sourdough bread
Reading Time: 5 minutes (Pradeep Javedar.)
Reading Time: 5 minutes

Hi and welcome back! An interesting trend has developed in recent weeks, in this age of pandemic: people are getting way into baking sourdough bread! And by pure accident, I found myself in the smack middle of this trend. Come along with me on a journey into a world of love, sourdough baking, and isolation.

sourdough bread
(Pradeep Javedar.)

(Previous posts about cooking and baking: How I Learned to Relax and Just Make Pies; Exploding Apple Cake for Thanksgiving; A Cherry-Picked Cake; My Mom (and Her Recipe for Mango Bread); Ketchup Meringue and Ken Ham.)

Seriously, I Didn’t Mean To.

I do a lot of baking these days, including bread. However, I’d never tackled sourdough before.

I’d been intending to start sourdough for a long time. I just didn’t think I had enough space in my fridge, which is where I thought sourdough starter needed to live. Eventually, though, Mr. Captain suggested it and we mulled over space considerations, realized that sourdough doesn’t actually need to live in the fridge, and I ordered starter.

I had my little packet of dried starter by the second week of March. My state wasn’t even closed at that point (that happened on March 26th). It took me a week or so to get around to actually activating it, so I guess I’ve had it going now for about a month.

I guess that timeline puts me near the forefront of the sourdough-baking trend.

The What?

As people stay home and isolate, bread baking in general has become more popular. There’s some science behind it, and psychology as well, according to this Globe and Mail story on the topic:

To this day, the ingredients of flour, water, yeast and salt are cheap and cheerful – and psychologically reassuring to our sapient selves that we can take survival into our own hands.

Our brains have limited bandwidth, and lately, the majority of our mental real estate has been overtaken by anxiety and fear, but the holy grail of grain gives our monkey minds an easily digestible diversion.

“Eating carbohydrate foods like bread stimulates insulin, which raises the uptake by the brain of the essential amino acid, tryptophan,” says Harvey Anderson, professor of nutritional sciences at the University of Toronto.

Anyone who enjoys a turkey dinner knows about tryptophan, I reckon — that’s a brain chemical that increases production of serotonin, which makes us happy and sleepy. So this physical effect combines with the emotional effects of self-soothing ourselves with making food from scratch.

And both of them combined with what may well be an eons-old cultural appreciation of bread.

Flour, Water, Microbes, Time.

According to Eater, that’s how bread-baking searches spiked dramatically on Google right about when my state issued isolation orders. They report that the current top recipe on the King Arthur Flour website is for making sourdough starter from scratch — without help, either, just a hopeful baker and hungry microbes, flour, water, and time.

I wasn’t feeling that approach, so I ordered a little packet of dried starter. It came to me quickly: a very small paper packet, with a label affixed containing a cryptic website link. There, I found instructions for activating the contents of that packet. I sat on the packet (metaphorically) for a week or so, then finally decided just to get started on my starter.

Everything went finer than frog’s hair. The starter bubbled enthusiastically almost from the get-go. Every night, I performed a ritual: measuring starter (discarding or using the rest), adding water, mixing, then adding more flour, mixing again, covering, all before going to bed. In the morning, I’d find a whole mess of puffy, happy sourdough starter bubbling away. I named my starter The Beast.

By day 4 I was ready to use it for something. I’d prepared by printing off oodles of recipes, and I got to work on them: Bread (of course), pancakes (also of course), pizza dough (surprisingly good), and even brownies (OMG). The bread and pancakes had a delightful tang, while in other stuff the sourdough melted into the background, creating an ineffable richness and complexity of flavor.

The DNA of Sourdough.

Getting a packet of dried sourdough was easy.

An even easier way to get started with sourdough is to find a person who’s already got an active starter going, and get a bit of it from them. That’s where sourdough gets even more interesting. Sourdough starter contains genetic information. And we can trace that information back to whatever its original source was.

In a CBC article, we learn about an actual sourdough historian, Karl de Smedt. He studies the different strains of sourdough starter, especially the starters that have been faithfully maintained for decades. One of these bakers maintains a 120-year-old-and-counting starter that her grandfather obtained from parts unknown.

It has always blown my mind to imagine that kind of lifespan, that kind of conscientious tending. Generations of bakers pass starter down, one to the other to the other.

Something about that hand-to-hand passage feels comforting and soothing, especially at times like these.

Freaking Out and Baking Sourdough.

Ok I understand everyone is freaking out but why are ALL of you baking sourdough.

Jessica Ellis, Twitter

Maybe those aspects of comfort and soothing explain why some sourdough bakers have begun hanging little jars and canisters of starter from tree branches around San Francisco. But because this is This Current Year, that link also contains a map indicating exactly where to find these jars. Donors even thoughtfully include details like the name of the starter the donations come from. In the photo below, this starter is “Freddie, Son of Godric,” with “Godric” being the original starter.


Refinery 29 reports that some bakeries are offering sourdough starter to customers, as well.

So there are ways to get starter if you’re up for it and don’t want to go with dried packets and don’t know anybody who’s doing it (yet).


Something Practical.

A practical reason presents itself to mind, as well, to explain this sudden popularity of sourdough baking.

Right now, it’s not exactly easy for everyone to get yeast. Shortages challenge many of us. Sourdough, however, only needs us to have flour on hand (and access to water, salt, and oil, of course).

If I ever get bored of this new thing, I can toss The Beast into the freezer to stop time for a good long while.

So far, though, that’s not happening.

I don’t often find myself neck-deep in a trend, but this one has definitely had some benefits.

However you’re spending today, may it be safe, happy, healthy, and full of love.

NEXT UP: Tomorrow, join me for a look at why some apologists think Christians should learn apologetics. I’m sure blatant self-interest won’t figure in there at all. Nope! See you tomorrow!

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ROLL TO DISBELIEVE "Captain Cassidy" is Cassidy McGillicuddy, a Gen Xer and ex-Pentecostal. (The title is metaphorical.) She writes about the intersection of psychology, belief, popular culture, science,...