Baking Tales: Meet “Barm,” The Sourdough Starter

28 Apr

I spent the weekend making bread, bread and more bread! I’m working from the cookbook “The Bread Baker’s Apprentice,” which is by far the best book I’ve ever used for making bread. The instructions are crystal clear and all of my breads thus far have turned out beautifully. Plus, Peter Reinhart, the author, includes a variety of techniques for shaping beautiful loaves.

But before I get ahead of myself, I’d like you to meet “barm,” the newest member of my pet family (in addition to barm, we have two cats and a dog). Barm is a culture of wild yeast and bacteria used for making sourdough breads. Every fourth day or so, barm gets a feeding of fresh flour and water and goes crazy, bubbling away in its container. (Check out barm at right!).

Many people assume that what makes sourdough sour is the wild yeast. The sourness actually comes from the lactic acid bacteria that feed on the byproducts of the yeast fermentation. Commercial yeast usually cannot survive in this sour medium, but the wild yeast can, which is why this is such a symbiotic relationship. The yeast fermentation is usually faster than the bacterial one, so it takes time to develop the unique sour flavor we associate with sourdough; I’ve been nurturing barm (others call this the “starter” or “mother sponge”) for weeks now and it has developed a really nice complex taste.

Why does sourdough taste different from place to place? Wild yeast — present in the air and naturally in flour — varies quite a bit from location to location, which is why my sourdough will always taste different than San Francisco sourdough or New York sourdough.

Baking bread, by the way, is much, much easier than most people envision. Although many recipes call for an exact fermentation time, I’ve found that I can create the dough, leave it in a warm place and go work out or read for a few hours before coming back to a beautifully risen dough.

If you want to start your own barm or “mother sponge,” beware that it takes days before you can use it for your sourdough. The recipe is in “The Bread Baker’s Apprentice.” It’s pretty low-maintenance, but takes its time to develop the flavors you are looking for. You can also get free starter from a group called “Friends of Carl,” which has saved starter from 1847! Check it out at


Posted by on April 28, 2008 in Breads, Food Reads


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2 responses to “Baking Tales: Meet “Barm,” The Sourdough Starter

  1. Kathy

    May 18, 2009 at 8:38 am

    I inherited my brother’s Barm when he died last week. He
    has had it going for 10 years and I would like to keep it
    going to honor him. He was a fantastic pastry chef. I
    have never used a sourdough starter and don’t know
    what to do to keep it alive – can you help?

    • michiek

      May 26, 2009 at 5:00 pm

      Hi Kathy,

      My apologies for the late response! I’m really sorry to hear about your brother. I can help you out! First, stick your barm into the fridge, it will last longer that way while you get the ingredients to revive it. Second, pick up a copy of Peter Reinhart’s “Bread Baker’s Apprentice” or “Crust and Crumb” for recipe ideas. Third, revive your barm by adding roughly enough flour and water to double the volume. I always eye it and it turns out fine. You want to approximate the texture it had before you added flour, but if it is a little stiffer or a little more watery, that’s OK, too. It’s more of an art than a science. Basically, once you revive it, if it is bubbly and releasing carbon dioxide after one day, it’s doing quite well. You can use after it starts bubbling and refresh it every three days if you want to use it on a regular basis. If you don’t want to use it that often, stick it in the refrigerator and take it out the day before you plan on using it and revive it. I hope this helps!

      Take care,


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