I've mentioned the sourdough starter a few times now, so I thought it time for an explanation. Most of us know sourdough bread as a bread with a distinctive, sour taste, but the term actually applies to a method--the oldest method--of making yeast bread, and was the primary method for breadmaking until other forms of yeast became readily available.
The story goes that yeast was accidentally discovered in Egypt when someone added water to flour and left it to sit, coming back to find a strange, bubbling mixture. There's some debate among sourdough enthusiasts about whether the wild yeast was in the flour or in the air, but some of us are just in it for the bread and don't really care. A sourdough starter--also known as the "mother sponge"--is a mixture of flour, water and yeast. In order to create a leavened bread, the baker takes a portion of the starter, mixes it with flour and water, and lets it ferment overnight which allows the yeast to convert the flour and water mixture into a sourdough "sponge." Before using, the same amount of starter is generally returned to the "mother sponge," thus perpetuating it indefinitely. Sourdough was so popular among the Alaskan gold rush prospectors that they were referred to as "Sourdoughs."
An active starter (one kept at room temperature) needs to be fed (given flour & water) twice a day. I don't use mine that often, so mine lives in the refrigerator, but I do still feed it regularly. Every starter tastes a bit different--mine has a blend of whole wheat & white flour that changes regularly. Nothing except flour and water can ever be mixed into the "mother sponge," and the sponge is best kept in glass, stainless steel, or ceramic containers. The acid that makes it "sour" would indeed eat many metals.
It's a fun way to make breads and pancakes and such, and it does have a distinctive flavor. Starters can be purchased, or like mine, derived from someone else's starter. The older the starter, the more flavor it generally has.
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