Sourdough is, for so many home bakers, the final frontier of baking. It's messy, it's arcane—it's got all the complexity of regular bread baking, and more. It's something artisan bread bakers use to turn out breathtaking whole-grain boules and those elusive, hearth-baked baguettes. It's mystical.
Whole-grain boules are great. I can hardly claim to be immune to their charm, having first been drawn into sourdough through a flurry of Brotform-buying in Munich. But the idea that sourdough starter is only of use when connected to a great collection of proofing baskets, lames, and long rising times is nonsense. Sourdough starter doesn't even have to be used for bread.
In fact, the one person in my life maintaining a starter, when I was little, never used it for bread as far as I know. My paternal grandmother got her sourdough starter from my parents, who got theirs from my maternal grandmother, who was given some by a friend. Neither my parents nor my mother's mother maintained theirs. To my father's mother, however, the sourdough was a revelation—a magical shortcut, perhaps. The plucky, anti-feminine mystique lady was generally acknowledged to have cooked out what little kitchen enthusiasm she'd had while raising 10 kids. Even before the first grandchild was born, she'd long fallen back on overcooked macaroni and cheese, Spam, and similar canned oddities. Using a recipe that had accompanied the starter gift, though, she used the starter to turn out fuss-free coffeecake day after day for herself, my grandfather, and whatever acquaintances or family members happened to be staying as houseguests.
My grandmother, I don't doubt, would express impolite disbelief at the notion that starter is only useful to artisan bread bakers. But—as she probably knew, though it didn't seem to interest her much—starter's non-bread uses aren't limited to coffeecake, either. A wonderful all-purpose leavening agent for quick breads and muffins, sourdough starter also adds moisture to batters and shines—more traditionally—in pancakes and waffles, less traditionally (at least in the West) in flatbreads and cakes, and, as I recently found out, even holds up remarkably well in microwave chocolate cake.
This last use was a bit of a surprise (any food chemists out there—feel free to enlighten). The others, though, shouldn't be. Bottled, dry yeast is relatively new, and baking exceedingly old. Even baking powder is a relative newcomer. Cultivating and maintaining starter was, historically, not a countercultural statement but a necessity. Sure, you had to feed it some flour and water every so often—but then again, it gave you bread. Bread sure beats hard-baked flour paste—just ask your nearest Passover observer.
There are those, of course, for whom bottled yeast seems a natural and safer displacement for sourdough starter, much as matches seem a convenient and safer replacement for the art of banking a fire. I've an aunt who believes to this day I'm at imminent risk of poisoning people with my scary mix of homegrown fungus, bubbling happily away in the fridge.
In fact, sourdough is not only safe but also has much more to recommend it than being just a yeast alternative. It's not just a leavening agent—it's many leavening agents rolled into one. It has yeast, but it also has lactic acid, which can be combined with baking soda (science class-style bubbles were an early way, and remain one way, to leaven baked goods). It even behaves like eggs, which usually provide part of the structure for cakes; with sourdough pancakes, depending on the recipe you use, eggs are optional.
In this sense, sourdough starter, though a bit of a time investment at the beginning, is a home baker's best friend, particularly if you're the sort forever improvising a dessert at the last minute, or beginning a recipe without having quite all the ingredients—or if you're vegan (as I just said, it's a terrific substitute for eggs, when used properly). Its versatility—as three sorts of leavening agents or structure-providers in one—is enhanced by the fact that it's also great at adding moisture: depending on how much water you feed your starter, adding starter to a recipe can add a lot of liquid. This makes it possible to throw together some crumpets or a cobbler with little more than some starter and a few pantry basics.
That leads to another advantage: starter is the king of small-batch baking. When you're baking for merely one or two people, it seems like too much effort to gather a ton of ingredients. Instead, rely on starter as a base, adding the mandatory soda, salt, and sweetener, then whatever chocolate or fruit you require.
Finally, here's the most important thing for those new to the world of sourdough: starter is exceptionally forgiving. Though professional bread bakers insist on measuring starter by weight, since it varies in density according to "ripeness" (or the length of time since it's been fed), the simple fact is that a little less or a little more starter here and there just doesn't matter that much in home baking. (You'll also get a feel for how the volume varies, and adjust naturally.) Adding an extra half cup of starter by accident is very different from adding a half cup more of flour by accident, or even adding an extra egg. It's a full package of ingredients, a natural balancer.
So though the uninitiated tend to tiptoe around sourdough starter, this is the wrong instinct. Starter is, if anything, the training wheels for a home baker just entering into the realm of baking improvisation and recipe-creation. As long as you give your starter some time to deal with the ingredients you mix it with (be that an extra-long rise for bread or a bit of reaction time when mixed with baking soda for pancakes or crumpets), it's very hard to go wrong. Your final product may be a little too soda-y or sour, but it's unlikely to be inedible.
I think that special sourdough forgiveness is how I got away with putting the stuff in the microwave. I can't wait to tell my anti-sourdough aunt about that.
Click here to read Heather's advice about how to cultivate and maintain a healthy sourdough starter.