Anecdote of the Jar


On my first attempt at using The Times recipe with my
sourdough starter, the bread tasted lovely, but was as a flat as a
pancake.  I carefully read the instructions for "Natural Sourdough Starter" in Joy of Cooking and
tried to be more precise about the care and feeding of my starter jar. 
Also, Joy suggested a much higher proportion of starter to flour than I'd been using.  This round of breadmaking was even worse–a flat rubbery loaf, albeit
one with a terrific crust. 

On my next attempt, I cheated by adding a quarter
teaspoon of commercial yeast along with the starter. The texture was perfect!  The flavor, not sour enough.

decided to try again.  My refrigerated sourdough starter, unfed for a
few days as some group of instructions or other assured me was okay, started smelling
like–it took me a second to figure out what–nail polish remover. 

A blog called My Sister's Kitchen suggested adding a spoonful of yogurt to counteract the acetone. I did. I also checked out a blog called Wild Yeast to see if I was doing things correctly.  As soon as I was scolded for not having a kitchen scale, I was out of that place.

I let the starter rev up for a few days and tried again, again with just a bit of commercial yeast. 

perfect.  Flavor: pretty great, but not quite enough salt.  Some people will tell you sourdough bread needs more salt than a typical homemade bread.  Others won't. The starter still smells
faintly like acetone, but no one seems clear whether this is cause for

I press on.

My Sister's Kitchen had one
other excellent pointer: don't use heavily chlorinated water in
sourdough starter.  It will kill the yeast.  Duh!  I live in a city,
with horrible-tasting, heavily treated water.  I've been making my
bread with tap water, which may explain everything about my lack of success so far.

My husband suggests that I go get entirely
untreated water from one of the many mineral springs in Saratoga
Springs.  The mineral springs that are the reason people started coming
to this landlocked corner of the world in the first place, and there are bunch
dribbling right downtown in Congress Park capped by various Greekish follies. Nobody really drinks this stuff any more, since it tastes like salty rust.

It does sound perfect for my bread,
however.  I'll let you know how the yeast feel about it, but I'm sure that won't mean much wherever you are trying to raise your own wild yeast
crop. I don't think Mother Nature likes how-tos any more than I do.  I
think she works very hard to turn how-to writers into asses.


  1. Years ago (15-20) when I lived in Saratoga County, we would get water from the Springs all the time. Not the foul-smelling, spit-it-out-now springs, but the one at the bottling plant. You could bottle your own Saratoga Water right there. We would load our trunk with gallon jugs of the stuff – it was our drinking water for several months. Don’t know if this is still freely available water, but worth a shot.

    Good luck with your bread!

  2. If you don’t like the results from the local spring water, you can always use bottled water for your bread. Or filtered tap water. Or hot water, drawn from the tap and allowed to set overnight to allow the chlorine to dissipate. Or use milk. Buttermilk. Fresh whey from cheesemaking. I’ve used all of these tricks for years, with slightly different results from each method. Any will give better results than chlorine-heavy tap water though.

  3. If I were to write a gardening how to book it would be one word also: Compost. Since compost can be used as mulch, I guess we are on the same page. It amazes me how complicated some people try to make gardening out to be. It’s not, and it doesn’t have to cost a lot either.

    I’ve had good success with sourdough bread made using the book Artisan Bread in 5 minutes a Day. It comes out so yummy and crispy. I need to get a new pizza stone though, as mine broke recently so have been making bread with a bread machine instead.

  4. I forgot I was going to make a comment about the water. Have you tried sitting the water on your counter overnight in an open container to let the chlorine evaporate? That might be all that is needed.

  5. I make that NYT no-knead bread almost every day. Discovering it was a kind of spiritual awakening for me. It’s that good. Once, I started a batch of dough late one night and forgot about it for 2, maybe 3 days. It smelled very sough-doughy when I finally discovered it. I baked it and it was fine, but it did have a slight soughdough taste.

  6. LauraP mentions using hot water and letting sit overnight. As an environmental engineer, I can tell you that you should only ever use cold water (then heated if necessary) for consumption purposes. Hot water can include chemicals/metals, etc. leached from the pipes and also organisms (like legionella)which grow in hot water heaters and also in the pipes (since hot water degrades chlorine faster which can allow microorganisms to grow while sitting the pipes)–so it is not recommended for consumption. Tap water that sits overnight in the frig will allow the chlorine to evaporate, which is the process that LauraP refers to–just don’t use hot water to achieve this!

  7. I spent a good deal of time coming up with a nice San Francisco-style sourdough bread for my new bread book, Kneadlessly Simple. I also include in it a recipe for making a cultured starter, which is easier than making a wild yeast starter. And I give instrucions so people can use a wild yeast starter or even a yogurt-based substitute if desired. I also talk about the fact that some professional bakers do boost their sourdough breads with a little added yeast, and that this yields fine results and there is no reason to feel that you are cheating! Several people have really, really liked my sourdough recipe, so you might want to check out the book and that recipe. I have a couple other recipes from the book posted on my website (, so you might want to come download them to try as well. Happy Baking!

  8. Sometimes the flavour is not dictated by the yeast in the sourdough but the other bacteria which come along for the ride. When I had a sourdough starter on the go in southern Ontario, the flavour was very different from those loaves I could get in San Francisco. I believe you can get a starter from San Fran if you want that flavour and then as long as you keep it alive, the colonies giving you the taste will be in it.

    The other thing I learned was to always leave the starter in the same place. We killed off quite a few batches in our time, but the cupboard in which we proofed the starter and the sponge was so full of tasty bread bacteria that we had a fairly mature tasting starter after a couple of weeks. This was in stark contrast to the first time we made a starter when it took months before it could really hold its own.

    Happy baking and good luck!

  9. All very delicious sounding, and I bask in your collective glory. I like my bread best from the bakery… not always foolproof, but the odds tend to be in my favour (or flavour, as the case may be). There are several excellent “micro-bakeries” in Toronto, and fortunately for us some are within fresh-baked-bread-smelling distance. Enjoy your bread, however it arrives!

  10. Michele, I have two words for you: Cooks, Illustrated. I’d be shocked if you weren’t a subscriber, since America’s Test Kitchen is OBSESSED with science and cooking living together. They actually addressed the NY Times No-Knead Bread in the Jan/Feb 2008 issue, and “lackluster taste” was a problem they identified… and fixed. You can buy back issues if you’re not a subscriber. (Or, she says in quiet tones, you can contact me via email, and I’ll be happy to send you the article and recipe).

  11. Liisa, many thanks. I don’t subscribe to any cooking magazines. Too busy puzzling my way through Nature and Vanity Fair–but now you’ve convinced me I should give Cooks a try.

  12. My husband is always pissing in the yard. Dr Dean Edell says if they pee into a bale of straw by the back door it’s great. Don’t have to flush the toilet and it’s nutricious for veggies.

  13. I don’t get what is so terrible and unthinkable about kneading. Kneading is one of my favorite things about making bread. And this is why I hate this “I can do anything better easier” dude at the Times. And why I love Julia Child.

  14. Living off the grid for over 30 years, I have no bread machines, bread whomping mixers, all things that even Cooks Illustrated assumes are universal. I knead. It’s wonderful. I love it. Plain, rye, sourdough, you name it. Smells good, feels good – and yes, the results taste good too. Only thing I really long for is one of those great woodburning monsters in the backyard and my pizza would be sooo good.

  15. Concerned engineer makes a good point about using hot water. I used to use the hot occasionally because the chlorine evaporated more quickly, which was a quick save in the days when I had three children in diapers and couldn’t keep up with every little thing on my overly ambitious to-do list. These days my bread & I currently are quite happy with our fresh whey or non-chlorinated well water, and the children are grown and making their own bread. With non-chlorinated, cold water, of course. ;>

  16. You can put your tap water in a jug ( I have a bunch of old gallon jars that formerly held vinegar) and let it sit out, uncapped, for 24 hours or so. Won’t eliminate all the chemicals, but the chlorine will dissipate. This is what I do for water for my fish tanks.

    A low budget alternative to bottled or filtered water.

  17. Elizabeth, the name of the recipe is misleading. No kneading is not the point. The point is to make a dough so watery that kneading is almost impossible.

    More water=crisper crust. I try to use a really watery dough for pizza. But for something like naan that should be soft, I keep the dough dry.

  18. I have wanted to try doing this since I read Michael Pollan’s book Omnivore’s Dilemma. For the last of his four meals, “hunted and gathered,” he makes bread with ambient yeast. However, he doesn’t give directions on how to do it. Now I see why, it is the “infinite variety” type of thing.

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