How I Met Your Mothers
Motherhood comes in many different forms. It can range from birthing genetic offspring to being the primary caregiver of a pet. In the case of sourdough bread, motherhood comes as a living, breathing microbial community, feasting on flour and water and oxygen, bubbling up in mason jars on counters or in refrigerators. Depending on your point of view, sourdough mothers, a fermented mix of water and yeast, are either the ultimate matriarchs—they can create offspring loaves every day for hundreds of years—or actually more like babies: if you don’t nurture them regularly, they will die.
To make a sourdough mother, also called a sourdough starter, you begin with flour and water. Often you’ll use a whole-grain flour, which is more likely to contain the naturally occurring yeasts and bacteria necessary to give the mother life. You let the flour and water mixture sit for a day or so, before discarding half of it and adding more flour and water. After a couple days of this, your starter is likely bubbly and yeasty scented. You start feeding it twice a day now, still discarding half every time, then adding flour and water. About a week in, your mother is likely ready, doubled in volume and tangy scented, a thriving acidic community of natural yeasts and bacteria. It’s ready to help make bread.
“It isn’t easy to make good bread with sourdough cultures,” writes Harold McGee in his encyclopedic tome of food science, On Food and Cooking, first published in 1984. This is for a couple reasons, he explains. One is the balance of bacteria and yeast. Because the bacteria grow faster than the yeast, there is far more bacteria in any given starter, which can inhibit yeast’s production of carbon dioxide, which helps bread to rise. In addition, because a sourdough starter is acidic, it can weaken the structure of bread dough, resulting in a dense loaf.
But many bakers, professional and amateur, are drawn to sourdough—not only because it has the potential for deep, complex flavor but because of the challenge involved in simply making it. A good loaf of sourdough takes time, practice, and patience. It’s a challenge that starts with maintaining the mother. And whether it is the consistent work required to keep it alive or the stories surrounding its lineage, many bakers get attached to their mother, including these five.
These interviews have been edited and condensed.
Sandor Katz is a 56-year-old book author, teacher, and speaker living in Woodbury, Tennessee, where he teaches fermentation workshops and classes.
When did you first acquire your starter?
It’s hard to say when exactly I started. I would say it’s been about 20 years now. I started playing around with sourdough in 1993, but I only had shorter-term starters that didn’t keep going.
What made this one different?
Just that I maintained it! And by the time I started this one, I had some experience. I’d learned from my failures.
How do you maintain it?
I’m very lackadaisical. When it’s out of the fridge, I feed it every other day. In warm weather, I feed it more often, but I’m less likely to leave it out of the fridge. When I’m gearing up to bake, I’ll feed it twice the day before and then again the night before I make the dough. The multiple rapid feedings make a sourdough that is very vigorous. I make sure that with each feeding, it’s a small proportion of starter and larger proportion of flour and water. I don’t measure or weigh. To feed my starter, I’ll empty my jar of starter—usually I’ll use that in pancake batter—and I’ll leave what sticks to the edge of the jar. I fill the jar a quarter of the way up with water, mix the sourdough off the walls of the jar with the water to dissolve, then add flour to fill up the jar. I mix it all up, and it’s just barely a solid kind of consistency.
The pancake batter is intriguing. What else do you make?
A lot of bread, of course. But then also pancakes. A Polish sour rye soup called zurek, using very sour sourdough starter. Once in a while I’ll make kvass, which is a Russian lightly fermented beverage made out of old dried bread. English muffins.
Where do you keep your mother?
It’s in the fridge if I’m not going to be using it and baking regularly. Right now it’s in the fridge. Because I do so much traveling, I’ve left it for up to three months in the fridge.
Sourdoughs are extremely resilient. I’ve even left mine at room temperature for a long time and let it turn nasty. Even if the putrefying bacteria become dominant, the yeast and lactobacilli that you want are still there. Just get rid of the ugly top and use a little bit from the middle, mix it with flour and fresh water. It’ll be fine.
That should give people who are afraid of killing their mothers some hope.
Sourdough is this elaborate community. Yeast, lactobacilli, other bacteria—all different kinds of organisms are all present, in a dance with one another. You feed a bunch of fresh flour into starter, in a fairly large proportion, which lowers the acidity, and the yeast go crazy. It smells super yeasty and fresh. As the yeast exhausts the nutrients, the lactobacilli pick up and it gets faintly sour, like apple cider. As they slow down, other bacteria pick up the slack, and eventually you smell putrefaction. It doesn’t mean other bacteria have gone away.
What does it mean to you to have an old mother?
I think it’s beautiful when people have ancestral sourdoughs. It’s an exciting thing. But all the microbial analysis suggests that when you put sourdough starter [you get] from anywhere in your [own] kitchen, it’ll become your flour, your water, your kitchen. Its microbial origin doesn’t stay with it. It’s always evolving into where it is.
My starter connects me to my impulse to explore and learn about fermentation. The first few starters didn’t persist, which speaks to the learning curve of figuring out how to deal with these living things.
I love that my starter is an old starter. It’s exciting for other people to take some home, connecting them to my fermentation journey. Through the years I’ve met people who have given me bits of special, inherited starters. I didn’t want to try to maintain them as separate things, so I folded them into my starter. And so mine has developed a history from being added to. It’s a bastard starter, filled with all these unaccounted for influences.
You’ve met many people with starters, new and old, and seen how attached they get.
I really think it’s about the ways we love something with a story. You could have seeds for an obscure variety of lettuce that your great-uncle used to grow, and even though it tastes like most other lettuce, you could just be like, “This is the best in the world; it’s my ancestry; it’s my family’s connection to the land.” Or “My great-grandmother brought this starter across the ocean, and when I started a new life, it was a continuity to the old world.” That’s the attachment to the starter. They connect us to histories that are important.
TRUK JANTZ AND MARICELLA URIBE
Truk Jantz, 30, and Maricella Uribe, 27, met as cooks a few years ago at Standing Rock, in North and South Dakota. Currently, they are traveling with their sourdough starter, which has been shared with activists around the world.
When did your sourdough life start?
MU: It was 2016, in the winter. I was at Standing Rock, and I met Truk, now my boyfriend, in the kitchen. It was crazy cold. It was minus 40 degrees. It was a crazy kitchen in an amazing place, filled with people from all walks of life, all indigenous tribes, coming together to stand up for one cause. We were there in the kitchen cooking for hundreds of people every day. There was an environment of sharing. Everyone, all day, was coming through the kitchen bringing things to share.
One day we decided to make a sourdough starter. We weren’t into baking. I asked Truk: “Have you done this before?” No! But we started it right there in the kitchen, and it lived in that kitchen for a few weeks before we started baking. It was a cold kitchen. And luckily the starter survived. That sourdough starter is part of the resistance. It was created in those temperatures and still survived.
TJ: We met and fell in love at Standing Rock. So the starter was also to me a symbol of what our relationship was going to be about, a symbol of us doing something together. It was equally about the power of what was going on in the kitchen as much as what I was feeling for this woman.
How was the bread?
MU: The first loaves came out rock hard. They didn’t rise. It was so cold. We still ate it. We found if you toasted it for a long time it was OK. Someone donated a box of organic butter. We had huge butter blocks that we handed out in the kitchen.
What brought you to Standing Rock?
MU: I was in Switzerland at the time. I am a dual citizen. I was at a breaking point in my life, trying to decide what to do and where to go. I was following the movement on social media, and then I saw a video of a girl cooking for the people there. That’s when I saw myself there. I thought, Oh, I could do that. I have experience cooking big amounts for big events.
Where has your starter traveled since you started it in 2016?
MU: It’s now thriving all over the globe. Some guy from Berlin heard about it when we were in Standing Rock. Once he heard there was sourdough starter created at Standing Rock, he wanted to be part of the movement through the starter. I found out you can rehydrate dried sourdough starters. So I dehydrated some of ours and sent it over to Berlin. It’s like the spirit of Standing Rock is being spread across the world. The ultimate goals weren’t reached at Standing Rock. But the sharing and sense of caring people had for each other: that’s what we put in the starter, now across the world.
Some people took it home with them from Standing Rock. We didn’t create the starter with the idea that it was going to turn into something big and great. It was a spur-of-the-moment thing.
Where is your starter now?
MU: Today, we travel with our starter. We made sourdough pancakes on the beach in Baja yesterday.
TJ: We are fully traveling, so that means the environment is changing all the time, from being really hot and humid to cold. We live in a truck, so we’re moving a lot. Our starter stays in a cooler. When we are visiting people, I’ll take it out and cook in people’s kitchens. We’re at my sister-in-law’s house right now. It’s in her fridge. I’m not planning on baking. I got here yesterday, so we fed it and put it in the fridge. If I have access to a fridge, I’ll almost always put it in the fridge.
How do you care for your mother?
MU: We have a grinder on the trailer of our truck. We grind fresh grains for the starter. Whole-wheat berries. If we want to use it to bake, we feed it the day before. But if we get somewhere with a kitchen and we find the energy is off, we won’t make bread. We don’t want to open the starter and let it take in the negative energy.
TJ: Once, in Montana, we were staying at the house of a friend of friends of Standing Rock. We were just passing through. They were heavy smokers, and they smoked inside. This was a dude who claimed to have a lot of “medicine” and he ran ceremony, and to me there was just a bunch of negativity in his words and in the feeling of the house. And then the kitchen was real messy. I just didn’t dig it, you know? We stayed for a couple days to pay our respects. But we didn’t open the starter.
Troy DeRego is a 49-year-old baker and business owner in Starkville, Mississippi. Originally from New Hampshire, with a fine arts degree from the Rhode Island School of Design, DeRego started baking bread as a way to create community in his new home in the South.
What sparked your interest in bread?
After I graduated from RISD, I moved out to the West Coast and lived in the Bay Area. I got into website design. While there, I fell in love with bread and sourdough. Sourdough was everywhere. I worked at this old sports bar in San Rafael that had great burgers, the most important feature being the big chewy crust of the sourdough they were served on. For a young man trying to make a start, a loaf of sourdough with cheese and fresh vegetables could feed me for a week. Compare this to the bag of white bread to make peanut butter sandwiches, which would have got me through a week in New Hampshire, and you can see how I fell in love with sourdough.
How did you get to Mississippi?
I ended up meeting my wife in 2002, and she was already teaching here in Mississippi. I had moved back to New Hampshire and was playing in a band. Some of my friends were friends with her friends from graduate school, who she was visiting. And she sort of picked me up. I learned to play guitar to meet girls, and it only worked that one time.
It was long-distance for a little while. I ended up coming down here. She teaches creative writing at the university here. We’re both fish out of water. We’re not from the South. We’ve been here many years, more than 15 years now, but still … you know … it’s a struggle to try and fit in.
When did you start baking bread at home?
Baking bread became a way of capturing some of our trips to other places, especially Europe. I started with baguettes and French bread. When bread comes out of the oven and you try it ... we would just sit there and feel giddy and euphoric. It made me want to share my bread with friends.
So I started baking more, but it wasn’t enough to satisfy me. I just could never bake enough. I wanted to do it on a bigger scale. We have a nice farmers’ market here, so in 2013 I started selling my bread there. That’s what got me set on sourdough. I had already committed to doing the market, but I hadn’t crossed that line and done any sourdough baking. I felt like if I’m going to sell bread in my community, I needed a reason to be doing it there. I decided to call my bread Starkville Sourdough, and every week at the market I told everyone that would listen how this is the wild yeast from right here.
How’d it turn out?
The thing about bread, even your worst mistakes are delicious. I had a Peter Reinhardt book that explained how to create a starter, so I gave it a shot, and sure enough it took off. I started feeding it and did some test batches, which were pretty dense and terrible. But the starter got happier and happier, becoming more predictable. Maybe it was only six weeks before that first farmers’ market, and by then I felt pretty good about it and went ahead and made a big batch for the market. The loaves were small kind of dense boules. They were pale. But they sold like crazy.
Because we’re in a university town, there is an international crowd here. So when people from Europe would come and tell me my bread tasted like bread they remembered from home, it was very exciting. I felt like I was really onto something.
That went on for a couple years before I started seeking out a space to open a business. It seemed impossible, but piece by piece I made it work. I found a location on the main street, and an old oven on eBay.
You opened your bakery in 2015. Were you still using the same starter?
Yes, the starter has been with me all this time. I put it through a lot of stress in those early days. I was really only baking once a week. The market didn’t last all year, so the winter months I was baking far less, and there were times I’d just leave it in the fridge and let it go kind of dormant. It’s very resilient, though.
And so you’ve turned your starter into a business.
I totally consider the sourdough starter my business partner. And I’ll tell you it’s taken me on a journey. The bread bakery has been great, but there aren’t enough people in this town, and people don’t eat bread like they used to. It’s tough to run a bakery that sells just one product like that. I started turning the bakery into more of a restaurant, which was not what I wanted to create.… It’s been a constant struggle to not let the business become something I didn’t want.
How has your business changed?
I needed a product to reach a wider audience. My sourdough starter provided the answer. When you’re feeding the starter, you end up with some overripe starter that you have to get rid of. I had learned not to throw the excess out, because it will just keep fermenting in the trash. The best thing to do is put it in the industrial oven overnight while the oven cools. The starter will bake it off, and you can just throw it out. I did that a few times … but found it turned into a really delicious looking golden brown crispy thing. The only thing making it not appealingly edible is a pinch of salt. I did that, and it’s really good. That’s what inspired crackers. Sourdough crackers. I added beer grains and turned them into beer grain crackers. I did a Kickstarter and found customers all over the country.
MARY LOU DEWITT
Mary Lou DeWitt is a 69-year-old weaver living in North Adams, Massachusetts, where she and her late husband raised her two kids, now adults. DeWitt kept her sourdough starter alive for 30 years. When her children left, she froze her mother’s remains.
When did you start your starter?
I actually inherited my sourdough starter in 1979 from the caretaker of Williams College’s experimental forest, which is right around the corner from where we live. I had been a bread baker since my late teens. I baked any kind of bread, except for sourdough. But I was very excited about sourdough. I loved eating sourdough. The caretaker said he had a starter that came from the Yukon, from the Alaska Gold Rush days.
How much bread did you bake?
I baked bread every week for 30 years. I loved it. It connected me to things that were important. It’s the mother in me. I would nurture the starter and get it going for bread. It was an all-encompassing feeling, taking care of my starter while I was also taking care of my family. It was an important piece of my life.
It was great. I had a wonderful, zesty sourdough whole-wheat bread. Especially right out of the oven. I would not always make a meal to go with it, but often a hearty soup. It was really fun to plan nutrition for my family around the sourdough starter.
Tell me about your family.
Tyler was born in 1982. And my daughter, Erica, in 1987. We lived in Williamstown. Their dad was a professor at Williams. He passed away in 2013. I’ve been here since I was a student. I’ve always been a weaver, and that’s been my profession, but it’s been flexible and plastic, and so I’ve also been a stay-at-home mom. I love kids. We baked bread together. We did art together. It fit my nature and personality. I’ve always loved to cook, and I loved to be at home with the kids. They were my best buddies. We’d go on little adventures together but were always home-focused. Cooking was a huge deal for me.
My kids do not have kids yet. But they might … I don’t know how they’re going to work out the two-career thing. It’s that generation that both partners work. They both work very long hours. But I think both might think about spending at least some of the time at home making cookies or making bread. They’ll probably find time on the weekend, I don’t know.
Did you ever come close to killing your mother?
In 1993 the family moved to Santa Fe for sabbatical. I took my sourdough in a cooler. When we were climbing to Santa Fe at 7,500 feet, the starter got very excited and exploded in the cooler. I revived it and it survived.
Baking at high altitudes in Santa Fe meant I had to tweak my recipes. A little more liquid, a little less flour. The person whose house we rented was not a cook, and there were no pans, so I would buy those Freihofer coffee cakes in the aluminum pans and used them as my bread pans. It worked fine.
I think Tyler probably remembers my experiments in New Mexico. My first attempts [at bread] were a little rock solid. Baking in New Mexico was great for us, because it was a totally new location for both of the kids. The familiarity of cooking and the sourdough bread was an anchor for them as they forayed out into the world of Santa Fe. They could come home to familiar stuff.
How did you take care of your starter?
It was a very hearty starter. I just couldn’t kill it. I would feed it the night before I baked. I would take out whatever I wanted to keep and then add flour and a tiny bit of sugar and salt. I would leave it on the counter in summer, or in the oven after I had turned it on for a minute and let it sit overnight. And then I would use whatever else I needed for the recipe. I kept it in the fridge usually. I didn’t replenish it often, just when I was going to bake bread. I don’t know if others need to do it more often. I was pretty loose about it. And it survived fine.
Why did you stop baking bread?
I haven’t cooked sourdough since 2009. But I took two big scoops, and it’s been frozen ever since. I don’t know if it’s OK.
I stopped for a couple of reasons. I became the president of a nonprofit. My daughter was in college. And we didn’t eat as much bread. And as much as I loved it, we just weren’t eating it. I didn’t have a family to feed. It just seemed like a lot of effort. So I gradually phased it out. Erica would come home, and I would get excited to bake bread. But as she got older … I just found that I was nurturing my grown kids in different ways.
Do you miss it?
Harmony Sage is a 39-year-old baker and brewer in Long Beach, California. She created a new starter for her business—Long Beach Beer Lab, which opened its doors to the public in 2017—with the help of natural yeast from local grapes.
Tell me about your first starter.
I am a trained pastry chef. I worked for the Ritz for many years in Atlanta, Georgia. I had been using this 150-year-old starter that a chef at the Ritz had given me. I think it was from France, because that chef is French. He bragged about it at the time, but I was more into pastry than bread, so it didn’t dawn on me to get the full history. But as I used that one, I became more in love with sourdough and the possibilities of it.
When did you get serious about bread?
My husband and I decided to move back to Israel, where my family is located. He went to medical school there. We moved there for nine years. And that’s where we fell in love with brewing beer, and where I got more into bread baking than pastry. While we were there, we got the opportunity to move to Long Beach, California, to start the Long Beach Beer Lab, which is both a brewery and a bakery.
Did you use the same mother when you started this business?
No. I wanted to start a starter that was unique to Long Beach. I wanted to start a new starter for our new business. I wanted to give people something local.
Everyone talks about obtaining yeast from your area. Why not be proud of your sourdough in your local area? I did some research about the best ways to get that. I wanted not just the flavor of the air, but also what’s growing in that area. My mother-in-law has a huge garden in her backyard—there are all kinds of things, including grapes. I took some grapes and crushed them up and added high-protein flour, good quality filtered water, and let nature do its thing. Within three days it was bubbling over. It was beautiful.
Tell me about this mother.
It’s a workhorse of a starter. We put it in the beer; we put it in the bread; we do these wild fermented kvass-inspired beers, almost like kombucha.
This starter gives more tropical flavors, more than just the sour. We actually did send it to a lab to analyze it to see what’s in it. What was really interesting is that they didn’t find lactobacilli; instead they found a brettanomyces strain of yeast, which is used in brewing. We have a friendly argument going around whether we cultivated it to be a brettanomyces starter, or we trained it.
There are definitely people who say it doesn’t matter how old your starter is. Instead, because of the way you’re feeding it, every starter is renewed every time you feed it. And I agree with that theory to a certain extent. I think that the person mixing the starter makes a big difference. What is on your hands plays a big role in how your starter works. I tell people to put your hands in the starter for bread. (When we’re doing beer, it has to be opposite—no hands.)
We did a little experiment with our employees on a team-building exercise. Everyone mixed up a tiny bit of starter. The only variable was their hands. And the next day, we saw whose has risen the most. For the people who deal with fermentation the most, like me, ours rose very high. There was a cook who smoked all the time, and her starter didn’t rise at all.
Does your mother have a name?
No, we don’t have a name. I’ve given my starter to other bakers in the area when theirs have died or their employees have thrown them out. Some customers have my starter, too. And it’s their starter now. They’ve given it names. And I always think of the starter as a female, because we call it the mother. She’s the mother, the giver of all things, the creator. That’s the closest we’ve come to naming it. Another baker in the area who uses my starter … well, her starter is a male. She has her own reasonings.