Wild Sourdough Starter made with grapes
About 12 years ago a dear MFP (Master Food Preserver) friend, Marbeth Shiff, shared the most scrumptious pair of light rye breads at a potluck that I had ever tasted; a seeded loaf with flax, anise, and dill and a fruited loaf with raisins, cranberries and walnuts. The high-domed loaves boasted crackling crisp crust, mellow tang that sat just right on my tongue, and texture that made me downright envious.
When I asked for her recipes, Marbeth agreed to share, but on one condition. I would have to drive out to her home in the Applegate Valley get them.
Sam and I, all five kids in tow after church, arrived at her doorstep on the pre-arranged Sunday afternoon.
Marbeth invited us in. Allclad cookware gleamed from a potrack over the Wolf range, knives lined up at the ready on a magnetic strip, and a wealth of pantry ingredients were sensibly arranged on a chrome rack in re-purposed jars and containers. Marbeth and her husband Bill were both retired chefs from southern California.
Marbeth handed me a fresh printout of her recipes, actually one recipe with a choice of mix-in embellishments. And 2 cups of starter housed on a quart-size Cambro container. “This is the secret,” Marbeth said, “Sourdough (the accent was on the second syllable rather than the first) is what gives the bread flavor and quality. This wild sourdough starter belongs in my family – Bill and I have baked with it for decades. Now I’m sharing it with you, but you have to promise me you won’t give it away.”
What could I do but agree?
I did, however, ask her a lot of questions about how she created it.
And it’s a good thing. I baked with Marbeth’s wild sourdough starter for several years: sourdough blueberry pancakes on Sunday mornings, sourdough biscuits to accompany sausage gravy, as well as both the seeded and fruited light rye loaves. The starter throve with frequent feedings and I loved seeing it bubble and grow on my counter in between its stays in the fridge.
And then one of my helpers cleaned out the fridge in preparation for grocery shopping day. Somehow it got discarded, and Marbeth had since passed away. I cannot explain my distress at losing my cherished starter. Fortunately, I had taken notes on my conversation with Marbeth and was able to recreate a lovely starter of my own, which I now pass along to you.
Begin with organic grapes and freshly ground flour and your chances are good. Within a week you should have a modestly bubbly starter that will improve with age. Like a cast iron skillet, it just gets better and better with use.
Take care of it, enjoy it, and most of all have fun.
Wild Sourdough Starter made with grapes
small cluster of organic grapes (or 12 organic raisins)
2 cups freshly milled whole wheat flour (+ several more cups for feedings; you may use organic all-purpose flour for feedings)
*spring water, well water, or distilled water
large (4 quart) size glass or crockery mixing bowl, not metal
large plate to place on top of the mixing bowl, do not use an airtight lid as the mixture will need to “breathe” a bit
sourdough crock, quart jar, or repurposed quart-size yogurt container with *lid
DAY 1 Place the freshly ground whole wheat flour in the bowl and bury the grapes in it. Cover the bowl with a plate or plastic wrap (not something that breathes, like a towel) to exclude airborne yeasts. Let the grapes sit in the flour, covered, overnight or 24 hours at room temperature . Do not add water at this time. The naturally occurring yeasts present on the skins of the grapes will transfer to the flour.
DAY 2 MORNING The next morning, lift the grapes (or raisins, count them to be sure you get them all) from the flour and discard (or wash and eat!). Pour about a cup of spring water into the inoculated flour and stir with a clean spoon. Keep adding water and stirring until it forms a batter somewhat thicker than pancake batter. You may already notice a few tiny bubbles in the starter when you begin stirring the water in, this is a good sign! Even if you don’t see any bubbles yet, it’s okay. Cover the bowl with a plate again and make sure it covers the entire mouth of the bowl. You don’t want any insects to get involved in this process. Let the covered mixture sit at room temperature (at least 70 degrees F).
DAY 2 EVENING Uncover the bowl and give the mixture a good, brisk stir for about 30 seconds to energize the natural yeasts present in the mixture. Cover it again and let sit at warm room temperature overnight.
DAY 3 MORNING Uncover the bowl. Examine the surface of the mixture. Do you see any tiny bubbles or pinholes where bubbles have risen and popped? If yes, that’s wonderful, you are on your way to sourdough starter! If not, do not worry, it is still early for much activity to be taking place. Feed the mixture with 1/2 cup flour, either whole wheat or organic all-purpose. Add enough water to restore the pancake batter texture, about 1/3 - 1/2 cup. Cover the bowl with the plate and let sit at room temperature.
DAY 3 EVENING Uncover the bowl and give the mixture a good, brisk stir for about 30 seconds to energize the natural yeasts present. Cover it again with the plate and let sit at warm room temperature overnight.
DAY 4 MORNING Uncover the bowl. It is likely you will see tiny bubbles or pinholes today. Stir the mixture well and note if it deflates at all as you begin to stir. This, too, signifies wild yeast activity. Feed with 1/2 cup flour, either whole wheat or organic all-purpose. Add enough water to restore the pancake batter texture. This could be around 1/2 cup. Cover the bowl with the plate and let sit at room temperature.
DAY 4 EVENING Uncover the bowl and give the mixture a good, brisk stir for about 30 seconds to energize the natural yeasts present. Cover it again with the plate and let sit at warm room temperature overnight.
DAY 5 MORNING Uncover the bowl. You should see evidence of tiny bubbles or pinholes today, and if you do, let me be the first to congratulate you on your successful “catch!” You have just joined the ranks of untold thousands of sourdough-keepers throughout time. (If you do not see any bubbles or pinholes today, the wild yeasts have evaded you; discard the mixture and start again with fresh ingredients and make sure all your utensils and equipment are washed in hot, soapy water.)
Reserve 1 cup starter and discard the rest. Feed with 1/2 cup flour, either whole wheat or organic all-purpose. Add enough water to restore the pancake batter texture. This could be around 1/2 cup. Cover the bowl with the plate and let sit at room temperature. as for DAY 4.
DAY 6 Repeat as for DAY 5
DAY 7 Repeat as for DAY 5, your starter is now ready to bake with! May I suggest a batch of Light and Fluffy Sourdough Pancakes or Old-Fashioned Sourdough Biscuits?
Keep in mind your sourdough starter is young and has not attained its full strength yet. If used and refreshed regularly, at least once a week, it will gain leavening power and develop a flavor with character. Commercial sourdough bread gets much of its sour flavor from citric acid. It would not naturally taste that sour otherwise. Your starter not produce bread as sour unless you choose to add a bit of citric acid (1/4-1/2 teaspoon; available with canning supplies or as a vitamin C supplement, check the label).