As a kid, weekend breakfasts were cooked by my dad. Mom was more of a juice and toast person, allowing us to fend for ourselves on those slow mornings. But not Dad. His breakfasts always included some kind of meat (venison steak, if we had it), eggs, and sourdough pancakes.
The quart jar of sourdough starter had a permanent place in our fridge, and we all knew to not toss it out no matter how nasty it looked. It was Dad’s. I would watch, as he refreshed the starter the night before, dumping the slurry into a bowl, mixing in some flour and water, giving it all a good stir, and covering it with one of Mom’s dish towels. The next morning the mixture would have easily doubled in size, and bubbles would pop and dance across the surface. He would refill the jar, leaving enough of the starter behind for the pancake batter, and stick the jar back into the fridge until the next time.
I never questioned this process until I was older, and I finally knew enough about cooking to ask him where the starter came from and how it worked. Turns out he had made it some fifteen years ago.
He explained to me that sourdough starter is a wild living yeast, and like all living things it needs a few simple essentials to thrive: a bit of water, some flour, warmth, and a little love and attention. He went on to say that there had been times when he had ignored his starter and would find it cold and separated, lost in the back of the fridge.
But the starter was forgiving. If he spent some time nurturing it with what it needed, within a few days the starter would be thriving, vital, and alive again.
He never used the starter for much more that pancakes. Everyone who loved him or called him a friend had eaten those pancakes at my folks’ table. When he passed away ten years ago, my sister and I passed out jars of his starter to those who came to celebrate his life, along with his pancake recipe.
He gave me my jar of starter when I got married. I admit, it didn’t get a lot of use until I had children and pancakes became part of our breakfast rotation. My boys would tell me mine were not as good as Grandpa’s, and they weren’t, no matter how many lessons he had given me. It was the love and the joy he got from preparing a meal for those he loved that made the difference.
A few years back I decided I would try my hand at sourdough bread. Try as I might, I could not produce a loaf that was decent without adding a bit of commercial dried yeast to the dough. Then one of the local artisan bakers in Seattle offered a sourdough bread baking class and I eagerly signed up. It was a day full of bread lingo: hydration, pre-ferment, leaven, bench rest, and stretch and fold. Everyone left with a beautiful sourdough loaf and directions for making our own starter.
But before I could leave, I had to tell the instructor about my dad’s fifty-year-old starter. His response surprised me: “Throw it out, start over, there’s nothing of your dad left in that starter today.” He went on to explain that I would never get the hydration right to produce a good loaf. He suggested I keep my dad’s starter for pancakes, but for bread I should make my own.
For the next few years, Dad’s starter sat in the back of our fridge neglected. It separated and lost all its bounce. I would use it a few times a year when my boys were home, but for the most part I lost interest.
But then, this past fall, while browsing the cookbook section of my favorite bookstore, I stumbled upon a beautiful sourdough cookbook. I stood in the aisle, turning the pages and thought of Dad’s starter, dormant in our fridge, cold and neglected. Suddenly, determination set in. With book in hand, I headed home, eager and excited.
Using my father’s starter, five pounds of unbleached flour, a bit of water, and my mother’s old dishtowel, I went to work. Each night, I would use a bit of the starter from the day before (discarding the rest). I would feed it with love and persistence, and within a week I was pretty sure I had a starter that was close to being 100% hydrated*.
It danced, it bubbled, it puffed up proud and beautiful, and it smelled amazing.
It also produced a beautiful loaf. My husband slathered butter on his first slice as I danced around our kitchen.
The baking instructor was right; there is nothing left of my dad’s starter in that jar today. But there sure is something left of my dad in the process. Late at night, I can feel him in the kitchen with me as I feed the starter to sit out overnight, covered with Mom’s worn dishtowel. He is back, early the next morning, right beside me, reminding me to hold some back for next time before I mix up the dough. He hangs out all day as I stretch and fold the dough every hour or so, and he lets me know when the dough has done its thing and is ready to rest. And I know for sure he is there as I take the hot loaf out of the oven.
One night, after spending months baking my way through two cookbooks, I decide it’s time to experiment a bit. What should I make next? I listen closely, and I hear Dad giving me some suggestions.
“I think we should try pizza, with maybe some sautéed morel mushrooms on top?” he whispers. I can almost see him standing beside me, smiling with his bright, blue eyes crinkled.
“We might have to wait until spring for the morel mushrooms, Dad,” I say, “but pizza sounds perfect for dinner one night this week.”
Words and image by Cathy Sly.
*100% hydration is when your starter is made of equal parts of water and flour. Because my dad would just eye it, going by the consistency he wanted for pancake batter, I had no idea what the hydration was of my starter. Today I measure mine by grams, with a digital scale; feeding it equal parts of starter, water and flour.