Wanna Be Starterin' Something...

Imagine, if you will, your grandmother's refrigerator or possibly her pantry. Open it. Look inside. Somewhere there on either the second or first (if it wasn't too cold) shelves there's a jar. It probably has plastic wrap or a cloth affixed to the top of it by way of a rubber band or twist-tie. It looks strange with its dirty liquid in it. As a child you wanted nothing to do with it.

Except that you did. You just didn't know it. Every time you sank your teeth into a warm slice of Grandma's bread you had everything to do with it. Why? Because there's no way she could have made that bread, that glorious sourdough bread, without her trusty starter.

Chances are, that living chemistry experiment was given to her by a neighbor or a relative, someone who had already cultivated the perfect mix of yeast and liquid and whatever else depending on intended bread's recipe. In a sense, a starter's like a pure-breed mama dog: You make a batch, more grows when you "feed" it by mixing certain ingredients and then you have to get rid of some of the new brood. It's a blessing and a curse of growing organisms for the baker, but just a blessing for the eater.

In the case of sweet Amish friendship bread (of the sourdough family), the batch of starter is large on purpose: It is meant to be given away to friends. With traditional sourdough, the starter (which some bakers name, or refer to as a "pet"), the giving away is up to you...so long as you've given it nourishment on a daily or weekly basis and skim off the "hooch" layer that may build up on top of it.

Potato and Herman breads are other sour dough bakery treats that require a starter. There are Italian varieties. We've all had some form of bread that at one time a grandparent or relative would've spent hours in the kitchen preparing. Nowadays, starters can be found packaged and ready to go at certain grocery stores, making life a bit simpler, but less interesting.

Even homebrew enthusiasts are well-versed in the concept of starters, but we're curious about home bakers...and those under the age of 50. What we want to know is: When was the last time someone gave you a starter or a bread made -- at home -- with one?  Is the old tradition dying? Is kneading and feeding over, in terms of home baking for pleasure (as opposed to seasonal gift giving)?

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Merritt Martin
Contact: Merritt Martin