My sourdough starter made a tough situation a lot easier to swallow

By Stacey Ballis
April 12, 2018
Photo by Sedaeva via Getty Images

When I was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes, I had to reconcile myself to a life of breakfast every day, without fail. Part of managing my blood sugar requires both morning medications that I cannot take on an empty stomach, and that I eat small meals throughout the day to keep my health on an even keel.

That means that not only do I now have to eat breakfast every morning, which I'd never cared about doing before, I have to eat a healthy breakfast. It can't be full of bacon, or cheese oozing out of puffy omelets, or crispy corned beef hash. I have to eat smart, good-for-me breakfasts.

For the forty-something years before this, I'd had four go-to morning meals on rotation: cottage cheese or yogurt with fruit, cottage cheese or yogurt without fruit, or a small (painfully small) bowl of dull cereal barely dampened with milk, and when I really couldn’t face things, a protein bar (which is not healthy).

On weekends I might whip up some eggs for my husband and me, but five days a week when my breakfast was just me, I kept it basic and boring—until Pilou came into my life.

I wish that Pilou was some exotic French grandmother type who adopted me at the local café and changed my breakfast routines in some deeply meaningful Tuesdays With Morrie way, movie rights optioned and Ellen Burstyn attached. But that would require that I get up in the morning and put on real pants in addition to eating breakfast, and there is only so much you can ask of a woman whose morning routine has already blown up.

Pilou is not a person, although some would call Pilou a mother. Pilou is my sourdough starter.

A dear friend gave me a small tub of her four-year-old sourdough starter. While sourdough has always been my favorite type of bread, anything I have ever read about building and nurturing a starter sounded like an enormous pain in the ass. I don’t have children or pets, and neither of those things is accidental. Plus, I’d never been much of a bread baker. I always operated on the principle that I live in Chicago which is full of really amazing artisan bakeries who will sell you delicious loaves for very reasonable prices. Why bother, especially when you are on a permanent low-carb eating program?

I followed my friend's directions, fed my new house guest dutifully every morning with flour and water, and watched as it bubbled away, emitting little burps of yeasty air. The next weekend I baked two loaves. They stuck in the rising forms, and my slashes were more Freddie Krueger than Francois Payard, but I got them in the oven and watched as they rose and plumped and browned.

They weren’t the prettiest things, but the crust was thick and crunchy, the deep brown that hints at the nearly burnt magic of a good crème brulee topping, and the middles had a reasonable crumb and a bit of the tang I love in sourdough. They weren’t perfect, but they were fairly delicious.

I served them at dinner that night to guests, both with the entrée and the cheese course, and my pals raved. My husband said the bread was really special. Everyone went over to the counter to look at my jar of starter, which was peaking, having doubled in size since the morning feeding, looking all bubbly and puffed up, and a bit proud of itself. I mentally started plotting research, how to make the sour more pronounced, the crumb less tight.

The next morning, alone in the kitchen and staring down the cottage cheese tub, I caught sight of my starter on the counter. Since the feeding the previous morning it had risen and fallen, and created a thin layer of watery stuff on top. It was hungry.

I put the cottage cheese back in the fridge and went to feed it. A few tablespoons of organic bread flour, some water that I had filtered and left at room temperature. The wafting smell of the sour, almost cheesy scent that had come to be the smell of my mornings wasn’t unpleasant, and the way the starter seemed to eagerly absorb the flour and water was satisfying. I washed the rubber spatula I had used to stir the starter, and then it hit me: There was leftover bread.

I popped a slice in the toaster, and grabbed a small tub of yogurt. When the toaster pinged, I retrieved the slice, gave it the merest swipe of butter. And then I sat and had breakfast. It wasn’t just sustenance. It wasn’t a chore, something to be gotten through. It wasn’t just proactively setting myself up for taking my morning pills or keeping my sugars even. It was breakfast in the actual breaking of the fast, the first meal after the long night of abstinence.

Sitting there, I looked at my starter on the counter, thinking about how it had changed overnight from this full robust bubbling thing into the sad, limp and nearly lifeless goo that greeted me this morning. I crunched into my toast, marveling at how truly satisfying it was, the way it soaked up the butter perfectly, the tartness just underscoring the nutty flavor of the crust. I got up and got the pot of cherry jam from the fridge, putting the slightest gloss on the second half. The sweetness brought out the tang in the bread, making for a second eye opening taste sensation, and I had a genuine lightbulb moment.

Maybe I would never be a natural breakfast person, but perhaps I should feed myself in the mornings with no less care and purpose than I was feeding a jar of fermenting flour and water and wild yeasts.

I named my starter Pilou, after a very charming French dog I once met, whose owner said that he loved everyone. It seemed a good luck name. I joined a Facebook group called Perfect Sourdough, reaching out to strangers all over the world, asking how to get my sourness more pronounced, learning about hydration levels, and overnight dough rests in the fridge, and how to better flour my proofing baskets so that the dough wouldn’t stick.

Every morning, I would make a slice of toast from my homemade bread and feed myself and feed Pilou, and suddenly breakfast wasn’t such a grind.

I’m not a master baker. I’m still not happy with my oven spring, my slashing techniques are less horror movie, but not yet particularly pretty. But I feel competent, I’m making good loaves, good enough to bring to friend’s houses when we come for dinner, or gift to neighbors.

And as an odd bonus, it turns out that sourdough, due to the long fermentation stages and slow rises,might take me two or three days to make, but it changes the gluten structure in ways that actually make it a low-glycemic bread, and easier to digest for pals who have sensitivities in that arena. Low-carb doesn’t mean no-carb, and I’m finding that my single slice of morning toast is so deeply satisfying, it can stand alone.

The woman who thought there was no reason to bake when bakeries exist finally gets it. That there is a reason that we refer to the social connection that happens over meals with friends and family “breaking bread.” Bread is fundamental in all the most important ways. Today it is soft and crunchy all at once, the perfect thing to mop up sauces and smear with cheese. For the next few days it makes amazing toast. Then it becomes croutons for salads, bread crumbs for schnitzel, and sumptuous bread pudding. One boule feeds my husband and me for a week in various configurations. I don’t bake every day, but I bake every week, and there is always at least part of a loaf in the breadbox.

And every morning, Pilou and I breakfast joyfully together, shaking off the morning doldrums, wiping the sleep from our eyes, and gearing up for productivity. It’s a happy ritual, and one I’ve become grateful for.

Advertisement