Part One: Making the Starter (chapters 1-6)

Introduction: This site will document the process of making sourdough breads, from the creating and growing of the starter, to the mixing, shaping, and baking of the breads. Everything I learned comes from Nancy Silverton’s Breads From The La Brea Bakery.

I’m not attempting to teach you exactly how to make sourdough bread; rather, I’m simply showing you how I do it. If you get inspired and decided to attempt this (time-consuming) undertaking, I highly recommend that you purchase Silverton’s book. I can guarantee that you will read it over and over again as you muddle through the ins and outs and ups and downs of making sourdough breads.

Chapter One: The Very Beginning (Grapes, Flour, and Water)
Day 1: Saturday, August 30, 2008
On the north side of our house we have a grape vine.

This is no ordinary grapevine, as you can see. It does not stretch in a neat row, carefully growing along an arbor. No, our’s is a Tree Grapevine. It completely covers that poor (dead?) tree that happened to grow up beside it. Mr. Handsome has to use an extension ladder to pick the grapes.

When we first moved here three years ago there were no grapes and practically no leaves on the vine at all. In fact, when I was making dill pickles and needed a grape leaf to put in the jar (why do we do that?), I had to scrounge around at friends’ houses in search of some grape leaves.

Mr. Handsome and I contemplated cutting the whole thing down but we never got around to it.

Which was lucky for us, because the next year the arbor, I mean, the tree, was loaded with grapes. It has been this way ever since. Once we see that we’re going to have grapes, Mr. Handsome sometimes gets out there and sprays a couple times, but more than likely he’ll forget and we’ll have totally organic grapes. I think this was one of the no-spray years; I did not wash the grapes before using them in my starter.

Most of the grapes are not quite ripe, so I picked out the darkest ones. I needed a pound. (You can use store-bought grapes, but make sure you wash them first.)

Then I took a piece of cheesecloth and folded it so that it was layered four times—I didn’t want to risk having seeds and skins in the final starter.

I gathered up the four corners,

and tied them together with string.

Next, I poured four cups of water into a clean gallon jar. Silverton uses a thermometer to measure the temperature of everything—flour, water, etc. The water was supposed to be at 78 degrees, so I checked just to make sure mine wasn’t too far off from that. It was about 85 degrees. I figured that was good enough.

I added 3 3/4 cups of unbleached white bread flour (I use this type of flour the whole way through),

and stirred it up with my most gigantic rubber spatula, though it’s also fine to just use your hand, not worrying about all the flour lumps.

I pushed the bag of grapes into the jar and kneaded and squeezed it until the grapes were nice and mushy and a lot of juice had dribbled out.

I swirled the grape bag through the flour mixture, and then pushed it down to the bottom.

I screwed the lid on tight, and there it was, my new baby. Isn’t it darling?

It’s supposed to be kept at room temperature, around 75 degrees, and since my kitchen tends to get hotter than that, I set it on the shelf in the bathroom, next to the diapers. Figured that was an appropriate place to set my bread baby.

Don’t you think it would be nice if we could shelve all our babies like that? Just set them on a shelf above the washing machine, next to the diapers and light bulbs and cleaning rags and there they would sit? Tidily? Quietly?

Chapter 2: Fermenting
Day 2: Sunday, August 31, 2008
At first I didn’t know if this baby was going to take off or not. It looked a little ill this afternoon. There was about an inch or so of pale yellow-red liquid floating on top and the flour paste was just sitting there on the bottom, only a few tiny air bubbles in it (sorry, no picture). But then, a couple hours later I went to the bathroom and as I was sitting there (yes, on the toilet—it’s directly across from the shelf upon which the baby sits, so I can monitor it’s progress every time I have to go pee) I looked up and yelled, “It came alive!” The kids came running, eyes quickly scanning the bathroom, searching for the critter that caused me to yell. When I pointed to the jar of starter, they looked at it, then looked back at me, disappointed and a little bit wary, and left the room.

But really, it was amazing. The flour was seething with bubbles. The liquid had sunk down to the bottom third of the jar where the bag of grapes sat, and the flour mixture had risen up a couple inches. Beautiful. Before I went to bed, I took a picture for you.

Day 3: Monday, September 1, 2008
I’m not supposed to do anything with the starter until Day 4, but I got my baby down off the shelf to snap a couple pictures of it so you can see what it’s doing. (I’m as bad as any new parent, showing off the little one.)

See how the sack of grapes and the liquid are sandwiched between the layers of flour paste? Note how the top layer has more bubbles than the bottom layer.

I opened the lid to take a sniff… ah, what a delicious smell, sweet, tangy, grape-y, yeasty, like warm wine. It makes me get all tingly and jiggly inside. The excitement is building!

Chapter 3: Baby’s Hungry
Day 4: September 2, 2008

My baby is getting hungry. Do you know how I know, besides the fact that I’ve had a lot of experience with babies (and besides the fact that Silverton told me so)? See the mark on the jar that shows how high up the mixture had risen yesterday? But now it’s shriveling up, falling in on itself with hunger, and there aren’t as many bubbles. It’s growing weak, starving.

Looking down in the jar you can see how the bag of grapes has risen up to the top. It is still inflated, which is a good thing.

Ew, it doesn’t smell so fine today—a bit on the rotten side, but it’s supposed to, says Silverton, so I’m not worried.

There is a remedy for this hunger issue: one cup of water and one cup of flour.

I dumped them in and mixed it all up with my hands, swishing the bag of grapes around and pressing out some of the juice. The mixture was very runny. I pushed the bag to the bottom, but it promptly rose to the top again, so I left it there.

Ooh, my hands smell sweetly of grapes and yeast. If only that could be my permanent scent. You know how grandmothers supposedly smell of cinnamon and nutmeg and brown sugar? That’s a very nice scent and all, but I’ll take the Grapes-and-Yeast Scent, please.

I set my baby back on it’s shelf. It looks like nothing special now, just a flour-water mixture. (Kind of how I feel at the end of a long, long day—like Nothin’ Special.) It’s probably worn out by that big dinner, and then all the exercise immediately afterwards, poor thing. Anybody will tell you that’s not a wise idea, exercising after eating. I’m sure it will feel better after a nap, so we’ll let it rest in peace now. Shh.

I’ll let you know when it wakes up.

Chapter 4: Fermenting (or rotting?) and Thoughts on Mortality
Day 5, September 3, 2008

Nothing much is happening with my baby. It’s just sitting there, scrunched between the cardboard box of lightbulbs and the bucket of clothespins. Maybe it’s bored, like my other kids. Maybe it needs a little entertainment, you know, some stories read, some music played, etc, like Toad’s seeds (in one of the Frog and Toad books) needed in order to grow…

About this stage, Days 5-9, Silverton doesn’t say very much. There’s not much to do, and there’s not much happening (I noticed that already). She says that the mixture separates (quite notably so) and mold may develop—in that case, we’ll have to skim it off. So that will be my main job, scrutinizing my baby for signs of mold. Yum-yum.

Day 6, September 4, 2008

The starter looks really boring. It’s not doing anything. But I got it down anyway to peek inside, and low and behold—could that be mold in there? See it? That dark blue-blackish stuff lacing the edge of the liquid?

I got a spoon and tried to scrape it off, but then I wasn’t so sure it was mold after all. Maybe it was just bits of the purple-y grape bits that leaked out of the cheesecloth, and the white slime was just water-flour paste that was smeared to the top of the bag.

I scooped a bit of the stuff out anyway, just in case.

Then I added another half cup each of flour and water because Silverton said that if the starter grows mold it could be a little bit out of balance. And flour and water is definitely a lot cheaper than Prozac.

I’m feeling a bit fretful. I don’t know how this child of mine will turn out. Will it make it to adulthood, or in this case, motherhood? Maybe this whole thing will flop and I’ll be a failed parent. Everyone will glance at me and then quickly avert their eyes, embarrassed to have been caught staring. No one will want to associate with me. I will be known as the Parent of the Failed Bread Baby.

Now I’m starting to feel unbalanced.

Day 7: September 5, 2008
One thing I’m concerned about is that Silverton said that the starter should separate, “forming a yellowish liquid top layer”, and my starter’s liquid layer is definitely not yellow. It is clearly a purple-pink. Just a minute ago I went in to check on it (and no, that is not a hidden code for saying I had to go pee) and I could see little white specks shooting up to the top and down to the bottom. Maybe that’s it’s version of twiddling it’s thumbs?

I’m won’t be posting here till Sunday. I’m going away, and I’m not taking this baby with me. It doesn’t need me right now, and it actually depresses me to look at it. I’m fully aware of its mortality. I feel like I’m on the brink, preparing myself for it to go either way. I won’t be suprised if it dies, but I will be surprised if it makes it. I’m not normally a pessimist, so this dismal thinking is a little unusual for me. I must be stressed.

Just so you don’t think I’m a total nut (a partial nut is okay), these are normal feelings to have when raising a bread baby. And for those of you who aren’t parents, these are similar to the feelings that most parents have (not the dying part, I hope, but the “making it” part) when raising the type of baby that has actual limbs and digits. We wonder if our totally goofy, weird, onory, bratty (not mine, of course) children will actually turn into sensible, caring, reasonable, non-bratty adults. Some days it really does seem like a gamble.

I felt this way making a starter baby the first time around. My first one didn’t make it, so I know my fears are well-founded.

Cross your fingers and send pleasant thoughts to the jar sitting on the shelf in my downstairs bathroom. Come on, baby! Come on, come on, come on!

Chapter 5: Scheduled Feedings
Day 10, September 8, 2008

Time to start regular feedings.

First, I squeezed the bag of grapes and removed it from the jar. I think it looks rather like a placenta.

I gave the starter a good stir,

and poured off one cup and put it in a clean gallon jar.

The starter was really runny. I reserved a pint of the starter, called “The Mother”, to store in the fridge in case something happened to my other starter. I dumped out all the rest of the starter.

For the first feeding I added a heaping half cup of flour

and a half cup of tepid water.

I mixed it up with my hand,

partially screwed the lid on, and set it aside.

Second feeding, four hours later: 1 1/4 cups flour and 1 cup of water.

Third feeding, six hours later: 2 ½ cups flour and 1 cups water.

The mixture is not looking so hot and it smells like flour paste, not tangy and yeasty like it’s supposed to. We’ll see how it’s doing in the morning, but I don’t think it will make it.

Chapter 6: Endings (ie. I screwed up) and New Beginnings
Day 11, September 9, 2008

I checked my baby first thing this morning. Bad news. It was just sitting there, only a few bubbles in it. There was a little liquid sitting on top and it looked slimy. The mixture still smelled like flour paste, the scent of failure. There were no marks on the jar showing that it had risen and fallen during the night, the indicator that it was properly taking it’s food. The baby was off its feed. It was dead.

To put it bluntly, I was pissed. I went out for my run, pounding out my frustration on the gravel road. I came back hot and sweaty, still pissed, but with a plan.

I continued with my baby, pouring off all but one cup of the starter, which I put in a clean jar. I added the half cup each of flour and water (always a little more flour than water). Then I wrapped up a half pound of grapes in a cheesecloth, squeezed the juice into the mixture, dropped the cheesecloth with grapes in, and swished it all around. I have never done this before, but I figured that now I have nothing to lose. I’ll see if I can revive this baby. Back at Day 2, the whole thing was a seething mass, just like it should be, so maybe by tomorrow it will have gotten it’s second wind. I’ll play around with it. Maybe I’ll learn something new.

But just to be safe, I also mixed up a brand new baby. I did everything just like before. The only differences were that I used a thicker cloth for the grapes (it’s still called a cheesecloth, but the holes aren’t so big), and I filled a glass pint jar with water and set it on top of the whole mess in an effort to keep the bag of grapes towards the bottom.

Hang on to your hats, folks. Here we go again!

(And thus ends Part One.)


  • Anonymous

    My dear, I do believe this baby is messing with your mind. September has only 30 days, after all. Perhaps you’d like to quietly edit the dates on your post now, and then go lie down for a little nap. 🙂


  • James W.

    If I went to use someones bathroom and saw a large jar of fermenting “whatever” setting on a shelf across from the toilet I might think they were loosing their marbles. Unless I’m at JJ’s house than I wouldn’t hesitate to ask what on earth is in the jar.
    Aunt V

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