A Problem with Culture

Sourdough, that is…

This may not be news to many of you, but I’ve discovered that it is very difficult to maintain a sourdough culture in a household of one. I just can’t eat that much bread. I’ve had to do full refreshes on the critters each month because they pine when they get neglected in the back of the fridge. So I’m wasting flour and creating an ungodly, slimy stink in the composter. (Sourdough culture probably shouldn’t be composted, but I figure it’s already sort of rotting…)

I’ve also learned the hard way that there are regional differences in the critters that show up in your culture. No matter what you start with, your sourdough culture will slowly but surely take on local flavors. And apparently central Vermont is not home to flavorful bread-making microorganisms. Even the farm in Massachusetts just 150 miles south and east (and about a thousand feet down) had critters that created complex flavors and lots of air in the crumb (but not too much since I use whole grains).

The Massachusetts colony moved here with me, but in the intervening year, the locals have taken over the fermenting tub. And the bread the locals make is just flat. (For the record, it’s not just this house; I haven’t had a good sourdough from a local bakery since leaving the Southwest. The professional critters in Massachusetts were apparently as tasteless as the free-rangers here in Vermont. Must have been lucky on my farm…) So I don’t feel all that inclined to eat it plain, and I’ve found myself adding all sorts of things to it in order to get some flavor on my taste buds. Mostly nuts. Which means that the bread is heavy. Which means I need to eat even less of it or bad things happen.

Which is another discovery that might not be news to many of you. After the first round of COVID, I had to start taking blood pressure medication. My doctor warned me that I would probably feel tired and somewhat sleepy. She did not tell me that my metabolism would just tank. 

At first, I thought it was just depression from being alone so much while on furlough in the middle of Vermont winter darkness. I was never hungry. Cooking seemed like a waste because I didn’t want to eat anything. But as I’ve learned in the past, the best way to deal with depression is to just muscle through (while working out the roots of the problem, of course).

So I plowed doggedly on as I always do, eating a couple meals a day and baking a couple loaves of bread every week. Since exercise is always my best way of muscling through the darkness, I also spent many hours on the exercise bike, often doing my writing while pedaling. But even with this increased activity, I started gaining weight. Quickly. Of course, that makes anyone unhappy with the body, but increasing fat also affects the heart… which makes the blood pressure go up. In spite of the drugs. Which means more drugs… And even lower metabolism…

I didn’t know what was causing all this until a few days ago, so I kept doing what I thought would help (for depression) and probably made it all worse. Certainly, there are more pounds to shed now than if I had known what was causing this slump from the beginning. I started skipping dinner several times a week. Then I started skipping anything approximating a meal and just grazed when I thought that I probably “should” eat something. This often translated into eating easily prepared foods (lots of nut butter and jam toast) late at night. Which makes sleep rather difficult. Which also affects the heart… and the weight gain… So… I’ve developed a rather adversarial relationship with food in the past few months. And I’m a cook! And a gardener! And I have this sourdough culture that wants regular attention that I can no longer give to it.

These drugs are more or less the same beta blockers that I learned to hate when my thyroid went lumpy a couple decades ago. So, luckily now I know it’s them, I know how to deal with the problem. I’m probably not going to need more than one bowl of oatmeal a day and maybe some fruit and yogurt for dinner every now and then. I will feel the need to eat a “real meal” only on rare occasions. And I should absolutely only eat when I feel hungry, never because I think I should eat something. 

But this presents even more of a problem for maintaining a sourdough culture. Not only am I the only one eating it. Not only is the bread so insipid that I don’t really want to eat it. But I really shouldn’t be eating it. I shouldn’t be putting those extra calories — which, let’s face it, are more or less empty even with the healthiest grains — in my body. And I can’t possibly keep the culture viable if I’m not eating a lot of bread. 

Hopefully, I’ll be able to get off these drugs someday. Probably not soon… But even then, I may not restart the culture. It’s just too much of a waste for bread that really doesn’t taste all that great and for one person who doesn’t need to eat a whole loaf every week. Just to keep the critters alive. 

So it is with a heavy heart, that I am letting the culture go. I’ll bake soda breads and yeast breads when I feel the need for bread. This probably means more muffins and scones, which is not a problem in my opinion. I can bake a dozen and freeze eleven of them for later. Which makes me kind of happy, actually. That means yummy food for those hectic autumn days when time is short and quick meals for winter when all I really want to do is curl up and read.

Still, I’ve been nurturing these critters a while, and it is a hard habit to let go. For starters what am I going to do with all the fridge space now that the culture isn’t fermenting in there? And how does one arrange the days when there isn’t a sourdough schedule? I suspect there will be withdrawal and probably one or two attempts to restart it. However I also suspect that the lack of flavor will probably be discouragement enough from keeping it going for too long.

In any case, for now… it’s goodbye sourdough… my compost pile will be a happier place anyway!

©Elizabeth Anker 2022