My bread starter went too sour on me and I decided to build it again from the bottom up. Flour, Water, Microbes, Salt, these are the Four Elements of what is perhaps the most primal of foods. To make natural sourdough starter, you leave flour and water exposed to the biome where yeast and bacteria are attracted to the feast of freshly milled grain. If bacteria take over in the balance, you get dense loaves with a close crumb and disappointing “oven spring”. And though an acid loaf will far outlast one with less in the bread drawer, it’s a waste to spread your morning jam on a tart plank. Better to make rusks or hang it in a tree for the birds to peck.
Microbes in bread starter are creatures of habit and flourish if they are paid regular attention. Feed them at an appointed hour in measured proportions and the bugs find their way to not hogging the nutrients. While natural sourdough starter can be unpredictable if left to its own devices, it can also be trained to heel and conform to the timing of the baker. I favor the 12 hour cycle because it allows me to put my sponge to bed in the evening, stretch and form it in the morning, and then leave it to slowly rise for rest of the day in its wicker banneton.
When microbial balance is restored in the starter, the bread rises in a magnificent expansion of air-trapped gluten pushing the single slit on its surface into a raised blade, what I have heard bakers call the “ear” of the bread. It’s best savored while it’s warm and while the crust still crackles and the perfume of grain mixes with the winey gas-off of yeast and the traces of its pleasantly tangy underpinning.
This is all earned of time and waiting and the slow rhythm of the rise.
“Man doth not live by bread alone”. But with a drizzle of olive oil and a pinch of salt, what could be missing?