The Brian Loo Cookbook… Brian Loo sourdough starter
by Kurt True

My Grandma Mary used to smoke weed. Not when she was my grandma, I mean. I'm talking about when she was a teenager. In Santa Barbara. That's where Grandma Mary grew up. Santa Barbara. Grandma was born in 1909. That would make her a Jazz Age teenager.

Grandma Mary

The author with Grandma Mary, 1983.

Grandma Mary
The author with Grandma Mary, 1983.

When I was a teenager, Grandma used to live in a walk up studio apartment on Laurel Street in San Carlos. There's an alley behind Laurel Street. I think just about any street on the Peninsula zoned for commercial or mixed use has an alley. So Grandma's street had an alley.

So one time Grandma was walking through the alley on Laurel Street in San Carlos. I assume she was parked back there. Grandma used to drive an old Chevy Nova with a blistered vinyl roof. Just around town. Her vision was terrible, but they all knew her down at the DMV, so they just kept renewing her license.

So as Grandma was walking to her car-- this would have been about 1974-- she crossed paths with two teenagers enshrouded in a doobilious haze, and the one teenager said to the other teenager "Ol' lady. Ditch the joint, man."

Grandma Mary put the young men at ease with a chuckle and a coarse exclamation and told them "I was smokin' that stuff before you kids were ever thought of."

The teenagers expressed their joyful surprise at this announcement and told Grandma Mary that she was a "cool old lady."

Which she was. She drank Ripple, wore bright red lipstick and spoke with the husky contralto of a lifelong chain smoker.

Naturally, she died of lung cancer.

But before she died, she taught me how to make pizza. Grandma loved pizza. She said the secret to a good pizza was you start with a layer of chopped garlic and oregano that you've soaked for a couple hours in olive oil.

But I'm getting ahead of myself. Before you make pizza, you have to make pizza dough, and before you make pizza dough, you need to make a starter. A sourdough starter.

I don't know why people call it a sourdough starter. It doesn't make your dough sour. I don't know who comes up with these food words. Souffl[233] means "breathed." Who names a food after a past participle?

You don't absolutely have to make a sourdough starter. You could buy some of those little yeast packets at the grocery store and follow the printed instructions, but I use a starter.

bubbly starter

A bubbly starter is a healthy starter.

bubbly starter
A bubbly starter is a healthy starter.

Some people find starters intimidating, but, take it from me, a starter is nothing to be intimidated about. It's just flour and water. You put a scant cup of flour and half a cup of warm water in a bowl, stir, cover the bowl with a towel or plastic wrap, leave it for 24 hours. After 24 hours, discard half your flour-and-water mixture, stir another scant cup of flour and half a cup of warm water into what's left of your mixture, leave that for 12 hours, then just keep discarding half your mixture and adding a half a cup of warm water and a scant cup of flour every 12 hours until your mixture gets bubbly and more or less triples in volume.

It helps if you keep your starter in the warmest part of your kitchen. Do you have a pot rack? Put it on top of the pot rack. On top of the fridge is a good spot too. These locations provide the added advantage of keeping your pets out of the starter.

Well, unless you have one of those pets that can scale a major appliance, in which case you might want to lock it up in your liquor cabinet or gun safe. The starter, I mean. Not the pet.

Starter is cruelty free.

What's going on with your starter is every time you execute the above discard-and-add step (We in the artisan bread and pizza community refer to this procedure as "feeding the starter."), you're building up the concentration of yeast in the mixture.

There are more scientific ways of explaining it, but I was a humanities major. I can barely make sense out of photosynthesis.

Now keep in mind you don't have to go hunting around for a source of yeast for your starter. Yeast is everywhere. You know how seagulls are everywhere? But you don't notice them until you're eating a salami sandwich outdoors? Or a hummus wrap, if you're vegan? Yeast is like seagulls. You don't have to go looking for the seagulls. The seagulls will find you.

Or maybe it's pigeons where you live. Same thing. Yeast is like that.

Now once you've built up enough yeast that your starter is ready to go into production, what do you do with all the starter you've been discarding every 12 hours for however many days? I dunno. You could always keep it in a mixing bowl and make pancakes out of it. That's what I do.

Some people just throw their discard in the garbage, but that can be a tough psychological barrier to overcome when all four of your grandparents lived through the Great Depression.

Now, some people will tell you it takes two weeks of adding and discarding before your starter will be ready to use. I don't think that's true. Use half white bread flour and half rye flour, and you can get your starter bubbling within a week, and your discard will still make good pancakes.

Or just ask somebody who already has a starter to give you some. We sourdough enthusiasts always have more starter than we know what to do with. If I didn't have college age children, I'd be up to my ears in the stuff.

And once your starter is ready, or your friend, family member or loved one donates some starter to you, you can keep it in the refrigerator, and then you only have to feed it once a week. I keep mine in a green Mason jar.

Big Leon

Big Leon, 2018.

Big Leon
Big Leon, 2018.

A helpful hint: if you name your starter, that might help you remember to feed it. You never forget to feed your dog, right? My starter's name is Big Leon.

Also, don't be alarmed if you find a layer of alcohol floating on top of your starter. Alcohol ("hootch," as it is known to bakers and the incarcerated) is a natural byproduct of the fermentation process. If I see more than a couple teaspoons (about a milliliter) of hootch floating on top of Big Leon, I just tip the Mason jar over the sink and let it drain out. Otherwise, I stir it into whatever I'm baking.

Speaking of the fermentation process, Grandma Mary once told me how to make plum brandy. These are her words as I remember them, each period indicating a wheezy pause: "You pit your plums. Throw 'em in a crock. Leaves, stems doesn't matter. Throw it all in. Once you fill up the crock put a lid on it. Wrap it in newspapers. Bury it in the backyard. Leave it for a year. Two years if you want. Dig it up you got plum brandy. Go down least two feet goddam raccoons."

Personally, I think I'd want to remove the stems and seeds. Doesn't seem like that step would increase the prep time or level of difficulty in any significant way. Unless the assumption is you're drinking last year's brandy as you're throwing together next year's batch. Maybe that's what Grandma meant. I guess if your fine motor control becomes compromised, you might just want to focus on getting the pits out and to hell with the minor details.

As my marriage vows included a "no holes in the backyard" clause, I have no idea how difficult it is to make plum brandy, but I can tell you from personal experience, making a starter is one of the easiest things you'll ever do. Nothing to it. You don't even have to turn on the stove. Or chop anything, or use a blender, or do a lot of measuring. And you don't have to worry about raccoons.

You know, as long as your kitchen door has a decent deadbolt.

And, truth be told, Grandma did smoke weed at least once that I know of in her apartment on Laurel Street. New Year's Eve, 1978. She got high with the potheads who lived in the corner unit.

I told you she was a cool old lady.

Kurt True
25 jan 2018