quan m. nguyen


I’d reasoned that the best way to use excess fresh basil from our previous pizza night was, of course, to make more pizza. Not any pizza, however, but a margherita pizza, replete with those mozzarella cheese chunks, tomato slices, and, of course, fresh basil. I’d also been looking for a particular crust; Area Four Pizza makes a very excellent, tangy, thin sourdough crust, but their prices are a little steep for my taste. After all, I know how to make pizza dough from scratch, how hard could sourdough be?

On the advice from The Perfect Loaf, King Arthur Flour, and a multitude of other websites I figured out how to make a sourdough starter. It really is as simple as adding flour to water and letting it sit. So I did just that.

Over the next few days I added more flour and water in equal portions, and gave it a good stir. I was advised to let maybe five days pass before it would be ready to be used in dough. I started on a Thursday.

By Saturday, I had noticed plenty of bubbles. Could it be the yeast had taken hold? I popped open the Pyrex glass mixing bowl lid to give it a good whiff. I know that fermenting yeast for bread will give off a good punch of ethanol. But this mixture of starter smelled awful. Like, very, very strong yogurt awful. Some internet sources called it “baby vomit” or the smell that would result if yogurt could have flatulence. Maybe some other bacteria had colonized it, taking my work of several days away from me.

Thankfully, the denizens of the Internet informed me that this was very normal – apparently, other types of bacteria and yeast can colonize the starter, but will eventually die off in their own acidity. The result of this evolutionary bottlenecking event – which all takes place in your own kitchen, by the way – is a strain of acidity resistant yeast, according to The Perfect Loaf.

It reminds me of grad school work. Sometimes the day-to-day grind can be rather difficult. Compilation errors, things breaking, results not as good as you want them, you name it. But sometimes, the code compiles, the results are just good enough, and things just seem to barely work. And that little ounce of hope is enough to keep you moving onto the next thing.

By Monday night, my sourdough starter seemed to come alive: the hallmark rise and fall of the starter due to yeast consuming the starch and producing carbon dioxide bubbles in the dough. I decided I would kick off a batch of pizza dough to see how it would go.

Tuesday morning arrived, and the dough rose marvelously. I could even get a sense of the tanginess and the characteristic punch of ethanol from the dough as I rolled it out. The resulting pizza was delicious, and this very moment I have some more dough on the way for tomorrow. I’ve left a portion of my starter out so that I can get it to be even more tangy.

Sometimes it gets worse before it gets better. Keep going.