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Sourdough bread

Delilah has been a steadfast quarantine companion.

Granted, she’s quiet, but every day, I feed her. I give her water. I tend to her.

In return, she gives me the basis of loaf after loaf of sourdough bread.

Delilah, our sourdough starter, is one with the quarantine — an omnipresent, somewhat stinky science experiment on our kitchen counter. In all likelihood, my family will forever associate the aroma of sourdough bread with this time. After all, scent is the sense most closely related to memory.

Taking care of Delilah (so named because my friend Olivia Regard shared her three-day-old starter with me — and Olivia’s starter’s name is Samson) requires daily attention.

Beyond feeding and watering, I feel the need to check on her at sporadic intervals throughout the day. Just thinking about Delilah makes me wonder how she’s doing — because the girl is mercurial.

I interrupted the writing of this piece and checked on Delilah. She is fine — though going through a thin phase. I wondered if she could still float. So, I checked and she does.

Floating is a big deal in the world of sourdough starter. The theory is that if the starter floats in a bowl of water, bread will rise on its own — no packaged yeast required. Even though I have been as attentive to Delilah as I would be a new puppy, she only recently conquered the floating bench mark.

But then, I’m to blame for her delay.

Around Day 25, I made a big mistake. I decided Delilah’s home (an old-timey clear glass cookie jar with a lid without a seal — important because sourdough starter doesn’t thrive in a well-contained environment) was just too grody.

I made what I presume to be a rookie mistake — I took Delilah out for a change of scenery as I thoroughly washed the container.

Before The Great and Terrible Sourdough Starter Jar Washing, Delilah was beautiful, bubbly and pleasantly sour. By the next morning, she went into a major slump — a near dormant phase. The cleanliness and soap residue (though rinsed well) did a number on what makes Delilah special — the plethora of bacteria eating up the flour I feed her daily, creating all the bubbles that make her float and bread rise — more science.

My mistake inspired me to dig into the vast sourdough wiki. Sourdough people are fervent, fiery and verbose about the sourdough way of life (and I recognize the irony of that sentence). Plus, sourdough has been around longer than metal or written languages.

Being only 44 days in, I understand its capacity to play such a large role in one’s perspective. After all, sourdough bread, also called leaven (as mentioned in the Bible) has played a major role in civilization. Some people believe that the planned cultivation of wheat is what started the “civilized” part of civilization. Before that, nomads roamed and ate what they could find.

Until just before the turn of the 20th century, all bread was unleavened or sourdough except for the bread that used brewer’s yeast. (The relationship between bread and beer goes way back.) According to “The History of Sourdough Bread” (Sourdough.co.uk) and “The Story of Yeast” (redstaryeast.com), Louis Pasteur’s work in the late 1860s led to the isolation of yeast in the pure culture form and eventually led to packaged yeast.

I have a newfound appreciation for packaged yeast’s impact and how different bread must have tasted when it depended solely on free-range atmospheric yeast for the capacity to rise.

The sourdough rabbit hole inspires philosophical and spiritual thinking. For sourdough starter to thrive, before the daily feeding and watering, one must take away half of what’s there, called the discard. With the discard, one can make bread or give it to someone else. Or, lastly, just throw it away.

At first, the notion of discarding half of what I had worked to build seemed ridiculous and offensive.

So, I cheated the starter, thinking more is better.

As many of us eventually learn, more is not always better.

I finally realized that if I don’t remove each day’s discard — and feed what’s left, the growing bacteria will not flourish. The starter needs a balanced ratio of bacteria and fresh food to survive.

Like sourdough, we have to use what we have to nourish ourselves and the ones we love — and we have to share with others in order to flourish.

In the quarantine, I’ve cooked more sourdough-inspired recipes than I ever expected, far beyond the regular sourdough boule — including sourdough pancakes, waffles, pizza dough, chocolate cake, English muffins, hamburger buns, hot dog buns, focaccia and sesame seed sourdough.

I’ve also given away starter to nearly 30 people. In this case, Samson and Delilah have lots of babies.

In the early days of sourdough life, I didn’t understand why people named their starter.

Now, I do. The process is a part of our family’s daily routine and diet — and the sourdough takes on a personality. Delilah is demanding and messy.

Sadly, unlike her Biblical inspiration, our Delilah is not so handy with the shears.

Like Samson, our locks are flowing — and our bellies are full of delicious sourdough bread.

Email Jan Risher at janrisher@gmail.com.