Three kitchen gadgets to take the guesswork out of sourdough

Give your yeastie bestie a cozy place to call home.

Andrew Tarantola / Engadget

Archaeologists figure we’ve been baking for anywhere from 11,000 to 14,000 years. And while the fundamental chemistry of leavening bread hasn’t much changed over the intervening years, we have developed countless shortcuts to make the bread baking process easier, faster and more convenient through products like baking soda, baking powder, instant dry yeast; and tools like electric ovens, stand mixers and food processors.

With the busy holiday baking season right around the corner and visions of sourdough stocking stuffers for friends and family dancing through my mind, I recently picked up a new starter culture (shout out to MatKat Bakery of Modesto, California). Normally when I maintain a starter it will either live in the fridge or on my kitchen counter. The problem with that is the yeast and bacteria that make sourdough, well, sour, prefer the ambient temperature to be in the mid-70s to low-80s, making my kitchen counter a little too cold — and fridge far too cold — for the starter to expediently rise when I feed it. But you better believe we have gadgets to fix that. Here are three that will maintain an ideal temperature for sourdough starter to live in.

Sourhouse Goldie

That is precisely what the Sourhouse Goldie is designed to do. Growing out of a significantly-overfunded Kickstarter, the Goldie is essentially a small heating pad enclosed by a large glass dome meant to create a tiny, cozy microenvironment for your starter to live in.

An integrated thermometer tracks the temperature under the dome and relays that information via a three-color LED in the base. Blue means it’s too cold, red means it’s too hot and yellow indicates you’ve reached the “goldilocks zone.” If it is too cold, you can turn on the heat which will raise the temperature to the goldilocks zone and then keep it there indefinitely. If your kitchen is too hot, an included “cooling puck” that otherwise lives in your freezer can be set on top of your starter jar to lower the temp.

the sourhouse goldie
Andrew Tarantola / Engadget

The dome is quite tall, able to accommodate my normal quart-sized starter containers, though the included pint-sized graduated cylinder is plenty big enough to hold a few hundred grams of fed starter. Despite its height, the bell sits sturdily atop the heating platform and forms a firm seal at its base — enough that things can get rather steamy under the dome if you trap any moisture in there while feeding your starter. Overall the device has a surprisingly small footprint and a sub-six-inch diameter. I can pick it up, move it around my kitchen as I work, shove it into a corner or onto a pantry shelf when I’m not using it –— the thing fits most anywhere. It runs off a USB plug (and an included wall adapter) giving you added options in potential power sources.

Beyond providing a quick visual reference for how the starter is doing, I also like that the Goldie provides a bit of entertainment as the starter rises. I always get a little tingle of pride as I see the culture that I have raised and cared for flourish and grow under the dome.

Overall it’s ludicrously easy to use — you plug it in, turn it on and put your starter under the dome. From there it can keep indefinitely, assuming you maintain power and keep feeding the culture. This method can get labor and resource intensive given that keeping a starter active at those temperatures will require feeding it every 12 to 24 hours. Think of it like a yeast-based teenager — depending on your feeding ratio (starter vs flour vs water added each time) you can end up running through food for it far faster than you realized possible. I like to keep my starter in the fridge if I’m not planning on using it for a few days (to dramatically slow the culture’s metabolism) and I’ve found that I can bring my starter back to activity far more quickly by putting it in the Goldie rather than my kitchen counter.

I’m not so hot on the Goldie’s price point, however. For as much as I like it, $130 for a hot plate and bell jar feels steep to me (they don't even include the jar for the starter pictured in their marketing), especially when the user has very little direct control, or even understanding of what the starter is currently experiencing. It’s a very vibe-heavy experience for an activity where I’m then expected to calculate hydration percentages out to two decimal places.

Brod & Taylor Sourdough Home

The Sourdough Home, from baking equipment purveyors Brod & Taylor, takes the nearly opposite tack in heating, cooling and maintaining a starter. Where the Goldie is a kitchen gadget, the Home is kitchen equipment.

It’s a mini-mini fridge, one that sits on your countertop to house jars of sourdough starter, and can dial in your desired air temperature to the degree. It’s bigger and boxier than the Goldie; taller, wider and deeper too. The interior is split horizontally by a removable shelf that can hold either a single quart jar or a pair of pints. The front face features an LED touch-sensitive thermostat which ranges from 41 - 122 degrees fahrenheit. It really is a tiny refrigerator that also gets warm on command — or a tiny oven that gets very cold, depending on how you look at it.

a collection of sourdough starter keepers
Andrew Tarantola / Engadget

With the Goldie, I find myself splitting the starter’s time between living in my regular refrigerator and in the device itself, getting ready for use. And that generally works when I’m only baking on the weekends or need to activate the starter for a spur of the moment project. The Home replaces that entire situation with a single countertop device. The starter lives there — I never get it lost in the back of my full-size refrigerator, I never forget to feed it for a week with it hanging out on my counter.

Getting the starter ready is as simple as adjusting the thermostat up a handful of degrees; preparing it for hibernation is the same, in the opposite direction. The Home incorporates a fan into its design, so it does make slightly more noise than the completely silent Goldie, but the whirring is barely audible to me, a middle-aged guy with moderate tinnitus. I like the Home. It provides a degree of control and precision that the Goldie cannot match at a price point $30 lower, at $99.

The Breadwinner

While both the Goldie and the Home do an excellent job of keeping your starter at its optimal temperature, neither will alert you when the culture is ready for use. That’s where the Breadwinner comes in. This Wi-Fi connected growth sensor screws onto the top of any wide mouth (86mm) mason jar. It measures the starter’s rate of rise after a feeding and until it peaks a few hours later, marking its readiness to use.

Traditionally I use my eyes and a series of rubber bands around the jar measuring its growth at the top of every hour to figure out when my starter’s rise is slowing down (which means its ready to use). The Breadwinner not only does that for me, but also sends me email alerts when it’s ready. It also saves all of that data to an online portal where I can track it in real-time and mine it for historical trends about the culture’s previous performance. I can also plug into a social network / online journal of like-minded bakers, share recipes I’ve used my starter in and generally keep track of everything I’ve used it for.

on a counter
Andrew Tarantola / Engadget

This is a really handy gadget when I’m getting ready for a bake but not necessarily able to hang around my kitchen until it’s ready. I can do other chores or run errands and feel secure in the knowledge that the Breadwinner will shoot me a note when it’s time to get baking. I also like that the device can be tuned to the size of the jar — 16, 24, 32 or 64 oz — for more accurate readings. The Breadwinner runs on four AA batteries, which will last anywhere from two weeks to a couple months, depending on how often you’re feeding your starter and using the device. If you want to get really fancy, you can use the Breadwinner and the Home or Goldie in tandem with each other, rapidly rewarming the starter and knowing precisely when it is ready to use.

The Breadwinner starter feeding screen

I do wish the activation button wasn’t quite so easy to, uh, activate. I kept accidentally turning it when I was just moving the jar around between feedings, which required me to log into the portal and delete the blank records from my starter’s profile. I’m also not sold on the price of $85 MSRP, which is a solid chunk of change for a narrowly applicable and entirely optional kitchen tool. I also have concerns given that the company behind the Breadwinner is still a small startup. If they go out of business, their servers, where the Breadwinner’s data and utility reside, will go offline as well and you’re left with a hundred-dollar novelty jar lid. If Brod & Taylor or Sourhouse go under, yeah I’ll lose warranty repairs, but the devices themselves will keep working.

Who would find these gadgets most useful?

This is $355 worth of gear altogether — a new, not refurbished, KitchenAid 4.5-quart stand mixer worth of gear. That’s a lot of flour. Still, the prospect of having my starter ready to use “in a few hours” rather than “later this evening,” and of not kicking myself for forgetting to take the jar out of the fridge the night before — that’s worth at least $100 to me. Maybe $225, but I’ve been burned like starter in a hot oven by proprietary kitchen platforms before.

a collection of sourdough starter keepers
Andrew Tarantola / Engadget

Really, the choice of keepers comes down to your personal preference: between the more whimsical vibes of the Goldie and the calculating precision of the Sourdough Home. If you’re only planning on using your starter on one or two bakes a week, splitting its time between your fridge and the Goldie is the way I would go. Conversely, if you’re working with your starter more than half the days in a week and need to keep it perpetually at the ready, a dedicated housing space like the Sourdough Home would likely serve you better. The Breadwinner works equally well with either warmer, or on its own. If you tend to multitask other chores and responsibilities during your recipe’s proofing times, the Breadwinner can help keep you on task and keep your bake from falling flat.

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