Everything You Need to Know About Sourdough Starters (But Were Afraid to Ask)

Packages of sourdough bread starter hang from a telephone pole on April 8, 2020, San Francisco.  (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

I grew up in a home where cooking was a much-despised chore, the kitchen was the angriest room in the house, and my mother openly despised being stuck with the task of feeding us all. The idea that food preparation was something to be resented and avoided seeped into my consciousness early.

As such, one of the more confusing aspects of shelter-in-place has been watching the respite that people are finding in their kitchens. Nowhere is this more visible than in the solace—and community—some of my neighbors have found in the task of making bread from scratch. And, since we’re in San Francisco, the bread of choice is almost always sourdough.

The first time I stumbled across this phenomenon, I was browsing Nextdoor. On March 27, a user named Deanna posted the following: “Sourdough starter! This was a neighborhood movement started in Bernal Heights! Because baking ingredients have been in short supply, we are continuing the sharing of sourdough starter. An extension of the starter named ‘Godric’ which has treated us well so far. Great for bread, pancakes, biscuits, and more—up for grabs at the corner of 25th and York in the Mission."

The post was accompanied by this photo:

Sourdough Starter packs are being shared between neighbors all over the Bay Area during shelter-in-place.
Sourdough starter packs are being shared between neighbors all over the Bay Area during shelter in place. (Nextdoor)

Despite being clueless about starters and Godrics and yeast and such, I have spent the last few weeks watching from a distance, both confused and fascinated by what all of these people are doing.

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Earlier this month, a user named Amity posted (also in Nextdoor): “Just left the corner with 9 starters still out! Come by 21st and Noe to pick one up. They’re on the southwest corner pinned to a wooden fence. I’ll do the same tomorrow around 6pm. Happy baking, everyone!! I’m also here if anyone needs advice or help with sourdough. I’ve been making Tartine-style sourdough for a while and have learned a lot through trial and error! Let’s get in contact if you need anything!”

The starter that Nextdoor user, Ryan Sweat, found in Glenn Canyon Park.
The starter Nextdoor user Ryan found in Glen Canyon Park. (Nextdoor)

On the one hand, this just seems like a treasure hunt with prizes I definitely don’t know what to do with. On the other, my heart is warmed every time I see a post like the one a Nextdoor user named Ryan shared on April 28. “I’ve got a starter that I’ve been feeding,” Ryan wrote. “Found the original on a hike. Want to keep the tradition going! If you’re trying to bake in this quarantine time, this is a fun project. Send me a message and I'm happy to hook you up with a starter.”

When I found out that KQED Food’s Olivia Won had been delivering starter packs to friends and neighbors in the East Bay, I had a million questions. She understands how confusing the sourdough baking world is for newcomers, and immediately made a joke about the “absurdly vague recipe steps” that frequently crop up. (She also listed terms like “float-test,” “autolyse,” “stretch and fold,” and “billowing/pillowy character” as stumbling blocks for newbies.)

Then she gave me an explanation of what sourdough starters are, and how exactly they are used, that is, by far, the clearest one I’ve come across:

You can create a starter by mixing flour and water and letting it sit on a counter for a few days, until wild yeast from the air jumps in. The yeast feeds on the flour, releases gas, and magically, wet flour transforms into a bubbling, sour-smelling living creature. To prevent it from getting super acidic, you have to ‘feed’ it fresh flour and water every day. (When I’ve mismanaged my baking schedule in the past, I've canceled plans or just brought along rising dough to social gatherings, like a true crazy lady!)

With each feed, it grows and grows, like The Blob. You can seed a brand new starter with a teaspoon of a ‘mother’ sourdough starter. ‘Mother’ starters are truly mind-boggling. There are some bakeries/wholesome Midwestern families with 100-year-old starters!

Won has been making sourdough for years now. Born initially out of a desire to practice mindfulness and slowing down, she now finds herself enamored with the “laborious, time-intensive process” of baking bread, as well as its “rich culinary history.” In other words, Won has taken all of the elements of cooking that have always scared me (and my entire family), and embraced them as a meditation of sorts.

She’s definitely not alone. Evidence suggests that an increasing number of Bay Area residents are doing the very same thing since shelter in place began. Since March 16, Google searches for “sourdough recipe” in the San Francisco/Oakland metropolitan area have been steadily on the rise. (Pun intended.)

Internet searches for "Sourdough Recipe" in the San Francisco-Oakland metro area have increased since shelter-in-place began.
Internet searches for "sourdough recipe" in the San Francisco-Oakland metro area have increased since shelter-in-place began. (Google Trends)

This week, during an appearance on The Late Show, even Jake Gyllenhaal confessed to a growing sourdough obsession. And when he informed Stephen Colbert he was learning to bake under the instruction of his friend Josey Baker, of The Mill in Alamo Square, Colbert flashed his own starter kit! (Colbert's apparently came from his niece.)

Understanding this growing trend is what prompted Olivia Won to stop composting the excesses of her starter and begin sharing “plastic bags of goo.” Which, for the uninitiated, look like this:

A batch of Olivia Won's "Sourdough Goo."
A batch of Olivia Won's "sourdough goo." (Olivia Won)

For weeks, Won has been delivering these bags to “anyone who expresses a desire to embark on a mercurial, demanding relationship with a jar of hungry, wild, often unpredictable yeast-goo.” Won describes her process of transforming the goo into the bread as, “a humbling, intimate, and often ridiculous relationship, in which I really give myself over to the needs of a squishy chunk of dough.”

The end results are worth it, as one of her recent loaves demonstrates:

With enough practice, you too can turn sourdough goo into this gorgeous specimen.
With enough practice, you too can turn sourdough goo into this gorgeous specimen. (Olivia Won)

While the sharing of sourdough starters is now a trend all over the Bay Area, nowhere is taking it quite as seriously as San Francisco. A Google map showing where exactly to pick up starter kits is now marked with 24 different locations around the city.

The "Victory Dough - Neighborhood Sourdough Starter Sharing" guide on Google Maps now has 24 locations, and counting.
The "Victory Dough - Neighborhood Sourdough Starter Sharing" guide on Google Maps now has 24 locations, and counting. (Google Maps)

Few shelter-in-place activities are as well equipped at battling all of the challenges of social distancing at once. Sourdough starter kits have created a new way for neighbors to bond, given people a reason and means to keep in touch, inspired countless people to take up a new hobby, acted as an effective and productive way to fill time and, yes, prompted an increased reverence for the slower things in life. Plus: food.

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“It really is absurd—and maybe a bit sweet—to think about how, in response to the bleak feelings of helplessness in our current moment,” Won says, “so many of us are eagerly directing pent-up attention and care into the project of keeping yeast-goo alive! It really is so empowering when you finally make a great loaf.”