“Why I broke up with my starter,” by Brian Hanson-Harding

Jun 16th, 2021 | By | Category: Nonfiction, Prose

The breakup was inevitable. When you get up every day with fond hopes but are met with nothing but passivity—when you continually think and dream about the object of your affection and concern but there is no reciprocity — it’s only natural to finally give up.

That’s the way I felt—like I was doing all the work in the relationship and getting very little in return. That’s why, after more than two years, I finally broke up with my sourdough starter.

I took the two one-quart containers of white slurry that had been sitting on my counter, that I had fed and fussed over continually for more than two years, and put them in the basement refrigerator where we used to chill beer for parties, back when we had parties. I shut the door and didn’t look back.

This was hard. It had been a longterm relationship, no pandemic fling. It had begun three years back when I drove 70 miles to a farm in western New Jersey, where a master baker named Nina taught me how to care for starter and how to bake bread. We stood for hours in a frigid stone barn on a raw January day, the only heat coming from the wood-fired brick oven at one end of the room. I came home with loaves of artisanal bread (inexpertly fashioned by my own hands) and a quart plastic container of my very own starter.

Sourdough starter is an active colony of wild yeast and good bacteria created by combining flour and water and letting it ferment. It’s a living thing: it feeds, it grows; it can weaken, even die. You need to give it continual attention to keep it alive. You are in a relationship with it. It’s not just an ingredient; it’s a commitment.

In the beginning, there was romance, possibility. I was excited, looking forward to developments each day. I’d look into the plastic container, inhale the tangy smell of the fermenting flour, eye the mounds of bubbles forming on the top. Then I’d carefully pour out half of it, add water and more flour, and wait for it to grow even more frothy.

I even divided my starter into two containers, so that if one failed, I’d still have a backup. Once a week, I’d take some starter, mix it with flour and water, and bake a loaf of sourdough bread. Every week, when the loaf came out of the oven, I’d take a ruler and measure the height of the loaf: the more active the starter, the higher the loaf was.

But some time during the past summer, just when everybody on Instagram was posting photos of gorgeous, golden, lofty loaves of sourdough bread, my starter began to betray me. It wasn’t frothing the way it used to. I’d look under the lid and see just a few lame bubbles breaking out of the dun-colored sludge. When I’d combine it with flour and water, the dough would become slimy and limp and wouldn’t hold together. It flattened on the baking sheet as if it wanted to be a focaccia.

I increased the feedings. I tried using only organic flour. I experimented with whole wheat starter. I even tried adding store-bought yeast. But nothing availed. While all of social media had become one vast bakery serving up beautiful boules, I was producing loaf after non-Instagrammable loaf.     And that’s why I broke up with my starter.

The funny thing is, once I did, I felt free. I bought sourdough bread at bakeries. I bought loaves at farmer’s markets. I drove far and wide for the best artisanal sourdough bread.

And it was fine. I no longer had to get up and wait for my oven to heat up to 500º. I no longer had to wonder if my starter would once again let me down. I no longer had to painstakingly saw slices off my home-baked loaf. I just took my pre-sliced bread, dropped it in the toaster, and went on with my life. I bicycled, I hiked, I enjoyed the beautiful weather.

Fall came, and the pandemic entered a second surge. Thanksgiving approached. The heat came on every day. I was getting tired of driving all over looking for artisanal bread. I even started buying packaged bread at Trader Joe’s.

And then one day, I looked in the back of my basement refrigerator and saw my containers of starter. They looked stagnant, gray, moribund. After four months, I doubted they were still alive.

But I brought one into the kitchen, emptied out half of the contents, mixed in warm water and fresh flour. And then I waited.

The next morning, when I checked under the lid, the volume had doubled. I saw mounds of frothy white bubbles. Cautiously optimistic, I autolysed some flour and water. I folded in the starter and kneaded the dough. Then I left it and held my breath. After a while, the dough rose into a lumpy, living mass. I folded and waited, folded and waited, folded and waited. And then I proofed. It was big and round, positively trembling with life. I took out my razor and slashed it, then put it in the oven.

And then I couldn’t believe my eyes. The dough had become a big, beautiful, boule, taller than any I had baked before. The crust was golden and fragrant; the crumb was airy and tender. It was the best loaf I’d ever baked. My starter had come back to me. Perhaps those long, lonely months in the refrigerator had taught it something.

Ever since, I’ve been baking big, beautiful loaves. Once again, I’m in a healthy relationship with my starter: I take care of it, and it takes care of me. We both just needed time apart to appreciate what we had once had.


Brian Hanson-Harding is a retired high school English teacher and occasional freelance writer living in northern New Jersey who is committed to doing as many things as possible in the hardest way possible (hence: sourdough).

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