Sourdough Starter Myths

Humans have been using sourdough starter to make bread since the early Egyptians, around 1,500 BC.  A huge amount of myth and lore has developed around the care and feeding of the sourdough starter.  But how much of it is true?

Myth: When you make your own starter from scratch, it’s colonized by yeasts and bacteria floating around in the air.

Status: BUSTED.  Many people have conducted experiments using sterilized flour, cultured under the same circumstances as regular flour.  When you sterilize your flour, it doesn’t grow a sourdough culture.  The bread yeast and lactobacillus that form a sourdough culture come from the flour that you use, not from the air around them. 

Myth: Adding a grape to your culture will help “seed” it with yeast.

Status: BUSTED.  Although the bloom on grapes does come from a form of yeast, it isn’t the right kind for sourdough.  Only bread yeast can survive the highly acidic environment which the lactobacillus create.

Furthermore, when you make your own sourdough starter, the yeast culture comes in on the flour itself (see above).  For best success with a DIY sourdough culture, use a stone-ground organic flour.

Myth: Never allow metal to touch your starter.

Status: PLAUSIBLE.  The lactobacillus in a sourdough culture turns it very acidic.  Acids can leach and pit metals, which can contaminate the culture.  You would never want to store your sourdough starter in a metal container for this reason.  But it’s probably not going to kill it if you stir it with a metal spoon.

Myth: Sourdough changes when you move it to a different part of the country.  This is why San Francisco sourdough is special, and taking some starter from San Francisco somewhere else will eventually result in a completely different taste.

Status: CONFIRMED.  Although the explanation given for this phenomenon is wrong.  Most people explain that the starter gradually gets colonized by your local yeasts and bacteria.  In truth, the colonization is probably happening through the flour that you use.

Even national brands of flour are grown and ground regionally.  Therefore, every area of the country will have a slightly different blend of flour, yeast, and bacteria.  This is what gradually takes over your sourdough sponge.  Theoretically if you could somehow only feed your sourdough flour from San Francisco, you could probably keep that amazing San Francisco sourdough taste!

Myth: Sourdough tastes different in households with women.

Status: BUSTED.  This odd bit of lore seems to establish a connection between the yeast which naturally occur in our lady parts, with the yeast that is found in a sourdough starter.  “Yeast” is a broad term like “mammal.”  There are a lot of different kinds of yeasts, and only bread yeast can survive in a healthy sourdough starter. 

The yeasts which naturally occur on the human body (both male and female) are not the same as the yeasts which make bread rise.

Furthermore, this idea is so subjective, it could hardly be proven.  You would need some serious double-blind testing to make a convincing case for this one! 

What might be behind this idea is that a sourdough culture can change if you move to a new home, with a different chemistry to the water supply, and a different source of flour.  When would a man (who owns a sourdough starter) experience a move like this?  When getting married, of course.

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Comments 3 comments

WildIris 6 years ago

Do you make your own sourdough bread? If you do, did you make your own starter or did you buy a starter? Did you know that the alcohol which forms above a neglected starter is called "Hooch," but then again it may just another myth to add to your list. Thanks for the fun Hub.

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Blogging Erika 6 years ago Author

I actually traded some of my knitting for a bit of starter from a friend. I love barter! If I had read up on it more beforehand, I might not have bothered, since it turns out it's pretty easy to make your own with flour, water and patience.

Pretty funny about it being called "hooch," I didn't know that!

Keaton 4 years ago

In the last week, I have experimented with two different Sourdough Starter methods, both seem to be working. Since I live in Amarillo, Texas, I decided to order two existing Starters from other areas,,,one from San Franciso and the other from King Arthur Flour.

I am hoping to have a total of four Starters,,,all with slightly different flavors.

Now that I have read your article,,,it all has to do with the flour. Needless to say,,,I am a little dissappointed, I like the myth better,,lol.

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