There’s a living thing growing in my refrigerator…and I’m loving it!
This weekend I tried my hand at cultivating a sourdough starter, the yeasty, bacteria-laden joy of bread bakers around the world. For bread baking enthusiasts, sourdough starter is serious business. Given my newbie status to the Sourdough Club, I decided to wade into the shallow end of the pool rather than dive in head first. I didn’t make bread; I made pancakes. How could I run into trouble with pancakes?
Growing a starter indulges all of my nerdy impulses. In college I majored in molecular biophysics and biochemistry. (Why didn’t I just tattoo “NERD” on my forehead, right?) I spent hours in the lab, toiling with bacteria and the occasional radioactive isotope. I didn’t mind lab work — in fact, sometimes I found it relaxing — but in the end, lab work wasn’t for me. Too solitary, not my style.
But given my interest in science, the idea of growing a colony of something that I could ultimately eat thrilled me. I already make my own yogurt on a regular basis (a nerdy but hugely satisfying process, and one that I highly recommend), so why not give a sourdough starter a try?
Now, minor disclaimer: I don’t think the starter I created is “authentic” as far as starters go. Traditional sourdough starters are basically just a mixture of flour and water that you let sit for an extended period of time, discarding some of the mixture and feeding the remainder with flour and water. Fresh flour contains yeast and bacteria spores, so as you feed the mixture, the water breaks down the flour’s starch into sugars, the yeast feeds on the sugars, and the bacteria feeds on all the stuff the yeast produces in that process. The cycle goes on and on as long as you keep the mixture alive.
The starter I used combines flour, water and a dash of yeast to get it going. Then you let it sit for 12-24 hours, at which point you use most of it but keep a half cup in the refrigerator for future use. And that’s it. No feeding, no multi-day schedule — and you even cheat by adding a little yeast at the beginning. But the recipe came from Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid, two people who know their bigas from their poolishes. Surely they wouldn’t lead me astray.
They didn’t. The pancakes — enormous, and easily a half-inch thick — charm the tongue with that characteristic sourdough flavor. As someone who likes her pancakes sweet, I was worried they’d be too puckery, but their yeasty, hearty flavor won me over. They soak up warm maple syrup like sponges, but I also imagine they’d be wonderful slathered with warm jam and whipped cream.
So now the question remains: What do I do with the remaining 1/2 cup starter living in my fridge? I could always make another batch of pancakes, but as resident scientist, I was hoping to experiment…
Ventry Sourdough Pancakes
Adapted from Home Baking by Jeffrey Alford and Naomi Duguid
1/4 teaspoon dry active yeast
2 cups lukewarm water
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 large eggs
1/4 cup vegetable oil
1/4 cup sugar
1 tablespoon salt
1 teaspoon baking soda
About 2 cups all-purpose flour
For the starter, dissolve the yeast in the water in a large bowl, then whisk in the flour until you have a smooth batter. Let stand at room temperature, covered with plastic wrap, for 12 to 24 hours. (If leaving for longer, refrigerate; it will keep for 5 more days in the refrigerator.)
Before using the starter, remove a 1/2 cup and save in a well-sealed glass jar in the refrigerator for use at a later date.
To the remaining starter, add the eggs, oil, sugar, salt and baking soda and beat until you have a smooth mixture. Add the flour and stir until you have a thick, pourable batter.
Place a large 8- to 10-inch heavy skillet over medium heat (cast iron works great here). Wipe the skillet with an oiled cloth or paper towel. Scoop out about a 1/2 cup batter and pour into the skillet, tilting the pan to encourage the batter to flow to the edges (you can also use the back of a spoon or a spatula to spread the batter). Cook until the top surface shows bubbles all over, about 3 minutes, then turn the pancake over and cook until the second side is golden, about 2 minutes more. Turn out onto a warm plate and repeat with the remaining batter. (You can also keep pancakes warm in a barely warm oven.) Serve with warm maple syrup or jam and fruit — or any topping you like!
Note: The day before you want to make these pancakes the next time, refresh the 1/2 cup starter: Add 2 cups water and 2 cups flour and stir well, then cover and refrigerate overnight. Bring back to room temperature and remove 1/2 cup before using.
Yield: 6 to 8 large pancakes