Getting Started with Sourdough Starter...and Finishing a Thesis

It began, as so many great, slightly out-there ideas do, with a little bit of beer.

Well, sort of. Skimming through Amelia Simmons' American Cookery, trying to decide what to make for the monthly Historical Cooking Project meeting, I noticed many of the cake recipes called for an ingredient called "emptins." Also known as "ale barm," emptins are leftovers from the beer-making process. I haven't tried brewing my own beer -- after all, I live in Quebec, so beer is one of the few things I can buy at multiple locations within a one-block radius of my apartment.  Looking at Simmons' recipes, though, got me thinking about what people used for home baking before yeast was commercially available. What I didn't realise was how much the process would be similar to that of doing my master's degree.

Just as there are shorter ways to make bread at home than making starter from scratch, there are shorter ways to complete a master's degree than the route I've taken. Not doing a thesis is one way to do a master's efficiently; many programs, the one at McGill included, encourage students to load up on classes and write a shorter paper at the end of an overcharged academic year. Changing your topic completely, as I did, will also slow down the process. Accepting full-time paid work, even temporarily, will almost certainly make it harder for you to finish -- particularly if you're working at a university office, where your workplace gets exponentially busier as the semester continues. Needless to say, I hadn't expected to take almost two years to finish my master's, when some of the friends I started with in September 2012 are already kicking butt in their PhD programs. Sometimes, though, it's important to take things a little more slowly, in order to get the best possible results. I knew that I loved sourdough breads -- the kinds you can get for $5 each from specialty bakeries, with air bubbles, a crisp crust, and complex flavours. Why not take the time to make my own starter?

While you can obtain starter from a bakery or a home-baking friend, I chose to make my own. Essentially, the process requires you to start with a little bit of organic rye flour and a little bit of water. Keep the starter in a warm - but not too warm - place, with a lid on, but unscrewed, and feed it a little bit every day -- usually with organic wheat flour and water (about an ounce each). If you want the starter to respond more quickly, you can add rye flour for some of the feedings instead. Of all the instructions on the internet, I've found those of Donna Currie to be the most useful; but there are a variety of places to find the starter process that fits your needs.

My own sourdough starter grew slowly -- slower than some of the websites I consulted suggested it would. After about two weeks of daily feeding (and being too scared to prune my starter), I wasn't even sure if the starter was still alive. If I left it too long, it smelled a bit like acetone. Was I growing poison instead of starter? Over the May long weekend, I tried to make some flatbreads with equal parts starter and flour and a bit of water and salt. I left the to rise for an hour, rolled it out, and cooked the flatbreads in a pan on the stovetop. I used a great deal of flour to keep the dough from sticking, but I was shocked and proud when I saw those flatbreads rising in the pan. Had I really done this all myself?

So, the next day, I tried to make a loaf of bread -- but, again, I wasn't sure if my bread would rise properly. Imagine my surprise when I peeked into the oven and saw a beautifully risen mini-baguette! It seemed incredible! Two weeks after having mixed flour and water together to leave on the countertop, that flour and water had grown into a loaf of bread. It was quite sour due to my 1:1 ratio of starter to flour, but I was so thrilled at how well the starter had worked that I didn't care.

Since starting these starter experiments, I have learned a couple things. First of all, pour some of the starter out when you feed it, rather than keeping massive quantities around. (Thanks, housemates, for tolerating the four large Mason jars and yogurt containers filled with smelly starter). More than making it manageable, it does seem to affect the life of the starter (mine only became picture - perfect once I became ruthless with pouring out the starter). Once it is thick and bubbly, it is fairly flexible, as long as it is fed regularly. Indeed, I learned that you don't have to feed it with wheat flour all the time... having run out of flour unexpectedly, I tipped some rolled oats into the starter instead (without even grinding them!) and it worked just as well for two days of feedings. Another thing to note is that bakers traditionally name their starters; while some look for puns on the process of making sourdough, I went the historical route. My starter is named Rosa Luxemburg, because she's revolutionizing the way I bake (Har har).

If you don't have the time to feed your starter every day, you can store it in the fridge and come back to it in a week. It'll take a little time to get back to life - it will be liquidy like crepe batter, rather than thick like muffin batter, at first. Similarly, it takes a little extra time to get back into the mode of research and writing after you've been answering phones and grading papers to afford the rent each month. But the starter, and the thesis, will be there waiting for you when you're ready to commit to them again.

I'm not thrilled with my starter, or my thesis, at the moment -- just last night I decided to bake a loaf of bread to add to this blog post (and to photograph each stage). It's as though the dough knew my lofty plans and, upset at being photographed at each stage of the process, went flat as a pancake once in the oven. (Anthropomorphism aside, I know that I over-proofed it. This was partially my fault for oversleeping, and partially the fault of the June heat in my kitchen).

At times like these, whether your bread collapsed or your attempts to get some work done ended up in a cat-video marathon, it's important to see what you can learn from your mistakes, and try again the next day. You can't build a starter, or a master's thesis, overnight. Both take careful planning and repeated effort. Like writing a long work such as a thesis, building a sourdough starter from scratch requires daily effort, experimentation, and determination. You may not know what you're building when you start, and it'll take some practice, effort, and the advice of good friends to make it great, but the pride of looking at something you built from scratch is unbeatable. I am sure that the feeling of finishing my master's degree will be much the same. After all, if I get excited over the air bubbles in flatbreads, I can't imagine how proud I'll be when I turn in that paper a couple of months from now.

When I've finalized a bread recipe that I love, I'll add it to the blog. In the meantime, you can slip sourdough starter in just about anywhere that you'd use yeast or other leavening agents like baking powder -- not only flatbreads, but muffins, pancakes, etc. If you live in or near Montreal and you'd like to try some of my starter, please ask. I'm happy to share!

(post by Kathleen Gudmundsson)


  1. Hello! I really enjoyed your post! I am vacationing on P.E. I. and decided to try to catch some wild yeast and bake my first sourdough. After a week since this project began, the incredibly slack and flat loaves are in the oven, but I just took a peek and a miracle occurred - they have risen into baguettes! I also slogged away at a thesis years ago, so I identify with you on both counts. You have interwoven sourdough, and finishing a degree splendidly. Good luck!

    1. Thank you for the kind words, Julia! I hope your baguettes are delicious!