sourdough starter tips: how to make, feed, and use it

Nothing travels faster than news in 2020, thanks to social media, except maybe sourdough starter. Just ask Johanna Hellrigl, the 31-year-old chef and Washington, D.C, resident who, at the start of the outbreak when the U.S. began shuttering, offered to share a sourdough starter with her 6,000-plus Instagram followers. At last count, the former executive chef at Doi Moi had distributed over 500 iterations of her starter and, in doing so, created a sprawling network of baked goods and goodwill in rather dark times.

The bread starter in question was made from an apple Hellrigl brought back from a trip to Italy where most of her family lives (you can make a starter from mostly anything that ferments). As payment for each new starter she’s bequeathed upon a fan or follower, Hellrigl asked only for a commitment to help restaurant workers in whatever way they can.

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Hellrigl told The Washington Post, which first broke the story, that she’s distributed as many as 500 sourdough starters around D.C., kicking off a not-so-small community of comfort foods that include pizzas, pancakes, doughnuts, and, of course, lots of bread. Hellrigl has received a steady flow of pictures of baked goods spawned from her starter, along with thank you notes, social shoutouts, and records of how folks have helped or donated to restaurant workers in an effort to soften the blow of COVID-19.

“I wanted to use my platform to be a helpful citizen,” Hellrigl told the Post, “but I admit that I’ve been surprised by the response.”

In addition to the hundreds of starters Hellrigl has doled out, there’s a waiting list of more than 100 people hoping to get their hands on some. Hellrigl has been leaving the starters on her front porch to be picked up as a way to avoid unnecessary contact with those taking them.

Said Obi Okolo, one of the first few to take Hellrigl up on her offer, “Everything feels entirely out of control right now, and no one knows what’s coming, what’s happening or what has happened—but there’s this thing, this simple little combination of flour and water, that does its thing all by itself, ready to help provide sustenance. It’s almost this reminder on our kitchen counters that the world is still turning.”

Related Reading: 10 Essential Bread Baking Tools (And One You Don’t Actually Need)

Sourdough starter is famously tricky to get right. It takes time and patience to develop properly, which may explain the fervent interest. Yeast has also been at a shortage in many grocery stores but, as Hellrigl has proven, you don’t necessarily need it. If you can’t get your hands on any of Hellrigl’s sourdough starter, check out Chowhound’s guide to making sourdough starter yourself. If you make a good one, it is easily shareable, so don’t forget to pay it forward to an interested friend or neighbor.

For some inspiration on what to make, try Hellrigl’s Instagram account which is brimming with ideas. She suggests trying these simple sourdough banana pancakes for a first attempt at working with starter. Hellrigl, who grew up around cooking and restaurants, told the Post “I’ll always be available to give something to somebody but someday I hope we’re all busy enough that we’re not baking bread all the time.”

Related Reading: 6 Sourdough Add-Ins to Take Your Basic Loaf to the Next Level

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Header image courtesy of karma_pema / E+ / Getty Images.

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