Local bakers reflect on the shape-shifting alchemy of sourdough starters

RIGHT OUT OF THE OVEN: Kaley Laird holds a freshly baked sourdough boule at The Rhu. The pastry chef nourishes a 6-year-old sourdough starter named Troubles that she made in San Francisco out of trub, dead yeast that's leftover from homebrewing beer. Photo by Laura Hackett

Starter. Sourdough. Levain. Biga. Poolish. Depending on which bakery you’re in, the alchemy of flour, water and yeast is named, fed and cared for differently. It’s affected by everything from temperature to bacteria to the hands that mix it; it catalyzes bread to rise and imbues a distinct — usually tart — flavor.

In any bakery worth its salt, you can bet this living organism is fermenting, growing and bubbling somewhere in the facility. To learn more about this curious process, Xpress interviewed seven area bakers about how starters play a role in their bread operations.

Queen Loaftifa

“We’ve worked really hard to get our starter in a good place,” says Cori Phillips, the production manager at City Bakery. “It’s a little bit of us, and it’s a signature because no one else has our starter. It’s like a stamp. It’s important for me to keep her alive and keep flavoring her.”

While City Bakery has several starters it uses on a regular basis, the mother of these starters, affectionately dubbed Queen Loaftifa, is almost 2 years old. Phillips says she was brought back to life in October 2017 after being ignored and subsequently losing all her yeast activity during a turnover in management.

“It took two or three days of rehydrating and feeding to get her back to her beautiful queenness,” says Phillips. “It’s kind of like being a proud parent. You feed it. You nurture it. You hug it. She’s part of the team.”

Susannah Gebhart, a self-taught baker and founder of Old World Levain Bakery, made her original starter out of water and Carolina Ground Flour, a locally grown and ground variety, on her kitchen counter in 2014. It came to life after a few days from the wild yeasts in the surrounding air, and it’s been alive and well ever since.

“It doesn’t have a name. We call it The Mother. It seems beyond a name in some respects. It’s kind of its own universe,” she says. “Just like our bodies, it’s regenerating on a regular basis. It’s always going to reflect what yeast and bacteria is on the grains, our hands and in the air. It will always be part of a place and the ever changing environment of a space. I think the starter evolves just like us.

“What is really beautiful is that this colony of critters has been cared for,” she continues. “It’s a metaphor for the care and love and attention that has gone into it and all the baked goods that have been made from the starter.”

Kaley Laird, The Rhu’s executive pastry chef and baker, has a 6-year-old starter named Troubles that she created in San Francisco out of trub, or dead leftover yeast, from a homebrewed beer. When Laird decided to relocate to Asheville, she froze the starter and drove it across the country, stopping in New York to store a few quarts of it in her mother’s freezer for safekeeping.

“I wasn’t able to find anyone else who had it,” Laird recalls. “It had a little bit of beer in it. A friend took it and brought it to me, and I reactivated it and built it into a starter using it as the water. It always had this beery, yeasty flavor that was unique about it.”

Feeding the culture

Other bakers, such as Fred Dehlow and Aaron Wiener of Geraldine’s Bakery, take a less sentimental approach to their starters.

“We’ve had one going on since we’ve been here. And in New York, we had one going for at least 30 years. So you keep refreshing it every day. There’s really not much to it. You’ve got flour, water, yeast, basically, right? That’s it,” says Dehlow, who opened Geraldine’s in 2013. As he answers questions, he’s sprinkling peanut butter chips on several pies at once, checking on something in the oven and assembling a layer cake, among other tasks.

“It was our jobs as teenagers to take care of them,” says the second-generation baker, referring to the starter as a sour. “We’d go into a big bin and mix the sour with our hands. When the sour gets on your arms, it turns into paste, and it’s hard to get off.”

“They used to keep it under the sink,” Wiener adds, reminiscing on one of his first bakery jobs. “I always used to think that might be a little unsanitary. I don’t think that’s allowed anymore.”

Wiener, who owned Carolina Mountain Bakery in Arden for 20 years, says he kept a starter alive all the while until he decided to close the business. “I threw it in the dumpster. What else are you going to do with it?” he says.

But Dehlow and Wiener acknowledge that it’s a good practice to keep a starter going for as long as you can. “It’s definitely a mark of commitment for the baker, keeping that thing alive,” says Wiener.

“They get more sour, the ones you keep going. Our bread starter we use is really sour,” Dehlow says. “I usually feed it before I leave at the end of the day. Usually, it’s enough that it’ll be OK for an extra night. It’s like a pet goldfish. If I miss a day of feeding it, not the end of the world.”

Brennan Johnson, on the other hand, sees the feeding process as crucial to the development of a starter’s flavor. At The Walnut Schoolhouse, his bakery in Marshall, he uses his rye starter to bring the flavor of the grain forward, rather than cultivating an overpowering funk. He keeps his rye starter on a strict feeding schedule, giving it twice as much water as flour in the morning, and in the evening, all flour and no water, which makes for a stiffer starter that elicits a more grain-based flavor from the bread. He also feeds his starters minimally processed flour from local mills Carolina Ground Flour, Farm and Sparrow, and Lindley Mills.

“For the most part when you feed a starter with a white flour and something a little more processed, you’re mostly using the flour as a medium for the sourdough culture — but there’s not a ton of flavor in the grain itself to be coaxed out by the starter,” he explains. “By using these flours that are fresh-milled, you retain a lot of its oils, nutrients and flavors. It’s all still superprevalent in the flour, and all that is prevalent in the starter itself.”

Gebhart crafts the flavor of OWL’s starters with a similar philosophy. “Rather than letting it go through its full cycle where it gets superacetic and soupy, we use it before it gets to that point,” she explains. “We feed it to encourage the creation of lactic rather than acetic acid. Lactic is much more creamy, milky and mild in flavor. When a sourdough isn’t extremely tart, it allows the wheat flavor of the flour to come through as more layered and complex.”

Flour power

The abundant local sources of freshly milled flour are driving the diversity of starters that can be found in area bakeries. The Asheville Bread Festival, which celebrated its 15th anniversary in April, has inspired out-of-the-box uses for these starters that sometimes even go beyond bread.

“In this town, with the bread festival, and the thought process behind bread and starters and the movement of all natural leavening around here, it puts you in a position of how to think creatively about using starters, because that’s what everyone else is doing,” says Laird.

Laird and her team have experimented with using their starter in nontraditional forms: ice cream, cake, chocolate chip cookies. The Rhu has even created a sourdough latte, which uses starters flavored with cocoa, honey or matcha that have been spread thin, dehydrated in the oven then steeped in the milk itself to add an earthy funk to the warm drink.

Maia Surdam, a baker at OWL who also has a Ph.D. in American history, has cultivated a starter using White Lab’s English Ale yeast strain in order to pay tribute to alewives who historically did most of the baking and brewing without acknowledgment or appreciation.

“I liked the fruitiness and maltiness that came from that yeast strain,” says Surdam. “I was trying to create something that had the distinct flavor of brewer’s yeast.”

At the bakery, the starter is used to make the Alewife sourdough loaf as well as OWL’s nationally renowned Election Cake, which can best be described as an English fruit cake. Gebhart says she has also been experimenting with a rose petal-flavored yeast water that is added to a lightly sweetened base and used to leaven pita bread. “That was really wild. I hope we can explore more botanical yeast waters at the bakery. It’s another way to scent doughs and create experience,” she says.

For Surdam, many of these unique ideas, just like the starters, are born from the bakers’ environment. “These creations are all part of the world we’re living in,” she reflects. “We’re drawing in so much inspiration from bakers, millers, events, organizations and other food aficionados.”

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