It’s Alive!

Sourdough Starter

I’ve been maintaining this sourdough starter at my house in Sicily for the last year and a half. I really didn’t want to throw it down the drain when we had to move but I was a little leery of packing it in my luggage and taking it on the plane. I don’t think I would have been allowed to carry it on board with me and I was worried about it being discovered in my checked luggage during a random search or at customs. Although it’s pretty much just flour and water, I was sure it would somehow cause a problem!

So, I shipped it to myself instead! I put about a quarter cup of my well-fed starter in a little thermos, packed it up with some of the other last minute things I was sending, and shipped it to myself Priority Mail. Priority Mail from an overseas military post office takes a bit longer than the promised 2-3 days here in the states. But the package arrived on Wednesday, several days quicker than I expected!

The thermos did leak a tiny bit but most of the starter was still inside and was smelling very, very strong after it’s journey around the world. I wasn’t sure if it was still alive but I had high hopes because that starter has managed to stay alive even through my most neglectful periods when I let several weeks go by at a time between feedings.

I was right to be hopeful because my beautiful sourdough starter, although a bit sluggish the first day, is now alive and well and bubbling and happy and smells absolutely wonderful! I am so excited that I brought it with me! I am imagining all those crazy little Sicilian yeast meeting up with the local-laid back southern California yeast and I can’t wait to see how they get along!

My sister and brother-in-law look at me like I’m crazy when they see me leaning over my bowl of starter with a huge grin on my face. But they are certainly looking forward to some homemade sourdough bread baked in their own oven! And they know what to expect because they were visiting me in Sicily when I baked my first perfect loaf of sourdough from this very same starter!

So that’s my exciting news for today! I plan on starting a new sourdough starter from scratch soon just to see how it compares to the one that I brought with me. When I start the new one, I’ll write more about how to start, feed, and maintain a sourdough starter. I also have some great sourdough recipes to share! I use my starter for everything from pancakes and muffins to pizza dough and bread!

Ciao for now!

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36 Comments
  1. VeggieGirl

    wow, how exciting indeed, that you were able to ship the starter to yourself (haha, love it) – I can’t wait to see your latest sourdough recipes!! :0)

    6:31 pm  Nov 23rd, 2007
  2. pam

    My starter will be a year old at the end of December, so I understand! I’m so glad it made the journey.

    7:20 pm  Nov 23rd, 2007
  3. Kalyn

    I do think that’s very cool. My grandma Denny always made sourdough bread and she was very proud of how long she had kept the same starter.

    7:29 pm  Nov 23rd, 2007
  4. bethany actually

    Awesome. I will remember this if I ever need to ship sourdough starter! ;-)

    10:05 pm  Nov 23rd, 2007
  5. Teah

    How exciting! My grandfather used to tell me about how his mother kept a sourdough starter in a special crock in the shelf. I’d love to learn how to get my own going and shake up my weekly bread making endeavors a little!

    11:11 pm  Nov 23rd, 2007
  6. Veronica

    So pleased that your little pet survived its travels! I love sourdough bread so I’m looking forward to finding out how to look after a starter.

    12:37 am  Nov 24th, 2007
  7. Ruby

    lol, ur such a weirdo! I love it….hehe

    2:56 am  Nov 24th, 2007
  8. Lewis

    What an amazing sourdough story! I lived in Naples (NSA) for three years and I would never have trusted their mail service with my sourdough starter – you were fortunate!

    Also remember, that after a certain amount of time the starter will take on the same taste of a local grown starter so you better hurry and crank out some “Sicilian” sourdough :)

    7:04 am  Nov 24th, 2007
  9. Nicole

    VeggieGirl: I don’t know why I haven’t written much about sourdough on this blog. It’s one of those things that will take almost as much effort to write about as it does to make and it’s a little intimidating for me. I’m also a little afraid that my passion for it will take over and I would end up writing about nothing else! But I’m sure I’ll find that it won’t be as hard to write about as I imagine…just as the sourdough starter itself wasn’t nearly as hard to deal with as I had believed! So, sourdough recipes will definitely be coming soon!
    Pam: Isn’t it fun? After a while, it kind of starts to feel like family :-)

    Kalyn: That’s so interesting! I don’t remember anyone in my family ever making sourdough although we all love to eat it…especially in San Francisco!!

    BethanyActually: Well, like I said, the container I used leaked a bit so I am going to do some research and find out the best ways to transport it. I’ve heard that you can dry out some of the starter, crumble it and then transport it that way but I never got around to trying it. I’m going to test that out and if it seems to work because that way it could be carried on the plane without arousing any suspicions :-) I was certain I would be suspected of transporting some type of biohazard if my starter was discovered in my luggage! And yes, airport security has made me more than a little paranoid!

    Teah: My favorite thing about sourdough is the stories and history behind it! I actually purchased a tiny bit of starter from King Arthur Flour (bought it online for five bucks and had it shipped to me in Sicily). I did this not because I couldn’t start my own but because that particular starter is descended from a New England starter that has been maintained for over 200 years. I just fell in love with the idea of becoming a part of that history, even though the starter would completely change as I started maintaining it in Sicily. So my sourdough starter actually began it’s life in New England, lived in Sicily for a while and is now making itself comfortable in San Diego. I love it!

    Veronica: Sourdough bread has always been my favorite and I’ve always wanted to bake it at home but was intimidated by the idea of creating a sourdough starter. But once I learned more about it and got it going, I realized that it’s really very simple to maintain and there are so many things you can do with the starter besides bake bread! I find it really exciting!

    Ruby: I knew this post would make you say that :-)

    Lewis: Thanks for stopping by! Unfortunately I had no choice but to mail several boxes back to myself since it will take a month for the earliest shipment of our belongings and possibly two months for the big shipment. I’ve had really, really bad experiences with the mail service and several things were broken during this shipment alone (three boxes arrived in such bad shape that there were gaping holes ripped in the cardboard). I just made sure that the starter was in a container that was impossible to break and that it was in a box that didn’t have anything valuable reported on the customs form (so there would less chance of it being stolen)!
    And yes, I know that the starter will soon be overrun with the wild yeast from this area (or whatever it is that happens, it’s still kind of a mystery to me!) and the flavor will change accordingly but I love the idea that it’s traveled around the world and I hope to keep it going when I move the next time, too! :-)

    8:53 am  Nov 24th, 2007
  10. Jason

    Most people “forget” those new laws about taking liquids on planes…I’d like to see what security does when they X-ray a thermos full bubbling goop.

    10:57 am  Nov 24th, 2007
  11. Steven

    Sick woman! Starter from around the globe. Now … where can I buy a little from you?

    12:57 pm  Nov 24th, 2007
  12. Stefan

    So, how exactly do you use this “starter”?

    Do you take a piece of it and mix it with more flour and water and make dough out of it?
    I’m new to this making bread thing, but I’d love to learn.
    Love this blog! Please keep it up!

    Thanks!

    -s

    1:15 pm  Nov 24th, 2007
  13. Loneykitchen

    This article is perfect timing! I have been wondering if there would be a way to bring some starter on the plane with me this Christmas when we fly off to my mom’s. Thanks a lot!

    3:41 pm  Nov 24th, 2007
  14. Amanda

    I can appreciate this! I have always wanted to create a sourdough starter, but have been leary of the process – and have not had directions I completely trust. I look forward to seeing a write-up on it by you, and then when I arrive in Naples Italy in March, I can start my own Italian version… and maybe I’ll be shipping it back to the states in two years from now! By the way, just recently read and tried the master bread recipe in Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day: The Discovery That Revolutionizes Home Baking… and it really is as easy as it claims, and as yummy. And the dough keeps for weeks in the fridge.

    5:01 pm  Nov 24th, 2007
  15. Nicole

    Jason: Justin was the one who first alerted me that it might cause a problem :-)

    Steven: I’d be more than happy to send you some, free of charge, as soon as I can find a proper container for shipping!

    Stefan: Most sourdough bread recipes begin with one cup of sourdough starter and yes, you just add more flour and water to create the bread dough. The wild yeast in the starter is what makes the bread rise and do it’s thing rather than store-bought yeast. I’ll be writing more about it soon!

    LonelyKitchen: I’m sure there’s a way to do it but I was got too nervous thinking I was going to end up on some terrorist watch list or something if it was discovered ;-)

    Amanda: I think it would be fun if I could get several people to begin a new starter at the same time and track the progress together. I might wait a while before starting my next one to see if I can get some others involved!

    7:10 pm  Nov 24th, 2007
  16. McAuliflower

    Starter can be smeared out into a thin streak on a piece of parchment and dried out to be used at a later date. Kind of like making our own dried yeast.

    I’ve been meaning to test this dry out method with mine- so thanks for the memory jog!

    10:18 pm  Nov 24th, 2007
  17. Jack

    PLEASE PLEASE blog about how to make sourdough bread once you settle down!!! A friend and I tried to do it in Norway but failed miserably (3x, lots of wasted flour, dough, all thrown into garbage). I don’t think our starter was ever right. Thus, a cascade of disasters given that the starter was off….

    Sourdough is my FAVORITE kind of bread. I’m so sad I can’t make my own at home!!

    1:24 am  Nov 25th, 2007
  18. Nicole

    McAuliflower: I’ve read the same thing about drying the starter and saving it for later. I had planned on doing that with mine in Sicily but with the craziness of the move, I never got a chance. I finally ended up with my jar of starter in the hotel room with us and at the last minute put some in the little thermos to ship. I plan on drying some it this week though to see how it works!

    Jack: I’ll be honest with you and say that it’s not the easiest thing in the world to get good sourdough out of your own oven! But when you do, it’s the most wonderful thing!! I promise to start writing about it soon. In the meantime, check out the sourdough posts at The Barmy Baker. Jen shows a step by step process of beginning a sourdough starter with lots of photos! Are you living in Norway now? I studied Norwegian in college :-) Ha det bra!

    7:17 am  Nov 25th, 2007
  19. Danielle

    I can’t believe you got away with that! That’s such an awesome story, and I’m thrilled to hear that your starter survived the journey. I can’t wait to read about how your breads change once your starter gets more California-ized over time!

    8:33 am  Nov 25th, 2007
  20. Zenchef

    Wow, that’s pretty clever. Your starter is precious now it travelled around the world!
    :-)

    9:58 am  Nov 25th, 2007
  21. Butters

    Very cool! You could market that!

    1:09 pm  Nov 25th, 2007
  22. Marie

    WOW! It is alive. I love the title. I tried to keep a starter in my house once for about 2 days. Granted I was prego with baby number 2 and couldn’t handle any kind of smell. So it got tossed. Don’t be too sad for the starter though, my friend had just made it, so no history involved. I can’t wait to read more about this on your amazing blog.

    Have you about had it with NaBloPoMo? I have, the pressure. Just 4 more!!

    1:20 pm  Nov 26th, 2007
  23. Sicilian Sourdough in San Diego — Pinch My Salt

    [...] open crumb or a perfect crust. I just wanted some good bread. I wanted to know for certain that my well-traveled sourdough starter was indeed in good health. No, it may not be the best sourdough I’ve made and these photos [...]

    4:51 pm  Nov 26th, 2007
  24. Bri

    Congratulations on your starter surviving the move. I would love to know details of starting a new mother sponge. My husband and I tried for a few weeks and it just didn’t turn out well. The sponge always made the bread we attempted taste alcoholic, and never tasty. So, I’m excited to get a lesson from a seasoned baker. It will be interesting to see how the Sicilian yeasts mix together with the California yeasts and change your bread over time.

    3:44 pm  Nov 29th, 2007
  25. Joel

    Brilliant! Isn’t it funny how we develop a relationship with the things we tend… I’ve gone so far as to give my starter a personality. “Won’t bake today, the starter’s in a tiff!”

    6:24 am  Dec 1st, 2007
  26. Marty Copeland

    I live in San Diego and my starter is dead. I really need to get a good starter from someone before my son arrives for Xmas. We always have sourdough pancakes on Christmas morning. Help, anyone!

    12:57 pm  Dec 2nd, 2007
  27. Nicole

    Hi Marty! If you’re willing to drive up to Escondido, I’d be more than willing to part with a cup of my starter. It’s still going strong!

    1:34 pm  Dec 2nd, 2007
  28. Jeff Hertzberg

    Thanks for trying our method, Amanda. I’m Jeff Hertzberg, one of the co-authors of “Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day.” We maintain that our approach (storing high-moisture dough for two weeks), makes using a starter unnecessary. More at our website: http://www.artisanbreadinfive.com.

    Jeff Hertzberg

    6:18 pm  Dec 29th, 2007
  29. John

    That’s a fantastic story. You’ve inspired me! I’ve been using the same sourdough starter here in Thailand for three years – and I am about to move back to Canada. I would never have considered bringing it back with me – but, maybe I will give it a try!

    I think I will freeze it solid and pack it in checked luggage. See what happens!

    Thanks for the inspiration,

    John

    7:26 pm  Apr 3rd, 2008
  30. Deviled

    I love it! :-D

    10:14 pm  Jul 29th, 2008
  31. Australian Web Directory

    Is it really alive? I guess it must be. It would interesting to find out what organisms live in it.

    5:14 pm  Aug 12th, 2008
  32. Jeff Hertzberg

    You eventually get a mixture of wild yeast and also bacteria (harmless ones). And yes, it is alive. Jeff Hertzberg http://www.artisanbreadinfive.com

    7:43 pm  Aug 12th, 2008
  33. RSA online

    Is yeast a plan or an animal. I guess it must be a plant. Hold on, it’s a fungus according to wikipedia.

    It eats sugar and oxygen and gives off carbon dioxide, and in some cases, alcohol.

    1:21 am  Sep 20th, 2008
  34. Carol

    Hey Nicole! I just learned last week that you can store your starter (assuming a live one) dried and in the freezer for an indefinite amount of time. I haven’t done it yet with mine but plan on doing it this weekend, hopefully. The method is to smear a thin layer of the starter on parchment paper and let it dry completely. Then crumble it and store in a freezer ziploc bag, air removed, and them freeze until you need it again. I hope it works.

    8:33 am  Oct 28th, 2008
  35. ivy

    What coincidence that I found this site…… I am on day 6 of a new sourdough starter; well, it is an Amish Friendship Starter, actually…..

    Had a King Arthur’s starter years ago, but it up and died almost immediately. Guess it didn’t like Yonkers much. I now live in Putnam County NY, and the new starter seems to be going strong. Love the idea of drying out after the holidays instead of starting a new starter…. thanks!

    anyone still active in your staters? How is the Italian starter doing? Has it Americanized to our California breezes yet? :-D

    10:59 am  Dec 15th, 2008
  36. Charlie

    Just found this blog — came up in a search for late nite meals in Catania (different entry), and then one click led to another. Are you still in Escondido? If yes, want to trade some Alaska starter for Sicily starter? My wife brought back starter from a trip to Alaska eighteen months ago — it dates back to something like 1910′s. And get this, we live in Escondido and are headed to Sicily for six nights in September.Perhaps I can pick your brain for “don’t miss items”.

    4:16 pm  May 30th, 2011
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