It's like a pet, the kind that doesn't snuggle and is mostly indifferent to your existence. Let's say along the lines of a goldfish or a really snotty cat. You have to feed it and clean up after it, and when you go on vacation you can't have just anyone watch it or it winds up dead. And when it dies, whoa, the smell.
Like a goldfish, someone may hand it to you, well intentioned, in a sloshy zip-top bag. And then your life subtly changes. You're buying equipment, you're looking up care advice on the Web. In a way, you've joined a club.
You are the owner of a sourdough starter.
What's the point? Why not just buy bread from the nice guys at the neighborhood bakery? And for that matter, what's wrong with dry yeast?
Here's why, and I'm not going to sugarcoat it: We do not yet have a wealth of great retail bread in the Tampa Bay area. Loaves at most places are pillowy, anemic and without the crustiness or depth of flavor you find in bread towns like San Francisco or New York. So you can, with some practice, do better on your own. And yes, you can make a fine loaf with an envelope of Fleischmann's, but sourdough breads, those made via the hard work of colonies of wild yeasts and lactobacilli, taste deeper, nuttier, tangier, richer. Also, those wild yeasts tell a story about region, much the way oenophiles speak of terroir and grapes.
But I'm getting ahead of myself.
Two months ago I was wandering around Tampa Bay outdoor markets reporting a story and encountered the small stall of Gulf Coast Sourdough & Wild Yeast Breads. Co-owner Brett Wiewiora stood in a slight drizzle behind his case of Asiago Cheese breads, Cinnamon Swirls, Sand Dollar Sourdoughs and Beach Baguettes. I bought a loaf and nabbed a business card, but it wasn't until late that night when the munchies set in that I thought, "This is the best bread I've had since moving to Florida."
It looked gorgeous and tasted even better, dense and moist, with an open crumb and appealing tang.
Time for a field trip.
Hunting wild yeasts
Their daughter, Julia, plays in a portable princess castle in the corner of the Your Pro Kitchen in South Tampa as Christina Cann, 32, and Wiewiora, 34, attend to the day's loaves with a divide-and-conquer strategy. Without many words passing between them, she bakes off the rectangular cinnamon swirl loaves, sliding a thermometer into each to make sure it reaches 180 degrees, while he wrangles black, cast iron Dutch ovens full of sourdough rounds into a different wall oven.
Their sourdough starters, one named Bilbo and the other a whole wheat version called Samwise, stand on the counter in industrial-sized white tubs. Looking like mind-mannered pancake batter, they are the catalysts that have started the rising of every bread the couple has made in the past five years.
"There's a lot of misinformation out there about sourdough starters," Wiewiora says, his arms covered with asbestos sleeves to fend off Dutch oven encounters. "It doesn't always work out. It's a little bit like catching a wild animal: You're leaving something out in your kitchen and you can catch unique things."
Basically, he says, you leave out equal parts water and flour (it's a little easier with whole wheat flour) and over a couple of days you should notice the concoction getting bubbly and smelling yeasty and a little boozy. Wild yeasts have moved in and have begun chowing down. Now you're ready to do a test bake.
Wiewiora began baking in high school, cinnamon rolls and those fleetingly delicious bread-machine loaves. (Man, there must be a lot of bread machines in landfills now.) He studied psychology and history at the University of Pittsburgh; Cann studied English and political science. Together, they got master's degrees at Carnegie Mellon University in public policy and management. Baking was, as it is for so many people, stress relief. It was cathartic, all that kneading and tinkering, their freezer filling up with experiments. They began selling loaves to neighbors, eventually starting a "C.S.B." (like a C.S.A., only instead of a share of farm-fresh veggies, subscribers get a couple of loaves of bread each week).
They moved to Washington, D.C., and back to Pittsburgh to work in nonprofits. Julia's birth in 2013 made them think longingly of extended family in Florida. In 2015 they took the plunge, and on July 4 they began Gulf Coast Sourdough, selling their wares at the Ybor City outdoor market, then in Wiregrass and Dunedin, as well as a couple of grocery stores in Tampa.
Three to four nights a week they zoom around the rental Your Pro Kitchen, each loaf a two-day process. Wiewiora snips the distinctive sand-dollar pattern in sourdough rounds and slides each out of the woven banneton basket in which it has proofed, the loaves' bottoms imprinted with a cool swirly design. Cann zeroes in on the oblong, free-form roasted red pepper breads, the finished loaves deep golden but with a pinkish blush from the peppers.
Although Bilbo and Samwise were born in Pittsburgh, Wiewiora calls this Tampa sourdough.
"When you move a starter somewhere it adapts and the local yeasts take over. It completely changes."
So what's Tampa sourdough like?
"Tampa Bay is milder and less tangy. But I feel like it's a fuller flavor. It fills your entire mouth."
Here are a few insider tips Wiewiora and Cann learned as they went, tips that represented big leaps forward in their finished loaves:
First, it's all about mind-set: Don't be too hard on yourself, because baking takes practice and it won't be pretty right away. And don't be afraid to get messy. In fact, that's a big part of the fun. (Something to keep in mind: Bread ingredients are super cheap. If you fail, you're looking at a couple dollars of loss. Plus a little ego deflation.)
Be picky about flour: Look for unbleached, unbromated flours — both involve chemical treatments to extend the life of the flour. King Arthur is a reliable brand. And if you experiment with rye, whole wheat or other flours, use a small percentage (10 to 20 percent), with the rest all-purpose. You can tinker, but 100 percent whole wheat will yield an untenably dense loaf.
Mixing and kneading in the bowl: Taking the dough out to knead on a table almost inevitably leads to mixing in too much flour, resulting in denser bread. Kneading in the same bowl the dough was mixed in allows for you to not add any extra flour, and it saves the pain of cleaning a doughy counter. And go for a slow rise: The longer you draw out the rising time, the deeper the flavor, the finished loaf taking on a distinctive deep red color.
Food scales: Volume measurements are wildly inaccurate and often lead to over/under mixing in enough flour. Getting a food scale and adding ingredients by weight makes it a lot easier to produce great bread every time.
Baking in Dutch ovens: For savory breads with no extra fat or sugar, baking in a Dutch oven is hands down the best way to bake at home. The difference between that and even baking on a stone is night and day. Just preheat the Dutch oven to about 450 degrees, put your loaf in and bake it covered for however long the recipe calls for. The results will blow you away. If you want a darker crust, remove the lid for the last 5 to 10 minutes or so. It's worth investing in good pot holders, because touching 450-degree cast iron is an easy way to get a nasty burn.
Sharing is caring: Cann and Wiewiora are happy to share their starter with readers. They say, "Baking is all about community, and building a community of bread lovers will be good for everyone." Call (813) 563-7687 to set up a visit. And in the event that your starter meets with an untimely demise, there's always this option: You can buy Gulf Coast Sourdough breads at Duckweed Urban Grocery stores or Bayshore Market in Tampa, or at the Wiregrass, Channelside or Dunedin outdoor markets. They also have just debuted the Weekly Bread subscription service, $20 for four weeks of bread delivered every Friday, with pickup spots at Duckweed stores and other spots to be announced. For details, visit gulfcoastsourdough.com.
Contact Laura Reiley at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 892-2293. Follow @lreiley on Twitter.