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Sourdough Myths and Folklore

I really enjoy doing things that are more on the artistic, uncertain, and not quite charted realm of things. In these areas, there are all sorts of interesting folklore and myths. I don't know of ANY area with as many myths and legends as sourdough.

Of course, I do also tend to be somewhat methodical, so I investigate what I can so I can better understand what I'm doing. Sometimes, to be be cute, I call the unsubstantiated myths and folklore "old husband tales." In this page, we're going to look at some of the most common myths. I may add to this page from time to time as myths I haven't heard before catch my attention.

In most cases, there is no harm in believing these myths. And they DO add a certain amount of color in our otherwise colorless lives. Still, I think there is more color in understanding what is happening in the world around us, and in being able to consistently make good bread!

Maybe I should have called this page Sourdough Mythbusters.

I caught my starter from the air! This is an enduring legend. Remember that sourdough has been used since the time of the Pharaohs, and much of sourdough history is from pre-scientific days. A sourdough starter consists of one or more strains of yeast and one or more strains of a friendly bacteria, called lactobacillus bacteria. While these bacteria are present in the air, they are also present in much higher concentration in the flours used to culture sourdough starters.

One of my favorite sourdough writers, Dr. Ed Wood, chronicles his National Geographic trip to Egypt to try to duplicate the bread making techniques detailed in drawings on the wall of a pyramid in his "World Sourdoughs From Antiquity." In order to make sure he had an authentic Egyptian sourdough culture, Dr. Wood decided to start his culture in Egypt, and had a quantity of flour irradiated so it was completely sterile. When he mixed the flour and water in a sterile environment, nothing grew. When he went to Egypt, he set out many bottles with flour and water to catch a local culture. The overwhelming number of these samples did nothing. Some rotted. A very small number started sourdough starters.

The subscribers of rec.food.sourdough did a "poor mans" version of the Dr. Wood experiment. They poured boiling water over flour to sterilize it and then tried to start starters. The experienced sourdough practitioners normally had a 90+% success rate in creating sourdough starters. With the boiled water, they had a failure rate of well over 90%.

So, yes, you CAN start a culture with critters caught from the air. However, the odds don't favor it. The greatest number of critters is in the flour, so that is where the greatest odds of starting a culture lie. As the Mythbusters would say, "This myth is busted!"

I moved from San Francisco to Boise and my culture was taken over by local critters, and it just ISN'T THE SAME! I never argue with observations, but I often argue with the causes. Yes, when people move their starters often behave differently. However, in the section above we talked about where starters come from. If few starters are actually started from the air, it seems that it is very unlikely that critters from the air could take over a healthy starter. Similarly, the critter count in a healthy starter compared to on flour makes it unlikely that the critters on the flour could take over a healthy starter. In short, if you've been taking good care of your starter, it is unlikely that stray critters could take it over.

So, where do the observed changes come from?

French farmers feed their geese special foods to change the taste of the geese's livers and thus the taste of the pate made from the livers. Hunters in some parts of the country prize boars that have been feeding on acorns. And many mothers will tell you that when they eat some foods their nursing infants react to it. If larger animals are affected by what they eat, is it at all surprising that small animals are also affected?

If you want to see major changes, start feeding your starter whole wheat or rye flour. Even changes of flour within the same type will affect the taste of the breads, though the changes aren't as obvious. When you moved from San Francisco to Boise, it's pretty likely that you are no longer using the same flour, and most likely the changes are due to changes in the flour you are using. As the Mythbusters would say, "This myth is busted!"

I touched my starter with metal and had to throw it out! The "sour" part of "sourdough" is probably from the German word "sauer" which means "acidic." Sourdough is acidic. And it can dissolve some metals. However, what happens when sourdough and metals contact each other depend on the metal and the length of exposure. If the metal is a stainless steel, there will be no problems. I routinely start, maintain and feed my starters in stainless steel bowls. However, I would not store starter in a base metal container, such as copper, brass, aluminum, or just about any metal other than stainless steel. The other part of the matter is the length of exposure. If the contact is short, there is no problem. Stirring the starter with a metal utensil just isn't a problem, even if the spoon is tin. I suspect that this myth started when stainless steel was much rarer than it is today. In short, don't sweat using stainless containers and utensils. And short contact with base metals is still no big deal. As the Mythbusters would say, "This myth is SO busted!"

Only Use Spring Water With Starters! A recurring question with regards to sourdough starter is what sort of water may be used with it. And many books, articles and websites insist that starters be started and maintained with spring water, insisting that sourdough starter cannot be started with chlorinated water, and that chlorinated water will kill a starter.

In my experience, chlorinated water has not been a problem. I have started, fed and used starters with chlorinated water with no problems. However, I have heard that the more persistent forms of chlorine used by some cities, such as chloramine, can cause problems.

In general, if your tap water smells and tastes good it will probably work well with sourdough. If you have problems with your starters, you may want to try using dechlorinated water. Since few home filters will remove chlorine from water, and from what I am told neither boiling nor standing will remove chloramine, I suggest that you try bottled water if you are experiencing what you think might be water related problems with your sourdough.

There are some more issues with regards to water, and there is more of a discussion of these issues in the Know Your Ingredients and Terms page,