Last year at around this time a family friend generously gifted to me a sourdough starter with a California Gold Rush pedigree. He had maintained his starter for decades and, understanding what a treasure it was to have my own to take care of, I was thrilled by his gift. Unfortunately, for a few months last year, I didn’t feel well and cooking, much less baking, was very low on my priority list. The starter sat in the refrigerator untouched, dying a slow death under my care (or lack of it). I’ve admitted to this friend that I was a poor steward of his gift and he was quick to offer to give me another. When the baking bug returned, I was too bashful to hold out my hand for a second sourdough starter handout. What if I killed the thing again?
So I attempted to create my own sourdough starter. I’ve made one before, aided by commercial yeast. I wasn’t diligent enough to maintain the starter, so it, too, died. This time I wanted a purer version. All you need are flour and water for the yeasty magic to happen. But proportions of the two vary by source. The type of flour, the temperature of water, the frequency of feedings, the container to use, where to store the starter–these are all factors to consider. The easiest approach is to buy one or get one for free by mail but the instructions in my German bread book seemed straightforward enough and the promise of being able to use the starter on the fifth day appealed to me.
But despite five days of achieving textbook results, overconfidence had me deviating from the feeding instructions (a starter stays alive with regular feedings of flour and water). I think I used water that was too warm and I switched flours, shocking the immature starter. On the sixth or seventh morning there was nary a bubble to be found. We were set to leave for vacation so I had no time to attempt to revive it. I killed my starter before it had a chance to reach its full potential.
The upside is that I managed to bake these sourdough English muffins before my starter died. Since the sourdough flavor had not fully developed, these muffins had only a hint of sour flavor but I consider them an accomplishment just the same. Really, I made my own English muffins and they were a breeze! I even used a whole grain recipe (to feed my spelt flour obsession), giving these muffins a hearty, satisfying texture.
Rather than being disappointed by my first attempt at a sourdough starter, the tasty, toasted English muffins slathered with butter renewed my resolve. I’ve got another starter going this week and if all goes well this time around, I’ll be sharing more sourdough recipes with you down the road.
(If you’ve got access to a sourdough starter, this recipe from Kitchen Simplicity is a winner. If not, there are several instructions for starting a sourdough starter on the web.)
- ½ cup sourdough starter
- 1 cup milk
- 2 cups spelt flour (or whole wheat flour)
- 1 tablespoon honey (liquid form)
- ¾ teaspoon kosher salt
- 1½ teaspoons baking soda
- cornmeal, for dusting
- Stir together the starter and milk in a bowl large enough to accommodate all the ingredients. Add the flour and stir until smooth. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and let it sit for 8 hours or overnight.
- After 8 hours or the following morning, stir in the honey, salt and baking soda. You will find the mixture sticky and loose and this is okay. Transfer the mixture on a well-floured surface and knead it for a couple of minutes. Sprinkle more flour as necessary to keep the dough from being too sticky to work with but don't add too much as you want it to stay loose. I added an additional ¼ - ⅓ cup while I kneaded the mixture. (Note: A dough scraper helped, too.)
- Dust the surface and the dough with more flour as you flatten the dough with your fingers to roughly ¾ inch thick.
- Sprinkle corn meal on a baking sheet. Dust your cutter (mine was about 2 to 2½ inches) before cutting the dough into rounds. This will prevent some sticking. I found that using a thin, flat spatula to scoop the rounds from underneath the cutter then transferring them to the baking sheet made it easier to work with the sticky dough. Using the dough scraps and re-shaping them for more rounds yielded 9 muffins for me. (I may have pressed my dough a little thinner than ¾ inch.) Dust the tops with a little more cornmeal, cover the rounds with plastic wrap and let rise for 45 minutes.
- When you're ready to cook them, preheat your oven to 325℉. Heat a cast iron skillet (or nonstick skillet) over medium heat. Transfer the rounds to the heated skillet and cook until golden brown on both sides, 2-4 minutes per side. If the muffins brown too quickly, adjust the heat. Return the browned muffins to the baking sheet as you finish cooking them then bake the muffins until they are cooked through, about 15 minutes. Let the muffins cool completely on a wire rack before splitting and toasting them.
Prep time includes overnight wait.