next go round. 

I also learned from that article that I’d stumbled into “The Wild Sourdough Project,” which gained attention during the pandemic and “aims to advance our understanding of yeast and microbes while helping home bakers create delicious bread.” 

So I have backup for my TCC tutor. 

It was Louis Pasteur who demonstrated that microbes were responsible for the fermentation. But, wrote Eric Weeks and Patricia Gadsby in a much older Discover article (2003), that discovery (in the mid-1800s) eventually led to baker’s yeast (Saccaromyces cerevisiae), which makes quick, reliable dough. Supermarket bread has 25 ingredients and additives—not what I was after.

In sourdough bread, the product of wild yeasts and bacteria similar to those that transform milk into cheese and yogurt, there are way more Lactobacilli than yeasts (100 to one, according to a researcher quoted by Weeks and Gadsby). 

Where do these wild characters come from? 

An ecosystem begins to form as flour mixes with water to make a starter dough. Enzymes in the flour split starches into sugars. There are swarms of yeasts and bacteria everywhere—in the flour, in the environment, and on the baker,” say Weeks and Gadsby. They gang up on the sugars, but the “bread friendly” ones will prevail.

Then the Lactobacilli convert the sugars into lactic and acetic acid as the dough sours. The yeasts that are still going convert the sugars into ethanol (!) and carbon dioxide. At that point, the starter is ready to use to bake the bread.

Ok. I turned to TCC to show me the way, step-by-step. Easy peasy.

Day One: Mix 1/2 cup flour with 1/4 cup warm water. Stir with a fork.

Day Two: Let the mixture sit. Ah: I saw some bubbles! This is exciting!

Day Three: Remove half the mixture and discard. (I subsequently saw TCC’s guidance that you don’t actually need to discard—you can use the stuff later in baking;  he even provides recipes. Wish I’d seen that earlier…) Add a fresh 1/2 cup flour with 1/4 cup warm water.

Days Four through Seven: Repeat.

Oh, my. On Day Four, there was a noticeable absence of activity in the culture. No bubbles, no fruity aroma.

Discussion with spouse yielded the determination that the site I’d selected was clearly not conducive to allowing the mixture to work its magic. That lack of warmth I mentioned earlier? We believe that was the culprit.

So we stopped the starter. We discarded what remained into a bowl that will be refrigerated until the second, surely successful effort, is complete. 

I/we (my spouse used to bake bread, and I assume he’ll want to get his hands into this process, which is fine) will then use it after our first, surely magnificent, nutritious, and weight-adding sourdough bread has been consumed.

“Keeping a sourdough culture alive requires good time management and something like affection,” observe Weeks and Gadsby. “Cultures are dynamic. Mess with their living conditions—room temperature, mealtime, brand of flour offered—and they will change.

I’m now convinced that The Clever Carrot knew whereof he spoke about that naming process. Once I find a nice warm spot for the second try, I’ll come up with a name so there’s no question about the breadth of my affection.

Note: The 2003 Discover article was actually focused on San Francisco sourdough bread, which is apparently so famous that there’s a bacterium named L. sanfranciscensis, “a species never found in nature before.” 

Two microbiologists sought to “solve the mystery of San Francisco sourdough” more than 50 years ago because of its purportedly unique status. San Francisco bakers claimed that when bakers any distance from their city used the dough, it became less sour.

Weeks and Gadsby had asked one of the scientists if the dough was/is “truly unique.”

His response, given with a laugh: “It’s hard to say.”

Yes, my sourdough starter deserves a name. I haven’t even nurtured it into existence yet, and it’s already expanded my world. I’m simply bubbling with enthusiasm!

All suggestions for names for our resident Lactobacilli factory are warmly encouraged.

Annie

28 thoughts on “The Website Advised Me To Name It…

  1. Some suggestions: If your spouse is named William…Willey bacilli or Billy bacilli.
    A Pennsylvania native? Philley bacilli.
    From West Virginia? Hilly Billy bacilli.
    If it bubbles too loudly: Shrilly bacilli.
    Greek heritage? Achille bacilli
    White bread? Vanilli bacilli.
    Fancy bread? Frilly bacilli.
    Really old bread? Pterodactilli bacilli.
    Just for a laugh? Silly bacilli.

    Liked by 3 people

  2. For the first time ever, I, too, tried my hand at baking sourdough bread. My youngest learned how to bake in college — an advanced curriculum that included “passionate pursuits” with bread baking one of the offerings. Never mind the engineering and math, never mind computer science, bread is the stuff of life, and so he took the course. Taught by a scientist to young scientists, everything was carefully controlled. I learned from him and now have a digital readout scale, a seriously heavy cast iron pot with lid, a temperature gauge, and a living, bubbling bottle of starter in my frig. As to what to name yours? Diva, maybe, as these bubbling bottles take attention . . .

    Liked by 2 people

    1. That’s great, Denise. I’m not yet ready to make that level of investment, but one never knows. And I sorta thought once the starter is fully started, it can take care of itself. So much to learn in this extraordinary new milieu!

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  3. The worlds of bacteria — in the soil, on our skin, in sourdough bread starter, in our digestive tract, on the ocean-floor vent of volcanoes, etc. — are amazing! I often think about Dr. Seuss’s book “Horton Hears A Who” when the topic of our extraordinary bacterial cousins is raised. THANK YOU for this fun and informative blog post. I have no name suggestions but look forward t reading what you eventually decide…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks so much, Will. It is an astonishing invisible world. The more recent Discover article, published during the pandemic, noted that with all the bad press microbes were getting, they wanted to deliver a happier version of this story.

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  4. I would take a different, more adversarial approach – a sort of germ warfare. Put the starter in an appropriately warm place then get in its face (if you can find it). Dare it to grow, threaten it with things like fire and being eaten alive. “I’ll grind your bones to make my bread.” (Does bacteria have anything like bones? Maybe really tiny ones?) You can’t be all sweet and loving and encouraging and expect the kind of sour disposition you want for your bread. Show it who’s boss. Then relax and enjoy! 😀

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Annie –

    Growing up in SF, I know the tang of that sourdough well, but I think the Lactobacilli sanfranciscensis is actually found everywhere. The sharp tang is more about technique; the French will politely tell us that it is over-fermented, and a mistake.

    But that’s neither here nor there.

    A few years before the pandemic, the Silicon Valley tech bros got hooked on sourdough, and they made a fetish of it, and they made Chad Robertson of Tartine Bread in SF their high priest (Tartine bread is wonderful, btw. I highly recommend it). Sourdough bread can be as complicated as you want to make it, and because they were techies, they made it very complicated… for fun. There’s even an app for making sourdough bread their way!

    Michael Pollan’s book Cooked goes into how he joined the Tartine cult and it’s pretty funny the obsession he describes. Worth the read, and Pollan is very good a demystifying bread making. Samin Nosrat makes an appearance from when she was a UC Berkeley student of his and becomes one of his teachers in this book before she became a professional!

    (One of the other literary references to sourdough is in Anthony Bourdain’s “Kitchen Confidential” — and it’s pretty funny. I won’t spoil it for you by saying why.)

    My current favorite sourdough book that also demystifies it is Jim Lahey’s The Sullivan Street Bakery Book. Lahey as you probably know is the person who discovered/popularized the baking in a Dutch Oven technique that just about everyone uses. When I bought this book, I figured that the guy who revolutionized home baking might have something to say about sourdough, and boy does he!

    What I like in this book is that he has a different, non-wasteful way of feeding the sourdough. Since using his technique I have gone months without feeding mine and can revive it overnight. It’s changed the whole game for me.

    My original sourdough was named Reinhardt after I took classes from Peter Reinhardt sometime in the early 1990s; my now modified Reinhardt I have re-named Sullivan, after the baking book. So, maybe Reinhardt Sullivan would be its full name.

    I’ve been a sourdough bread baker for, well, more than a decade (probably closer to 2) and if you need any advice/assistance you know how to reach me.

    Sorry for the long reply,

    Tengrain

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Tengrain, this is a wonderful, rich comment. So glad you’ve taken the time to share your knowledge and expertise—plus sources. Reinhardt Sullivan seems appropriate for such a well-established starter—no upstart there, for sure. Thanks so much, and I may just take you up on your kind offer!

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      1. Right? I was thinking that as well. And there is nothing to say you can’t rename or name a new batch something more sophisticated.

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  6. I’m not a big fan of sourdough bread so I wish you luck Annie in your new pursuit. I enjoyed the puns “the breadth of your affection” and “bubbling with enthusiasm!” My brief experience with yeast from a package for the Dutch Oven Bread was enough for me…..but 25 ingredients/chemicals in store bread is scary!

    Liked by 1 person

      1. I never eat at Subway….but there was a lot of press a few years back about how they put plactizers in their bread and so people boycotted it. I can’t even stand the smell of their bread baking….

        Liked by 1 person

  7. This was a fun read! Good luck on your breadmaking and naming your starter. Heck, I had enough trouble trying to discover my muse’s true name. So do you think your starter is going to have a sour disposition? My daughter takes sourdough bread (bought from the grocer), toasts it in the skillet, spreads it with ricotta and then tops it with her tomato jam. Oh my goodness! She made it last night. A new fav! Please let us know what you eventually decide for your starter’s name. How about “Oopsy Daisy!” Don’t know why I wrote that. Sorry. Mona

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I’ve long had the desire to bake my own bread and sourdough seems like the ultimate achievement. Since the pandemic I, like many others, bought several packages of yeast and flour and have managed to make focaccia several times. I vow, however, that one of these days I’m going to step up my game and produce multi-grain loaves and sourdough. Thanks for sharing your experience.

    Liked by 1 person

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