Over the past few weeks you may have noticed the dramatic rise of a very old baking tradition steeped in culture.

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This article was published 21/4/2020 (519 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Over the past few weeks you may have noticed the dramatic rise of a very old baking tradition steeped in culture.

If it wasn't clear from the puns, sourdough bread is enjoying a renaissance right now. While it's natural, during an anxious period of isolation, to give in to the gravitational pull of comforting, homespun activities such as baking, sourdough seems to be its own thing.

King Arthur Flour sourdough starter recipe

(Recommended by Pennyloaf Bakery's Suzanne Gessler)

TO BEGIN YOUR STARTER

● 250 ml (1 cup) or 113 grams (4 ounces) whole rye (pumpernickel) or whole wheat flour
● 125 ml (1/2 cup or 113 g) cool water (if your house is warm), or lukewarm water (if your house is cool — see Tips below)

TO FEED YOUR STARTER 
● Scant 250 ml/1 cup (113 g/4 oz) King Arthur Unbleached All-Purpose Flour
● 125 ml (1/2 cup) cool water (if your house is warm), or lukewarm water (if your house is cool)

(Recommended by Pennyloaf Bakery's Suzanne Gessler)

TO BEGIN YOUR STARTER

● 250 ml (1 cup) or 113 grams (4 ounces) whole rye (pumpernickel) or whole wheat flour
● 125 ml (1/2 cup or 113 g) cool water (if your house is warm), or lukewarm water (if your house is cool * see tips below)

TO FEED YOUR STARTER 
● Scant 250 ml/1 cup (113 g/4 oz) King Arthur Unbleached All-Purpose Flour
● 125 ml (1/2 cup) cool water (if your house is warm), or lukewarm water (if your house is cool)

INSTRUCTIONS

Day 1: Combine the pumpernickel or whole wheat flour with the cool water in a non-reactive container. Glass, crockery, stainless steel, or food-grade plastic all work fine for this. Make sure the container is large enough to hold your starter as it grows; we recommend at least 1-quart capacity.

Stir everything together thoroughly; make sure there’s no dry flour anywhere. Cover the container loosely and let the mixture sit at warm room temperature (about 21 C) for 24 hours. See “tips,” below, for advice about growing starters in a cold house.

Day 2: You may see no activity at all in the first 24 hours, or you may see a bit of growth or bubbling. Either way, discard half the starter (113 g/4 oz), and add to the remainder a scant 250 ml (1 cup) King Arthur Unbleached All-Purpose Flour, and 125 ml (1/2 cup) cool water (if your house is warm); or lukewarm water (if it’s cold).

Mix well, cover, and let the mixture rest at room temperature for 24 hours.

Day 3: By the third day, you’ll likely see some activity — bubbling; a fresh, fruity aroma, and some evidence of expansion. It’s now time to begin two feedings daily, as evenly spaced as your schedule allows. For each feeding, weigh out 113 g (4 oz) of starter; this will be a generous 125 ml or 1/2 cup, once it’s thoroughly stirred down. Discard any remaining starter.

Add a scant 1 cup (4 ounces) King Arthur Unbleached All-Purpose Flour, and 125 ml (1/2 cup) water to the starter. Mix the starter, flour, and water, cover, and let the mixture rest at room temperature for approximately 12 hours before repeating.

Day 4: Weigh out 113 g (4 oz) starter, and discard any remaining starter. Repeat step 6.

Day 5: Weigh out 113 g (4 oz) starter, and discard any remaining starter. Repeat step 6. By the end of Day 5, the starter should have at least doubled in volume. You’ll see lots of bubbles; there may be some little “rivulets” on the surface, full of finer bubbles. Also, the starter should have a tangy aroma — pleasingly acidic, but not overpowering. If your starter hasn’t risen much and isn’t showing lots of bubbles, repeat discarding and feeding every 12 hours on day 6, and day 7, if necessary — as long as it takes to create a vigorous (risen, bubbly) starter.

Once the starter is ready, give it one last feeding. Discard all but 113 g (4 oz or a generous 1/2 cup). Feed as usual. Let the starter rest at room temperature for 6 to 8 hours; it should be active, with bubbles breaking the surface.

Remove however much starter you need for your recipe — typically no more than 225 g (8 oz or about 1 cup). If your recipe calls for more than 250 ml (1 cup) of starter, give it a couple of feedings without discarding, until you’ve made enough for your recipe, plus 113 g (4 oz) to keep and feed again.

Transfer the remaining 113 g (4 oz) of starter to its permanent home: a crock, jar, or whatever you’d like to store it in long-term. Feed this reserved starter with 250 ml (1 cup) of flour and 125 ml (1/2 cup) water, and let it rest at room temperature for several hours, to get going, before covering it. If you’re storing starter in a screw-top jar, screw the top on loosely rather than airtight.

Store this starter in the refrigerator, and feed it regularly; we recommend feeding it 250 ml (1 cup) and 125 ml (once a week.

* Tips: The colder the environment, the more slowly your starter will grow. If the normal temperature in your home is below 20 C (68 F), we suggest finding a smaller, warmer spot to develop your starter. For instance, try setting the starter atop your water heater, refrigerator, or another appliance that might generate ambient heat.

Recipe courtesy of King Arthur Flour

The #sourdough hashtag on Instagram brings up almost three million posts. Sourdough groups on Facebook have seen an influx of eager new members. People are making, sharing and naming sourdough starters — those prized, bubbling, fermented mixtures of flour and water (and micro-organisms including wild yeast and lactobacilli) from which all those gorgeous artisanal loaves must spring.

So why sourdough, and why now?

"It's so soothing," says Winnipeg's Lisa Sylvestre. "A loaf of fresh bread sets the world right."

Sylvestre's obsession (her word) with baking sourdough predates the pandemic. It began when she met Cornelius, her 150-year-old starter that originally hails from the Basque region of Spain. It was brought home to Winnipeg from Sweden by her good friend Maria Setterborn.

For a sesquetenarian, Cornelius sure gets around.

"I had baked since I was a little girl and I could make a loaf of bread with my eyes closed, but sourdough is, like, the final frontier for bread bakers," says Sylvestre, 52. That's true: sourdough is an artform. "So, (Maria) gave me this gift of Cornelius."

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>Lisa Sylvestre enjoys making sourdough bread using her 150-year-old starter, Cornelius, brought to Winnipeg by a friend.</p>

MIKE DEAL / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS

Lisa Sylvestre enjoys making sourdough bread using her 150-year-old starter, Cornelius, brought to Winnipeg by a friend.

Fast forward to a few weeks ago: Sylvestre, a history teacher, was watching as the pandemic made its way to North America. "I thought, 'People might need Cornelius; they just don't know it yet,'" she says with a laugh. "I made sure I had all the stuff to feed him and keep him super active and get him really, really big."

Giving one's starter a name is a long — and fitting — tradition. Starters are living things one must feed, take care of and get to know. Sylvestre has split Cornelius into two: Fridge Cornelius and Counter Cornelius. Fridge Cornelius is fed 1 1/2 tablespoons (22 ml) of white, unbleached bread flour and an equal amount of water, once a week.

"Counter Cornelius has a varied diet," she says with a laugh. "He gets rye. I use bee pollen powder. Sometimes he'll get some raw honey. Then he's super funky and bubbly. I have to tone down rising times now because he's out of control."

"Counter Cornelius has a varied diet. He gets rye. I use bee pollen powder. Sometimes he'll get some raw honey. Then he's super funky and bubbly. I have to tone down rising times now because he's out of control." – Lisa Sylvestre

Originally, Sylvestre's idea was to bake for people, to offer a bit of comfort during this challenging time. "But no, people wanted to bake themselves and wanted a piece of Cornelius."

She's happy to oblige. Sylvestre's colleague, Chris Buffie, now also owns a piece of Cornelius — which happens to be his great-grandfather's name. His inaugural loaves turned out beautifully.

"I could not be more proud," Sylvestre says. "I mean it. I felt like a parent. Those loaves are gorgeous, and that was his first shot."

As for Buffie himself, he demurs a bit when asked about his successful sourdough journey. "The real test is how it tastes, and I gotta say, it tasted pretty amazing," he says.

Buffie's aptitude for baking might have something to do with his work as a science teacher. "Doing a lot of lab work and having that kind of background, I'm pretty diligent about following instructions," he says. Baking, after all, is all about precision.

A recent loaf by Chris Plesiuk: sourdough's use of naturally occurring yeasts allows deeper, fuller flavours to develop.</p></p>

KORI PLESIUK PHOTO

A recent loaf by Chris Plesiuk: sourdough's use of naturally occurring yeasts allows deeper, fuller flavours to develop.

Buffie, 44, has always had a weakness for fresh-baked bread, particularly sourdough. Under the impression that making it was a days-long chore, he avoided it. Now, as with many people these days, his calendar has opened up.

"I think people are finding they have more time to invest in things like baking sourdough bread," he says. "It's not that it's difficult; it's time-consuming. From start to finish, you have to let your starter grow a bit, and then on the day you decide to bake, it's eight hours or a little more. Being stuck at home lends itself to that."

Winnipegger Chris Plesiuk, 34, made his own sourdough starter — dubbed the Yeastie Boys — from scratch pre-pandemic. "It took about three weeks because I was using old flour, but eventually I got it started," he says. "It's about two years old."

Now, working from home, he's been able to put it to use, taking requests from his wife and their three kids, who are nine, eight, and four. "I know, for me, it's convenient to not have to pick up bread. We can make different kinds of loaves. I've been making bagels, pretzels — the kids are really into pretzels — cinnamon buns, pizza."

Plesiuk bakes fresh bread, pretzels, bagels and cinnamon rolls with his sourdough starter.

KORI PLESKIUK PHOTO

Plesiuk bakes fresh bread, pretzels, bagels and cinnamon rolls with his sourdough starter.

He feels bittersweet about all this baking going back to being a weekend activity when the pandemic is over.

Plesiuk has noticed an uptick in people baking sourdough; he figures half a dozen people have asked him for a piece of his starter. While self-reliance is a big part of the appeal for him, he's derived some satisfaction from his mastery of it as well. "At the start, I was joking if the economy collapses and we have to go back to classical types of positions, at least I'll be able to be a baker."

For Sylvestre, baking sourdough bread is a link to the past. After all, that simple combination of flour, water, yeast and salt has sustained people for generations.

Clara Plesiuk shows off a sourdough pretzel made by her dad, Chris, who has had time to master the artform during the pandemic.</p>

KORI PLESKIUK PHOTO

Clara Plesiuk shows off a sourdough pretzel made by her dad, Chris, who has had time to master the artform during the pandemic.

"Bread is love," Sylvestre says. "I have an old recipe I use with yeast, and it was my grandmother's recipe. It's a deep connection for me to all the people who have come before me baking bread. Sourdough's the same thing. It's so old that I feel a real connection to people who have survived using it. It's like reaffirming life."

It's mind-boggling, too, to consider how many loaves of bread have come from Cornelius alone.

"He's got a lot of babies out there," she says with a laugh.

jen.zoratti@freepress.mb.ca

Twitter: @JenZoratti

Jen Zoratti

Jen Zoratti
Columnist

Jen Zoratti is a Winnipeg Free Press columnist and co-host of the paper's local culture podcast, Bury the Lede.

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