Nancy Silverton Wants a 23andMe for Sourdough

The La Brea Bakery founder gets geeky about starter and spills the beans on Balthazar's bread.

Wild-yeast-leavened sourdough has been around since human beings noticed that uncovered dough yielded puffed-up bread. It's been part of California culture since the days of the Klondike miners (who has room for baking powder in your backpack?). Growing up in Los Angeles, Nancy Silverton ate her fair share of sourdough bread, but it never occurred to her that she'd become the mother of a movement. On a recent episode of the Communal Table podcast, the La Brea Bakery founder and author of Breads from the La Brea Bakery shared how she developed her signature starter and why there's a little bit of her in loaves across the country.

Kat Kinsman: You're from the West Coast, so I assume you have sourdough in your veins.

Nancy Silverton: Well, sourdough eating is in my veins, but not the process of making a sourdough loaf. My mother was not a bread baker, and there weren't really any bakeries around me to hang out at, try to pester, get a little trick. But when I was going to work at Spago, I came back to Los Angeles [from New York] with a few boxes, two children, suitcases, and a small jar of sourdough starter that my friend Jimmy Brinkley had grown when he was baking bread at Sign of the Dove. I thought it was so fantastic, and as a gift he gave me a small jar of his sourdough starter.

Because all you need is a little bit.

Right. Before working at Sign of the Dove, he'd worked with Jonathan Waxman at Jams. Jonathan had sent Jimmy to Acme Bakery in California in Berkeley, which was an offshoot of Chez Panisse, and Jimmy had staged there, and learned a little bit about bread baking. Jimmy understood how Steve Sullivan at Acme had grown his sourdough. Jimmy made this one in New York at Sign of the Dove, and that's what I used to make the initial loaves at Spago.

Is that starter still alive?

That isn't. Mine that I started at La Brea Bakery is definitely still alive.

So, is that a 30-year starter at this point?

I would say a 31-year-old starter, which is nothing in the life of starters, because we hear these stories of handing starters down from generation to generation. But the fact is, they do live. And I have heard that if you were to put my starter under a microscope, you would be able to trace all of the starters that I have given other people. I think we should start 23andMe-ing starters. I think that's a great idea.

I'm so here for that. Could you explain what a starter is and how it speaks to place?

What someone who grows their own sourdough starter, is growing is a culture that's an alternative to a store-bought yeast. You're cultivating a leavening, a way to ferment the flour and the water, to turn it into a loaf of bread. There are all different ways of making a starter. There are all these natural bacteria that grow on flour, and that are in the air, and theoretically you can mix some flour and water, leave it out, something is going to catch onto it. Soon it's going to become bubbly, and if you take care of it by feeding that—giving it more flour and water for consistency—you can grow your own yeast. That's really what a sourdough starter is.

But, there are many, many benefits to it. A sourdough starter is a strain of yeast that reacts much slower than a commercially bought yeast, and therefore breads can ferment a lot longer—all sorts of nuances. If the flavor of the sourdough starter itself can be discovered in your bread—that I don't think. That flavor is developed through the process of how you make bread.

And I've got to tell you, in a blind tasting, I'm not good about blind tasting wine, but I can tell you right now that I can always taste if that bread is mine. And I have that opportunity to do that, only because La Brea Bakery has an internationally available bread program, and so I can be anywhere in the country and I can eat a chunk of bread, and I can say, "I know that they get that from La Brea Bakery."

I wonder how much of you is in there, because you've spent so much time with the starter.

Oh, I'm sure there are some follicles in there.

I was just at a conference and there was a discussion of the Korean term "son-mat," the taste that comes from someone's particular hands having made the food. There's an artist named Jiwon Woo who was recently in an incredible exhibition at the Victoria and Albert in London. She tried to identify the bacteria on various mother's hands, and then replicated it into something so people can actually take the taste of their mother's hands' cooking with them. I wonder if there's something of that in your bread?

Could be. That's what you're finding out when you open your 23andMe sourdough email, and you have relatives.

Where have they been fooling around? Whose loaf is that? Where did you make that?

Who gave you that?

Because you know that people have been pinching bits of their starter. Can you copyright any of this? There's going to be a Maury Povich moment of like, "I'm not the…"

I know that people have tried to.

I have only made baby steps. I have a starter that I try not to kill.

They're stronger than you think. Here in New York, are you familiar with Balthazar Bakery?

Oh, yes, yes, yes.

So, what do you think about that bakery?

It's the gold standard.

My friend, Paula Oland, still runs Balthazar Bakery since it started out. Paula Oland moved with me from Los Angeles when I went to Maxwell's Plum, and I when I left it, I introduced her to Jimmy, and she worked with Jimmy at Sign at the Dove. So, Jimmy and Paula made the desserts, but they also baked loaves of bread. When Jimmy left he was really, really angry, and he dumped the entire bucket of sourdough starter on the floor, and Paula, I think, scraped up a tablespoon or two, and that's what you are eating when you have the bread at Balthazar Bakery.

I'm just saying that in terms of letting you know how forgiving it is. Sourdough starter, it is strong, it wants to live, and so it's hard to kill it.

There's Chicken Soup for the Soul, I think there's sourdough starter for the soul, lessons of resilience in there. It's funny—most chef movies are terrible, and they show a chef out of control, doing whatever it is...

Bad behavior.

I wonder if anybody has portrayed a chef tossing out the starter. There was that whole Anthony Bourdain Kitchen Confidential chapter where the bread maker was so deeply talented, but was sometimes a little too hungover to come in. He would just call and be like, "Feed her." If you didn't feed it for a day, it's not good.

No, no. Not at all. It's tired and hungry. When I wrote the La Brea Bakery cookbook—and I devoted a lot of pages to what I knew about sourdough starter—I talked about how for me, the changing moment was when I really came to terms with the fact that bread is alive. And that when you work with it, you have to treat as something as alive and you can't control it, you have to understand it and help it by all the knowledge that you have to help it, just like a parent, at a certain age, is very hard to control a child.

But, you want to give it all the support. And when my relationship changed from trying to control it and make it be a certain way, and when I understood bread and its nuances and how to work with it and encourage it to be a better loaf—that was when I felt like I finally became a baker.

I love that, because in the age of social media and online community, there has been this strain of what a friend of mine termed the "sourdough bros." It's a very techy approach to this. It's all very precise, and I'm sure it's great bread, but it's not going to be the same thing as yours. There's a site that I actually love called Cooking for Engineers, and it's highly precise, but I've never been all that interested in precision.

Yeah. I don't understand it, and I feel that if I did understand it and I approached breadmaking with that knowledge, I don't think I would have gotten as far as I was able to get. I would have felt there were too many roadblocks, too many limitations. But because I didn't understand bread at all from a scientific perspective, which is I think the way people understand bread making now, I think I maybe would have just stopped at a white loaf and that would have been it.

I think I stalled out at challah.

Oh wow, it's a good thing to stall out on.

It's not a bad thing at all. Somebody gave me a Bernard Clayton bread book when I was stress baking in grad school, and they said, "Well, you want to do this you might as well learn how to make bread." I find it to be such a deeply soothing thing. I ran into a whole bunch of gut problems and so I had to steer clear for a while, but a friend of mine who's a very avid sourdough maker was saying that now there are certain methods of fermentation that are easier on the stomach.

Digestible. Yeah. And also using more and more whole grains is so much better; there are certain strains of heritage wheat that people are using now. People who have shied away from bread for gut reasons should revisit it, and revisit it from bakeries that are using these heritage grains and these whole grains, because it's going to be a lot more digestible.

I was in Norway recently and met a butter maker named Jon Fredrik Skauge. I had the best butter of my entire life, and of course they were serving it with these giant hunks of sourdough, and I'm not going to turn that down. It was a religious experience. It felt like the first time I was ever eating bread and butter, and I thought, "Okay, I need to introduce this back in," because life without bread is, it feels somehow—metaphorically even—incorrect.

It is. I mean, loaves and fishes, right?

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