Christmas was coming, and Tom Clark, co-owner of Blackbird Baking Company in Lakewood, had a problem.
His chef was sick—”Greyer than normal, and a bit lifeless,” Clark says.
What’s worse, Chef was turning out breads that were acidic, almost metallic in flavor. The rise of the loaves was all wrong, too. They were dense and brick-like when they should have been bubbly and light.
“I was just about ready to go ballistic,” Clark says. “The holidays are our busiest time of the year, and all I was doing was trying to figure out what was going on. I was completely consumed.”
For a month, Clark took it on himself to nurse Chef back to health. He brought Chef home so he could keep constant watch, monitoring Chef ‘s temperature and supervising a rigorous schedule of twice-daily feedings.
Chicken soup? Nope. Flour and water.
See, Chef is Blackbird’s “starter” dough, the basis for all of Blackbird’s sourdough breads. After weeks of Clark’s emergency care, he—and yes, Clark does call Chef “he”—is now back in the kitchen, healthier and stronger than ever.
Starters have just two ingredients—flour and water—but they support a complex colony of wild yeasts and bacteria. Those microorganisms are what give sourdough bread its trademark tangy flavor and complex network of big and small bubbles. Bread made with commercial yeast, by comparison, has a plainer flavor and more uniform bubbles.
Most artisan bakers around town use starters, sometimes known as “mothers” or “chefs,” to make at least some of their breads.
For them, starters aren’t mere ingredients. They can “live” for years, even decades, and bakers develop relationships with them that aren’t too far off from what you’d see between an owner and a pet, or even a parent and a child.
“It’s a family member, really, like a baby,” says John Tutolo, owner of Biga Wood Fired Pizzeria in Kirtland. (Biga is an Italian term for a starter.)
Tutolo uses his starter, which will celebrate its 17th birthday this year, for all of his crusts. He’s never left it for more than two weeks at a time, and anytime he does travel, he trains a friend or employee to tend to it. The care routine involves multiple daily feedings of flour, regular waterings and maintaining just the right temperature.
Clark of Blackbird won’t let anyone else take care of his starter. Whenever the family travels for vacation—which is always by car—he stows Chef in a plastic bin in the trunk.
“If we ever had to fly somewhere, I don’t know what we’d do,” he says. “I’m guessing a bin of starter dough wouldn’t make it through security.”
If anything goes awry, the consequences can be as disastrous as with a temperamental teen. One time, shortly after he opened, Tutolo gave his starter a particularly big feed, then closed for the weekend. He returned to find the dough had exploded over its bucket home, making a gaseous, ooey-gooey mess all over the kitchen.
“It was a full-on blow-out,” Tutolo says, laughing. He’s careful now to administer more modest infusions of flour, and to place a heavy baking sheet on top of the bucket when he closes up.
At Zoss the Swiss Baker in Cleveland Heights, owners Kurt and Barbara Zoss keep their starter, which turns 21 this year, in a white bucket next to a 200-pound mixer.
Near the end of a day’s shift, Kurt opens the lid to stir in a refresher of flour and water. The starter is a creamy-white mass, more liquid than solid. It smells not unlike freshly baked bread—that unmistakable mix of wheaty, yeasty goodness—but with a twist of funk.
The funkiness, Kurt explains, largely comes from the bacteria that enter the starter from the air. The organisms are different depending on which part of the country you’re in, which is why San Francisco sourdough has such a strong, distinct flavor. In Cleveland, sourdoughs tend to be milder, a reflection of our region’s less-feisty bacteria.
The Zosses have been in business longer than their colleagues at Blackbird and Biga, and they’re a little more laid-back about tending their starter.
They just returned from a two-week vacation, and they left their starter to fend for itself, stored in their walk-in refrigerator.
“Although,” Kurt says, giving a sheepish smile, “I did take a little out and put it in the freezer.”
“You did? You made a backup?” Barbara says, laughing. “I didn’t know that!”
He nods. “Just in case.”
All the fuss is worthwhile, says Vytauras Sasnauskas, owner of Citizen Pie in Cleveland’s North Collinwood neighborhood. He and his 12-year-old starter have been turning out sourdough pizzas to rave reviews since opening last fall.
Sasnauskas says the value of a starter isn’t just the unique flavor profile it creates, or the easy way it hits your stomach, a result, he says, of the probiotic qualities of wild yeast and bacteria.
It’s the wonder and mystery of the process itself.
“There’s just something beautiful and alive about it,” he says. “The fact that you take a few ingredients, just flour and water, and you get this living thing—it’s magical.”