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From Starter to Finish

Baking with sourdough taps into an ancient alchemy.

With flour, water, a little salt for flavor and this magical mix of microbes — wild yeasts and lactobacilli, actually — you can create bread.

The chewy, tangy loaves, fresh from a patient baker's home oven, trace their lineage from the earliest leavened loaves in ancient Egypt, through prospectors' cabins and wagon trains heading West to trendy artisan bakeries today.

Apple Cellar Bakery and Bistro in Ashland uses starters created by founder Robert Day nearly 17 years ago.

"I must have had 50 different experiments going," he said, likening the process to Thomas Edison inventing the light bulb, with plenty of failures and even some small explosions along the way.

He coaxed growth from starters featuring milk, cumin, grapes and other fruits before finding a winner in a potato, water and flour mix.

"You can create something delicious or horrible," said Day, who sold the business but still works there as marketing and development director. "Some of them smelled like something I wouldn't eat, but this one had that yeasty, nutty, sour smell that will make it right."

Even after opening Apple Cellar in 1994, Day tinkered with the mix to ensure predictable results year-round in the Rogue Valley, which has drastic seasonal temperature changes compared with San Francisco, where sourdough famously thrives. Now the bakery uses the batter-like original for its Jewish rye and a firm dough called levain made from that starter for its Ashland sourdough.

In Medford, Great Harvest Bread Co. has a sourdough culture grown from one at San Francisco Baking Institute four years ago. Owner Dan Allen sent an employee to the artisan bread program there after he spent years dabbling on the side to create a consistent, commercially viable sourdough.

"It was our most requested item," he said.

The bakery makes sourdough bread Tuesday through Thursday each week but feeds the starter, a firm dough that is never refrigerated, every 12 hours, 365 days a year.

Despite the easy availability of good sourdough bread from bakeries around the Rogue Valley, I wanted to try making it myself.

My mother and grandmother always had tubs of gooey sourdough in the back of the fridge, ready for making light, golden pancakes or richly flavorful biscuits. But when I set off for college, then out on my own, I didn't take any of that sourdough with me.

In the past, I tried to start my own from a recipe seen in many cookbooks that includes commercial yeast, but never got great results. I activated a package of powder claiming to be authentic San Francisco sourdough and kept it bubbling along lamely for a few years, occasionally making nondescript loaves of French bread with the help of added commercial yeast, before the starter dried up and died of neglect one summer.

Just before Christmas, I saw a little tub of frozen sourdough starter created by Louise Ingber of Creek House Patisserie for sale at Allyson's Kitchen in Ashland. For the price of one loaf of good bread, I was back in the game.

Ingber made her starter using a technique from Nancy Silverton, a patron saint of sourdough-bread bakers, especially in Los Angeles, where she started La Brea Bakery. Silverton sold La Brea in 2001 but is still active in the company and says the starter used in every La Brea sourdough bread can be traced back to the original she made before opening her bakery.

Ingber created her starter in 2003, combining organic flour, filtered water and organic red grapes, which were wrapped in cheesecloth and removed after the starter sat at room temperature for six days. All I had to do was defrost it, add a cup of flour and a cup of bottled water and let it sit overnight.

By morning, there were a few bubbles and a thin, watery layer of what old-timers called "hooch," actually fermentation byproducts, including a little alcohol. This is not the mark of a healthy starter, but, hey, as a beginner, I thought any sign of life was good enough.

Proving my novice status, I overkneaded the dough and added too much flour, resulting in a loaf that was bland and floury-tasting with a dry, delicate texture, although it did rise quickly, thanks to added commercial yeast.

Each attempt I made, the starter became a bit more vigorous and the loaves a little better, but they still didn't have the texture or flavor I wanted. I combed through Web sites, then hit the books — "The Bread Baker's Apprentice: Mastering the Art of Extraordinary Bread," by Peter Reinhart and Ron Manville, and "Artisan Baking Across America," by Maggie Glezer, were especially helpful.

I spent a few days rejuvenating my starter, keeping it on the counter, not in the refrigerator, and replenishing it with equal amounts of flour and bottled water by weight, not volume. Soon I had a culture that would double or even triple in size into a fragrant froth overnight, ready for baking, no commercial yeast required. I created a firm starter from the liquid one for added versatility in recipes.

I've also got a back-up in the freezer, just in case, and I know I could always buy another of Ingber's starters at Allyson's, where they are stocked regularly.

Then there's Carl Griffiths' Oregon sourdough, which started west from Missouri to Salem in 1847 with his great-grandmother. Griffiths, of Burns, died in 2000, but his friends across the country continue his tradition of giving the starter free to anyone who asks. Find details online at home.att.net/~carlsfriends/ or send a self-addressed stamped envelope to Oregon Trail Sourdough, P.O. Box 32, Jefferson, MD 21755.

Of course, I'm intrigued by the dried cultures sold by Cascade, Idaho-based Sourdough International at sourdo.com. Ed Wood, a retired pathologist and baker, has spent decades collecting wild yeast starters, each with their own distinct flavor, he claims, from San Francisco, Egypt, Italy, Bahrain and elsewhere around the world.

And there's buzz everywhere about "the pineapple solution," developed by home baker Debra Wink and fellow members of the King Arthur Baking Circle, who came up with using pineapple juice in a starter as a way of avoiding the development of growth-inhibiting bacteria. Author and baking instructor Peter Reinhart outlines the recipe in his new book "Whole Grain Breads: New Techniques, Extraordinary Flavor," and it's included with this story.

But I'm resisting the call of additional sourdough cultures. A home baker can only make so much magic — and bread — each week.

Reach reporter Anita Burke at 776-4485, or e-mail aburke@mailtribune.com.

Tiffany Smith replenishes the sourdough starter at Medford’s Great Harvest Bread Co.