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Sourdough on the Rise at Whitman

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The smell of freshly baked sourdough welcomes hungry visitors into senior Gus Coats’ kitchen. When he cuts into the scored loaf, the crackling of the crust makes my mouth water.

A growing number of students on campus are gravitating towards traditional, artisanal techniques, especially in sourdough baking. For Coats, it is enjoyable, easy and a way to physically engage with values important to him.

“It’s not a coincidence that all of the people I know, including myself, who bake bread are socialists. It’s totally a pre-capitalist fantasy,” Coats said. “But it’s the same price or cheaper than white bread you buy at the store. It’s a way to be a little more involved in your food and be productively anticapitalist.”

Coats acquired a propagated sourdough starter last semester from senior Maia Watkins after reaching out on the student listserv. Coats was intimidated to start his own starter from scratch, but the thought of buying active dry yeast from the store wasn’t appealing to him.

“Active dry yeast is mass produced and dried, and it’s the same pretty much everywhere. Sourdough starters are how it was done for thousands of years,” Coats said.

After taking a bite, Coats went on to explain the process. Equal parts of flour and water are combined in a jar and covered lightly with a cloth. When the jar is left out at room temperature, the yeasts, which are found mostly on the flour but also in the air, begin digesting sugars in the wheat.

“Sorry, I’m yeast-splaining right now. But it also has lactobacillus bacteria, which produces lactic acid and gives it its sour taste,” Coats said. “If you get sourdough at Safeway, or any place where it’s mass produced, the bread is probably made with active dry yeast and the sourness is added white vinegar.”

It’s common practice for bakers to name their sourdough starter. Senior Fiona Bennitt, a fellow partaker in the sourdough culture at Whitman, named hers “Sourdough Allende”.

“I have a friend whose family’s starter is named ‘Sourdough Dali,’ and I was trying to think of other rad Salvadors in history,” Bennitt said.

Bennitt named her starter after Salvador Allende, the Chilean physicist and politician who was the first Marxist to become president through open elections.

Sourdough starters are fed twice a day and allowed to “bubble up” every 12 hours. After stirring to incorporate in some of the bubbles, all except half or a quarter cup of starter is poured out. The extra starter can be used to propagate a new starter, or to bake bread without the sourdough flavor. Equal parts of flour and water are fed into the starter and the entire process is repeated to build up a sourdough starter from scratch.

“Sourdough is magic,” Bennitt said. “I absolutely love the process of feeding it, monitoring it, baking with it. It feels so special to be eating something that can only taste the way it does because it has been exposed to the wild yeasts floating around here in the Walla Walla air.”

If the starter goes too long without feeding it, the bacteria and yeast will go into a different process and produce hooch, a brown liquid that smells like beer. A little bit can add a desirable, rich flavor but it can quickly get out of hand and ruin the starter.

Once the starter is strong, it only needs to be fed once after 12 hours and can stay in the fridge for up to one week.

Some students feel intimidated by the lengthy process of baking sourdough, but Coats found a recipe that doesn’t even require kneading.

“It’s so easy,” Coats said. “I just mix the dough, leave it a little wet and let it sit for 12-18 hours. After I fold it a few times, I let it sit for two more hours,and bake it in a dutch oven.”

Gus explained that  some families have starters that are over 200 years old.

“Starters can go on forever. Think about all of the people who have been a part of it,” Coats said. “Everyone should do it.”

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Sourdough on the Rise at Whitman