fermented flour: how to make a sourdough starter



You don’t need to be in San Francisco to have great sourdough. Plenty of New York bakeries carry the famed tangy loaf with a crisp outer layer and soft, gummy interior. But you also don’t need to frequent a patisserie for a great loaf of sourdough bread. Courtesy of the friendly bacteria lactobacillus in symbiotic combination with wild yeasts living all around us, sourdough is made possible by fermentation.

Don’t be afraid, in this case fermentation simply means:

mixing flour with water
letting it sit
adding more flour and water

for more on fermentation, see my post about sauerkraut

This process details the gateway to all things sourdough, making a starter. Folks say that a well-maintained sourdough starter can last a lifetime, and you can share it with friends for years to come. The flavors will change as your starter matures, so patience, persistence and a desire for the unknown are all important factors here. So far I’ve used my sourdough starter for all sorts of treats, from crackers and pancakes to pie crusts. More on that later.

As more of a cook than a baker (I like to improvise), I was a little hesitant to begin adventures with fermented flour. But as it turns out, making a sourdough starter is a fairly forgiving process. The elements at play are water, flour, temperature and time. I have found that because of the cooler winter temperatures present in my New York apartment, things tend to happen a bit more slowly than they might over in San Francisco, which is nice for a change. Wild yeasts develop more complex flavors when they are allowed do it slowly and at cooler temperatures.


Basic Sourdough Starter Recipe

1/4-1/3 cup flour
1-2 tablespoons water
glass jar or plastic container
something for stirring
cloth that covers top of container
rubber band

A note about flours; I prefer to use an unbleached bread flour (unbleached flour retains its protein, and bleached flour tends to be treated with chemicals), but have also experimented with whole wheat, rye, and even buckwheat!

A note about water; some folks say that wild yeasts can only flourish in filtered water. Luckily in New York, we have access to some great tap water- so you won’t need to tinker much here. I have experimented with leaving water out for 24-hours, enabling the chlorine to evaporate. I found that my sourdough has been more bubbly and productive when fed with less-chlorinated water. There are some additional basic filtration systems that you can use to remove chlorine from water, I have used activated charcoal to much success (and I think the water tastes better!).


Add flour to your container
Add water to flour
Stir gently, then vigorously
Cover with cloth and rubber-band
Set in a warmish spot

Make it a habit to check on your starter each day. Come back tomorrow and the day after to give your starter a stir. Notice the changes! After 1-3 days, you should start to see bubbles, which means all is going well. The wild yeasts are consuming sugars in your flour, and releasing carbon dioxide to create an acidic environment and defeat any bad bacteria. It should smell a little bit sugary, tangy and sweet like a loaf of sourdough bread. Once the bubbles appear, it’s time to feed your starter.

Feeding your starter

Add a bit of flour and some fresh water, making sure to not to over fill your container. You’ll want to check on your starter each day to give it a stir and keep the oxygen flowing. Feed it each day with a little bit of flour, and a dash of water. After about 5 days (depending on temperature, water, etc.) you should have a frothy, bubbly container and your starter will start to puff up. This is how you’ll know it’s prime and ready for baking! You can use your starter at any point in this process – try a tablespoon in your pancake batter to test out the flavors as you go. Once your starter has reached this bubbly frothy point, you can transfer it to the fridge, and feed it about once a week. I like to keep my starter pretty thick at this point, so that it stays more active for when I’m ready to use it again. I’ll be back with some sourdough recipes next week!


the wonders of lacto-fermentation: an introduction to Sauerkraut

As winter slugs by, I find solace and delight in the fruits of fall’s labours. Cabbage is a wonder of the season, with its bright, deeply colored outer shell, and tender, cream innards. As beautiful as it is in full form, I am a firm believer that its magic is more truly revealed when it is fermented.

As winter slugs by, I find solace and delight in the fruits of fall’s labours. Cabbage is a wonder of the season, with its bright, deeply colored outer shell, and tender, cream innards. As beautiful as it is in full form, I am a firm believer that its magic is more truly revealed when it is fermented.

It is high in anti-inflammatory properties and vitamins A and C. When fermented, cabbage contains a higher ratio of vitamins, including about 200 times more vitamin C! Lots of cultures have employed fermentation throughout the ages, using salt as a preservative to keep food fresh and ward off any pathogenic (bad) bacteria while still providing a great environment for lactic acid. Koreans have made pickled vegetables or thousands of years, storing jars of it underground to keep temperate in the summers and winters alike. Traditional lacto-fermentation produces foods that are probiotic, which means they are easy to digest and even help with digestion due to vitamin and enzyme-enhancing properties of lactic acid. Chefs, healers and medicine people often recommend lacto-ferments for folks with a sensitive gut. Fermentation revivalist (and native New Yorker) Sandor Ellix Katz has been preaching the healing powers of ferments for decades, and is a wise person when it comes to healing as someone who has been living with AIDS/HIV for over 20 years. Nutritionist and author Sally Fallon details the values of lacto-fermentation in her cookbook Nourishing Traditions, where she writes:

These beneficial organisms produce numerous helpful enzymes as well as antibiotic and anti carcinogenic substances. Their main by-product, lactic acid, not only keeps vegetables and fruits in a state of perfect preservation but also promotes the growth of healthy flora throughout the intestine.

Lactobacillus is a (good) bacteria that is found naturally in soil and is present on anything grown in soil including most vegetables, fruits and definitely cabbage. The strains of lactic acid that are found in dairy are different from these natural preservatives that inhibit the growth of harmful bacteria, so even if you are lactose-intolerant, you can enjoy lacto-fermented foods. The difference between lacto-fermentation and vinegar pickling is tremendous, as lactic acid cannot survive the acidity of vinegar.

Lacto-fermentation can be like having a pet. It is a process that produces great results and requires little commitment aside from patience and the desire to experiment! The speed of fermentation varies based on temperature, so it will often take a batch of sauerkraut a bit longer to get going in the winter due to cooler temperatures.

Here is a basic recipe for making sauerkraut. I like to check on my kraut after 1 week to see how it’s progressing. The fermentation process is an anaerobic process (does not need oxygen) that will continue as times goes on, and after 4 weeks will have gone through all three stages of fermentation to maximize the probiotic qualities. Depending on the temperature, it can take anywhere from 4-6 weeks. So after 4 weeks, or once it is at a point that tastes good to you, put the finished kraut in a sealed container in the fridge to slow the fermentation process.

You will need:

  1. A glass, ceramic or wooden container. You can use a mason jar, a crock or a wooden bowl.
  2. Something that fits inside of the container to weigh the contents down (like another jar filled with marbles, a plate and a heavy rock that has been washed, etc.)
  3. A cloth to cover the container. A t-shirt, pillowcase or fabric scrap works great.
  4. A rubber band to secure the cloth
  5. A knife
  6. A cutting board
  7. A mixing bowl


  1. 1/2 head green, purple or napa cabbage. You can also use carrots, radishes and any other vegetables, get creative!
  2. 1-2 tablespoons of Salt.
  3. Optional: pepper, caraway seeds, paprika, etc. for flavoring


  1. Wash. Make sure you give the cabbage a good rinse, and that your container and other tools are clean and free of soapy residue. Soap can inhibit the production of good bacteria!
  2. Cut it up. I like to start by getting rid of any loose or wilted outer leaves (save one or two of these for later). Then halve and then quarter the cabbage so you have smaller pieces to work with. Chop it finely into ribbons so that the finished kraut is long and stringy.
  3. Salt it. Put your fine ribbons into a mixing bowl. Sprinkle the salt over the cabbage, and start massaging the cabbage with your hands. Your goal is to work the salt into the cabbage, which will release the water from the vegetable. Continue this process until you start to see the liquid rise and the cabbage becomes more translucent and soft. You might need to keep at it for 5-10 minutes. Add any pepper or other flavoring now.
  4. Pack it. Now, pack the cabbage into your container. Press it down as much as you can, so that the liquid eventually rises above the cabbage. Once it’s all in there, I like to put a large outer leaf of the cabbage (that you put aside earlier) on top to keep the cabbage submerged below the liquid.
  5. Weigh it down. Now add your weight! Make sure it’s really clean. If you’re using a smaller container or jar, fill it with marbles, stones or water or a combination of these things and keep it sealed. Push it down inside the mouth of the larger container, and cover that with your cloth. This will allow air to escape, although you want your cabbage to stay submerged at all times, and not come in contact with oxygen. Secure your cloth with a rubber band.
  6. Keep it down. Check on your container in a few hours and press down on the weight, as liquid will rapidly release from the cabbage and you’ll want to keep it submerged. If it’s been 24 hours and the liquid still hasn’t risen above the cabbage, you can add some water to your container.
  7. Taste! Make sure to taste your kraut after a few days or a week. Leave it to ferment as long as you can stand it, but feel free to eat it throughout this process. Stick it in the fridge once you think it’s done- it should stay fresh for months.

Use your common sense! If there is a bit of mold on top of your kraut, do not fret. This can happen if the cabbage unintentionally meets oxygen. Scrape any mold off with a clean spoon, and search for an untainted layer of cabbage. If your kraut smells like something that you do not want in your mouth, don’t eat it! Fear not- no cases of illness have ever been reported from someone eating ‘bad’ sauerkraut. It’s hard to mess up, but don’t be discouraged if you do. Try again and learn from your mistakes!!


End of Year Review

The students in Gaynor Campus garden club completed construction of a 5’x8’ greenhouse at Sure We Can this past December. The greenhouse is secured to a pallet and filled with a layer of gravel and soil; students sowed oat grass seeds between the strips of pallet. Students built two tables to fit in the space. So far the greenhouse holds a variety of seeds the students sowed and a handful of plants from the Sure We Can garden.

Third graders harvest arugula at Three Stars garden.
Third graders harvest arugula at Three Stars garden.

At Three Stars garden this fall we added an additional day of recess programming, bringing this programming to twice weekly. The students tended radish, arugula and carrot seedlings, and sowed garlic and flower bulbs and a variety of pollinator friendly wildflower seeds. They harvested kale, parsley, cilantro, carrots, radishes, tomatoes and garlic chives (which are a favorite), and enthusiastically dug for worms for the compost and watered the growing plants. We spread many pounds of garden-made compost and twenty cubic yards of donated mulch. At the end of the season, the garden hosted Sam Bishop from Trees NY. He taught us how to train the apple tree branches to induce greater fruit production; it’s possible there will be a small apple harvest next year!

Apple tree planted last spring with branches being trained.
Apple tree planted last spring with branches being trained.


Bottle Greenhouse


Bottle greenhouse similar in design to ours.

Here at Sprout Farms we believe in repurposing materials as much as possible, and became excited with the idea of making a greenhouse using plastic bottles. Working together Sprout Farms and the students and teachers of Gaynor Campus Garden Club wrote and were awarded a grant from Citizen’s Committee for NYC to build a greenhouse. We modified this design to fit our budget and the existing space at Sure We Can, a recycling / compost center in north Brooklyn, NY.

George and Marisa discuss constructing the greenhouse.
George and Marisa discuss constructing the greenhouse.

So far construction has begun on the greenhouse’s frame due to the hard work of George Frye and Marisa Prefer.  Gaynor Campus Garden Club students have assembled over 30 bottle towers; the final structure requires at least 75 towers!  We aim to finish the greenhouse by Thanksgiving break and begin planting a variety of herbs inside shortly after.

Students assembling bottle towers by cutting off the base of each and stacking them on garden stakes.
Students assemble bottle towers by cutting off the base of each and stacking them on garden stakes.

A Kid’s Guide to Permaculture in the City

What does Permaculture look like in New York City?

It can include compost, using and reusing existing organic “waste” materials, and growing food plants (especially perennials, biennials and self-seeding annuals, which are plants that don’t need to be replanted each year like raspberries, parsley and cilantro).

In the bigger picture, permaculture includes water and energy use. Storm and rainwater can be kept in the city to nourish its plants, and energy for electricity can be made using renewables like solar (sun) and wind power.

This guide is intended for 6 – 8 year olds.

What is Permaculture? Wikipedia defines permaculture as a system of agricultural and social design principles centered around simulating or directly utilizing the patterns and features observed in natural ecosystems.

Basically this means that permaculture is a type of agriculture (growing food) that cares for the earth, cares for people, and returns surpluses (surpluses are extra materials like wastes and trash).

What does Permaculture look like in New York City?

It can include compost, using and reusing existing organic “waste” materials, and growing food plants (especially perennials, biennials and self-seeding annuals, which are plants that don’t need to be replanted each year like raspberries, parsley and cilantro).

In the bigger picture, permaculture includes water and energy use. Storm and rainwater can be kept in the city to nourish its plants, and energy for electricity can be made using renewables like solar (sun) and wind power.


Urban Heat Island Effect

The urban heat island effect is when a city is warmer than its nearby area because of people living there. This happens mainly because of changed land surfaces (so many buildings, sidewalks and roads), but also waste heat from making energy (hot air from energy sources like air conditioners or power plants).



There are many types of pollution: street pollution, air pollution, water pollution, sound pollution, and light pollution. Who does pollution effect? People, birds, insects, fish, and plants: every living thing!


Looking Forward

City populations are increasing! As transportation costs rise, more agriculture is likely to move into cities, aka population centers.





Looking at your garden, what is one example of extra labor, or extra work, that you, as a gardener, do?



What can be done to lesson pollution?



What do you think New York City can do carry out permaculture design?

Apple Tree Care

written by Netanya Alvarez

Do you want to know how to take care of YOUR apple tree?

First things first, before purchasing an apple tree you should make sure the area you will place it in will bring the tree no harm.

You should take soil samples to a lab that will look into the elements present in the soil which will determine whether or not an apple tree can survive there. It is important that the soil has a PH of 6.5-7.

Space is also essential in deciding whether or not an apple tree is right for you.

Apple trees tend to be about 25-30 ft. tall with a bark diameter of about 24 inches. While these trees may be too big to grow in a backyard you have the option of growing a dwarf or semi-dwarf tree ranging from a height of 10 to 15 ft.  Three Stars garden chose this route and planted seven dwarf apple trees this past spring.

Be sure to remember that before placing your tree in the ground you must clear the surrounding area of other plants, about 4 ft. from the diameter of the tree.

Location determines whether your tree can survive.

The area your tree is planted in must NOT be in a wooded area, near a body of water, or the bottom of a hill. REMEMBER these trees need as much sunlight as possible, good drainage, and moist soil.

Which leads to my next point…

When you get your tree check the roots to see if they have dried out. You will need to place them in water for 24 hours if the roots are dry, but if not they should be soaked for 30 minutes.

Pruning & Spreading

It is important to make sure your tree is getting all the proper nutrients as well as avoiding diseases.  By removing dead, sickly, or downward growing limbs (pruning), your tree will not only be disease free but will also give future apples space to grow. While the tree is young the angles formed by the branches should be wide (spreading). By having narrow crotch angles the limbs on your tree will be weak and may break when apples are produced.

You don’t want nasty pests or diseases killing off your tree do you?

While pruning eliminates the possibility of having to deal with mildew there are other pests to take into consideration such as the coddling moth, apple maggot, and Spider Mites. Both the maggots and moths will burrow into the apple, spoiling it. The Spider however, will attack the leaves closest to the ground leaving the foliage brown. The leaves will be silken and if more than 6 spiders are found on one leaf remove them with soapy water. Dormant oil, a form of insecticide, helps to control insects that have overwintered on the bark and it should be applied during early spring. While this helps during that season it does nothing to prevent diseases/insect attacks in other seasons.

Apple trees like company.

Plant two different cultivars with the same blooming period so that cross-pollination between the trees is possible. Apple trees are pollinated by bees but they also pollinate each other so consider having more than one apple tree.

Most apple trees are also grafted, which is the process of joining two plants to create one organism. The top of the grafted organism is called the scion, which allows the tree to produce shoots, leaves, and flowers. The scion also helps with the shape of the tree, even for a weeping effect.

Happy planting and remember the precautions!


Building a Butterfly Garden


Written by Justin Chen

Creating a butterfly garden is a rewarding experience for any gardener.  Not only will your garden look vibrant and lively with all the different plants and butterflies, it is satisfying to know that you are able to provide a sanctuary for a species that may be endangered to thrive in, such as the Monarch butterfly.  It feels good to know you are saving some butterflies from harm.

Building a butterfly garden is not difficult.  However, there is a lot of research that needs to be done.  It is important to know the different species of butterflies in your garden’s region.  For example, since we live in the northeast region of North America, some butterfly families that are present include Whites, Swallowtail, Brush-footed, Gossamer-wing, and Skippers.  By knowing about the butterfly species in your region, it will allow you to make a well informed decision on the types of plants to have in your garden.  This way, your time and money will not be wasted waiting for plants to grow that may not even attract butterflies.

Knowing the type of species of butterfly that are present in your region, the next important step is researching the plants necessary for the butterflies to thrive.  Many of the butterflies are attracted to perennials, which are plants that are able to grow back after each winter for two years or more.  Using Swallowtails as an example, the Eastern Tiger Swallowtails are attracted to butterfly bushes, purple coneflowers, wild bergamots, and milkweeds.  Even though having these plants in your garden may attract butterflies, it is also important to look at plants that support the butterflies’ pupal and larval stages.  In the case of the Eastern Tiger Swallowtails, the larval food preferences are tulip and black cherry trees.  By having plants that support pupal and larval stages, your garden will be a nursery!

While it is important to have specific plants for the butterflies you want to attract, it is more important to have plant diversity.  A successful butterfly garden should have plants ranging from perennials to shrubs to trees and even vines.  Flowers of different sizes and colors will attract a variety of butterflies.  Additionally, planting flowers closer together will allow the butterflies to find nectar easily as it is their main food source; and it will make travel easier when the larvae needs food.

Similar to all living organisms, butterflies require shelter and water.  Shelter for butterflies can be achieved by properly placing trees and shrubs throughout the garden.  It is significant to note that these trees and shrubs may prevent some flowers from obtaining the necessary sunlight for growth.  However, this problem can be easily solved with careful planning on the placement of the trees and shrubs, and create places for the butterflies to rest at night or hide from predators.  As for water, butterflies can obtain moisture from puddles and moist sand or dirt.  It is said that the butterflies are able to intake dissolved salts with water from these puddling stations.  If you are looking to add more appeal to your garden, bird baths with water added to sand may be a water source for butterflies.


The most essential abiotic factor for the butterflies’ survival that a garden needs besides water is sunlight.  This is because butterflies are cold-blooded insects.  Starting the day off butterflies like to warm themselves in areas where more sunlight is exposed such as on pavements where heat is absorbed.  Once you have met all of these requirements for having a successful butterfly garden, you just need to wait and watch the beauty unfold!

Tree of Heaven

ailanthusby Justin Chen, Sprout Farms intern

While weeding at the Three Stars Garden in Brooklyn, my first thought of the Ailanthus tree was that it smelled like a box of Cheerios.  Seeing how it is different that many other plants, I assumed it was introduced into the garden for aesthetic purposes.  Why was I told to cut them down?  Are they not healthy and beneficial to have in the garden?  The answer is no.


The Ailanthus trees were introduced by a Pennsylvania gardener in the 1700s, originally from Northeastern and Central China.  Also known as the Tree of Heaven, Ailanthus trees are decorative plants as they produce beautiful flowers and grow quickly.  Now growing in thirty states including Hawaii, the Ailanthus trees have proven to be able to survive in any soil type and conditions.  It can even survive through droughts!


Because Ailanthus trees are survivors of harsh conditions and weeds have the same capability, many gardeners treat these trees as weeds.  Why?  Ailanthus trees are plants that grow robustly.  In other words, they become dense when they mature, meaning they push out native plants and prevent such plants from receiving enough sunlight.  Additionally these trees will take up the water and nutrients that native plants use.  Moreover, the trees contain chemicals called ailanthone that inhibits the growth of native plants so that the trees can grow faster.  Eventually these trees would take over Three Stars Garden!  Yikes!


Not only are Ailanthus trees harmful to native plants in a garden, the trees may pose a threat to urban areas.  This is because Ailanthus trees can damage sewers, pavements, and buildings with their roots.  This is why Ailanthus trees are marked as an invasive species by the government.  Being introduced in the 1700s as an ornate plant, the Ailanthus tree population is growing and disturbing agriculture and ecosystems.


What can you do about this invasive species if you see it in your garden?  The simple answer is to take it out before more damage is done.  Ailanthus trees are dioecious plants.  They have a light brownish gray bark and leaflets in a compound formation.  The trees also have a distinguishable smell.  Even though it smells like cereal to me, others say it smells like rotting peanuts or cat urine.  Yuck!  Female Ailanthus trees produce about 325,000 seeds each year, which means the best way to prevent more of these plants from growing is removing female trees.


Even if you do manage to remove Ailanthus trees from your garden now, don’t take them too lightly.  Ailanthus trees will quickly respond to injuries or any breakages.  You will always have to continue to remove them since they have long roots embedded under the soil.  Ailanthus trees have been giving headaches to gardeners for a long time.  Now that you know more about Ailanthus trees, I ask you this.  Is it really the Tree of Heaven?



Hydroponic System at Eckford St Studio

This spring Sprout Farms began a partnership with Eckford Street Studio, a Greenpoint art education studio for children.  We started with a basic, DIY bottle hydroponic system.

Entire hydroponic system growing at Eckford Street Studio
Entire hydroponic system growing at Eckford Street Studio

The students decoupaged the bottom half of the used bottles to decrease algal growth.

Plants growing in bottles in the studio's very sunny window.
Plants growing in bottles in the studio’s very sunny window.

We’re growing spiderplants, basil, chives, nasturtium, beans, peas, tomato and even a venus fly trap.

Garden Educator Katie Hope goes over the fundamentals of a hydroponic system with K - 3rd graders.
Garden Educator Katie Hope goes over the fundamentals of a hydroponic system with K – 3rd graders.

The students learned the basics of hydroponic growing, and compared it with traditional, soil farming and gardening.

Students renditions of the  growing plants.
Students’ renditions of the growing plants.

Students drew depictions of the growing plants or the entire hydroponic system.

Another shot of the plants growing in Eckford St Studio's homemade hydroponic system.
Another shot of the plants growing in Eckford St Studio’s homemade hydroponic system.


New Partner Garden Location

This year Sprout Farms began a new partnership with the three schools who share Three Stars garden.  The garden sits on 7,000 square feet and is located in the Fort Greene neighborhood in Brooklyn, NY.  P.S. 369, P.S. 67 and Community Roots Charter School share the 5 story building.  On March 17th Sprout Farms began weekly Recess in the Garden programming, providing a garden educator and assistant.  So far we’ve led fourteen small classes (approximately twelve students per class) in spring related garden lessons.

Kindergarteners sift compost
Kindergarteners sift compost on a chilly day.

The students enjoy working in the garden, especially digging to look for insects, transplant perennial shrubs and plant bulbs.  The students learned to sift compost, distributing the rich, finished compost to the raised bed vegetable planters.

A student transplants a shrub to make room for the apple orchard.
A student transplants a shrub to make room for the apple orchard.

The next big task will be to transform the western half of the garden, which newly has enough sun to produce food and sun-loving flowering plants.  Our plan includes putting seven apple trees in the ground, establishing a butterfly garden, and creating a shady reading nook.  For the new apple orchard we chose a variety of cultivars: Greensleeves, Pink Pearl, and Suncrisp.  The students are excited to nurture these young fruit trees to maturity.  A big thank-you goes out to Trees NYGrow to Learn NYC and the many attendees and supporters of Sprout Farms Mad Tea Party and Silent Auction for providing the resources to make this vision happen.