What does an author do when she’s not writing? Writing is a big part of my life--a big part of my purpose for being on this planet. But when I'm not bent over a keyboard, I'm navigating life in China, learning and speaking Mandarin, experimenting in my gluten-free kitchen and homeschooling my three kids. When there's time, I knit and sew too. Come along for the ride!


Making a Gluten-Free Sourdough Starter

In my last post, I mentioned the fact that I was looking for a way to reduce phytic acid (also called phytates) in our breads and baked goods. I discovered sourdough–or rather I rediscovered it. As a child, I remember my mother making sourdough breads.

I didn’t know if the sourdough process could be used for gluten-free baking. The wonderful news is, it can! Wonderful because if you, like me, find that some of the old-fashioned pleasure of baking has been removed by the gluten-free process, sourdough brings it back!

There’s something really wonderful about the yeasty smell in the baked goods and the extra time it takes to make things. This is really the way bread and other baked goods were meant to be baked, until modern quick-rise techniques emerged.

Why Sourdough?

Besides the pleasure of baking with sourdough, there are some good reasons to begin using this process in your kitchen:

  • taste – Not everyone enjoys the fermented, slightly sour taste of sourdough, but fortunately, our whole family does. Many people prefer it.
  • nutrition – The sourdough process is very effective in reducing the phytic acid content in grains–both gluten-containing and gluten-free.

What Can you Make with Sourdough?

The sourdough process can be applied to just about anything baked–whether that recipe would traditionally call for yeast or not. So far, we’ve successfully made and taste-tested:

  • bread
  • muffins
  • “quick” breads
  • cookies
  • pizza dough
  • pancakes

I may be forgetting something. I’ve been doing lots of experimenting, converting many of our family favorite recipes to gluten-free sourdough variations or trying out the recipes of others and tweaking them to accommodate some of our preferences (like using honey instead of sugar).

But all of these recipes start with a good sourdough starter.


I did quite a bit of research into sourdough starters–gluten-free and otherwise. There is a good deal of variation in starter recipes. Purists try to “catch” a wild yeast, but from what I’ve read, these can be unreliable, can take a while to get started and may or may not taste good in the end. My recipe uses yeast to get the sourdough started, which for purists is cheating. Then there is variation in how the starter is handled after it has begun. Some recommend discarding a portion of it after it is ready and has made a good “sponge.” Some do not.

I can’t tell you that I have done things the “right” way, only that my sourdough starter has been tremendously successful for us, and has consistently produced excellent quality baked goods with a fluffy texture and rich taste. All our resident taste-testers are very satisfied. In fact, we’ve decided some of the baked goods–like the pizza crust and the pancakes–are much better than their original recipes.

And my recipe is very easy!

Some Tips

Most sourdough recipes will recommend that you do not use plastic or metal utensils when working with the sourdough–only non-reactive utensils. I use wooden spoons or silicone spatulas and glass bowls (thanks again, IKEA). This is because the sourdough process is essentially a fermentation process. Legend has it that pioneers actually used sourdough as a heavy-duty cleaner because of its corrosive properties. Enough said.

If your goal is reducing phytic acid, as mine is, you’re aiming for a minimum 12-hour fermentation period prior to baking. In general, this means that if I want to make bread in the morning, I prepare the “sponge” (the mixture of starter, liquids and flours) the night before. If I want to make pizza for supper, I could prepare it that morning, but since mornings are full of getting-out-the-door scramble, I usually start it the night before as well.

In general, the longer this starter/liquid/flour combination sits at room temperature, the stronger the taste of sourdough will be (and the more phytic acid will be reduced). In fact, we have left things 24 hours and not noticed an appreciable difference in the taste, but the texture has definitely become lighter and fluffier the longer it sits.

Gluten-Free Sourdough Starter


  • 2 1/4 tsp-3 tbsp. (or one package) active dry yeast
  • 1 cup full-fat coconut milk, room temperature
  • 1 cup white rice flour
  • 1 teaspoon honey


  • 1-liter/1-quart glass jar, such as a mason jar
  • lid or cheesecloth
  • wooden spoon or silicone spatula

(Since I can’t buy mason jars in China–boohoo–I use a one-liter pitcher. It can be covered with a lid, but I started and store mine covered with a cheesecloth-like cloth. It’s actually for lining steamer baskets for making steamed bread, but works just the same. My starter is not particularly photogenic in its jar, though, so I dumped it into a glass bowl for the picture above. The starter pictured above has been going now since August or September. It was pretty much fresh out of the refrigerator for the picture, so hadn’t developed quite as many bubbles as it might have had I given it time to prepare to be photographed.)


  1. Dissolve the yeast in the coconut milk. Add rice flour and honey.
  2. Cover loosely and allow to sit at room temperature for about three (3) hours.
  3. Bubbles should already be beginning to form throughout the mixture. Liquid may have risen to the top. Stir the starter.
  4. Leave the starter at room temperature for two more days, stirring once or twice a day.
  5. On the third day, your starter should smell yeasty and be full of bubbles. At this point, you may refrigerate it until you need to use it. The starter will need to be “fed” at least four (4) hours before you use it the first time.

Starter Feeding and Maintenance

This is the point at which some starter recipes will tell you to discard some starter. (What??? Precious!) Other recipes do not involve this step. I decided not to discard. I was anxious to get going right away. I can see no ill effects for having saved my starter this indignity. Instead I fed the starter using the steps below, waited four hours and used it.

These days, I do not feed my starter four hours before use. Once I’ve used some for a recipe, I feed it right away, then pop it back in the fridge for safe keeping. Occasionally, if I feel like I’ve taken away a lot of the starter and am replacing quite a bit (over 1-1/2 cups), I’ll let it sit on the counter again at room temperature overnight. When I want to use it, I pull it from the fridge and scoop out the amount needed. I do not wait for it to return to room temperature.

However, I will admit that when making bread that traditionally contains yeast, I have to wait a little while for it to rise before baking. It’s hard to blame this on the starter, though. It may be partly due to the fact that my flours are also cold out of the freezer, where I keep them after they are ground to preserve the enzymes.

At this point, I use my starter between once and four times per week. (It’s important to use the starter regularly to keep it healthy. If you don’t plan to use it for a while, you can freeze it.)

When you are ready to feed:

  • add 1 cup rice flour
  • add a scant cup water

After the first feed is complete, and you have used your starter in a recipe, simply replace the amount of starter you took away. If you use 1/2 to 1 cup of starter, replace with 1 cup flour, 1 scant cup water and mix thoroughly to combine with the starter. Refrigerate. Again, purists would have you wait two days for the best sourdough flavor.

And that’s it!

Keep checking back for more recipes that use this wonderful starter. I’ve just begun to experiment, so there will be plenty to share, starting with a converted traditional yeast bread, and moving on to the more adventurous–like sourdough Christmas baking. Yum.

How about you? Have you baked with sourdough before? Do you have a favorite recipe?


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Confused About What to Eat?

Remember when eggs were suddenly bad for you? People started eating only egg whites, or eliminating them from their diets altogether, only to be informed that they’re not so bad after all. In fact, they might even be good for you. And remember margarine? How it was so much more heart-healthy than butter? So everyone jumped on the anti-butter bandwagon and started eating margarine. Only now, “they” say that butter is better, and margarine is well–a lot of chemicals. (Or didn’t you get the memo on that one yet?)

Eggs are good for you?
“Good egg” and “Bad egg” by User: MrX – Own work. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

So this is the post in which I admit that I WAS WRONG.

But given the conflicting information out there, you’ll forgive me, won’t you?

Some time ago, I wrote a post about how our family had chosen to eat vegan. We’d watched the documentary, Forks over Knivesand I’d been lurking on various raw food blogs and websites for some time. I’d also been talking to various friends and relatives who were experimenting with raw or partly raw diets, and was intrigued by their experiences of better health.

So we took the plunge. (Because, you know, I don’t know how to do anything halfway. I’m a bit of an all-or-nothing type of person. Guess it’s my day to admit my faults.) We were careful to supplement with vitamin B-12

Right away, I did notice positive changes in my physique, in my energy level, and we saw some immediate improvements in our kids’ health as well.

We started out by trying to eat a lot of raw food. But then we noticed that JavaMan was losing weight–and he didn’t need to. We also read that children needed more cooked foods. So we began re-introducing more cooked foods to our diet.

I followed JavaMan’s basic rule during this diet transition (because this is one of a series). Diet change was fine, as long as it tasted good. I continued to experiment in the kitchen, and a lot of what we tried was delicious.

So we kept eating vegan. For over a year.

Then recently, we discovered in our kids some evidence of mineral deficiency (more deserves to be said about this, but I’ll reserve that for a future post). I did more digging and research and made the decision to make some significant changes: I reintroduced meat–mostly at dinner, and not every night–but we are eating meat regularly again. I also re-introduced kefir made from non-homogenized milk, which we consume once or twice a week. And we began taking specific supplements, one of which is grass-fed gelatin.

What we discovered was that some of the way we had chosen to eat, partly because of turning vegan, but chiefly because of our choice to eat gluten-free could be causing a lack of mineral absorption, due to phytic acid in the whole grain gluten-free grains we were using.

We knew we couldn’t change being gluten-free, and going grain-free was not a route I wanted to take, especially living in a country where rice is king. But we did need to take a serious look at the issue of eating brown rice, not just for the phytic acid content, but for its reputed higher levels of arsenic, and do something about the other grains we were consuming.

So I began a quest to improve the available minerals in the grains we were eating, and wound up with a happy new addition to my kitchen: sourdough baking! There’s not much out there about gluten-free sourdough processes, so I plan to share my adventure experimenting with this time-tested cooking process here. I hope you’ll join me.

In the meantime, have you ever changed diets? What were your reasons? Were there challenges? I’d love to hear from you in the comments below.


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Air Quality

Surely it’s no secret that China’s air quality is a problem. We live in what’s considered a “clean air city,” where the pollution really isn’t all that bad, comparatively. We’re blessed with a seaside location in a city that is known for its frequent high winds, and this seems to clear the air most days. Bad air quality is something that was never a problem in this city just a few years ago. But the greater number of cars and construction has taken its toll in recent years.

What you might not know is that China actually has a bad air season. The Qinling Mountain Range and the Huaihe River are the divide between north and south when it comes to who receives central heat in the winter. North of that dividing line, from beginning to mid-November, the government fires up its coal-burning heating plants and sends out heat to homes; south of that dividing line, there is no central heating.

But this date also marks the beginning of pollution season in China–when, as a friend put it, the country gives a collective sneeze.

What “Westerners” must realize, however, is this: China’s pollution problem is not just China’s pollution problem. Since China has become the world’s chief manufacturer, the pollution generated here is created as a direct result of that bargain you picked up at the dollar store today. We all need to take responsibility for the air that Chinese people breathe every day.

air quality

The pictures above were taken with my iPad, three days apart, from the same balcony. The first picture was taken the day after an overnight rainstorm. The picture on the right was taken today, when “light pollution” was reported.

Every expatriate worth his or her salt uses the China Air Quality Index app to find out whether it’s necessary to wear a mask or use an air filter–specifically to know what the PM 2.5 index is. This is the index that tells how much small particulate matter is in the air. This index is of concern because these small particulates are able to travel deep into the respiratory tract. These fine particulates can disturb the normal breathing of even healthy individuals, but are of particular concern to people with asthma or heart conditions, or children or the elderly. There is research to suggest that long-term exposure to these fine particulates may cause cancer or heart disease.

The image below shows today’s air quality description:

Air Quality App China

So the air quality today in our city was worse than that of Beijing! This doesn’t happen often, of course, but it was the case today.

I’d like to hear from you. Do you agree that China’s air quality should concern everyone?


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What is a Patriot?

As Canadians living in China, we are known as expats or expatriates. Webster’s defines an expatriate as someone who “leaves one’s native country to live elsewhere.” That’s us. But there is another meaning of this word: “to renounce allegiance to one’s native country.” That is not us. In this way, there is nothing ex- about us. We are patriots.

Canada Day, 2014
Canada Day, 2014

Although Sprout, nine next summer, has now officially lived more of her life in China than in Canada, all of our children are still fiercely Canadian. For JavaMan and me, our hearts are in two places. While we love our adopted country, nothing will ever take the Canadian out of us.

Evidence of our patriotism is there, everyday, in small acts that assert our Canadian identity, like the time we struck up a conversation with a stranger in a restaurant because he strolled in wearing a Montreal Canadiens jersey. Or when I picked a fellow Canadian–from Vancouver, as it turned out–out of a crowd for her accent. Or the time we infected some of our American friends’ kids with the occasional sentence-completing “eh?”

That Canadian identity rises up with more urgency when we are touched by news from “back home,” like the unspeakably tragic news we have learned this week: that Canadian soldiers–more than one–have been killed by acts of terror, in our own native land.

As our children set the breakfast table this morning, Sweetpea began mindlessly humming the Chinese national anthem. It’s natural. She hears it every day at school. She looked up suddenly and said, “I’m humming the Chinese national anthem, and I’m not even sure I remember how to sing, O Canada!” That’s natural too. She’s had far less opportunities to hear it than most Canadian children her age. Before breakfast, we played O Canada via YouTube–in English and in French (Sweetpea insisted).

I didn’t share with our children the news we’d learned about the soldiers. That kind of thing is hard enough to process when you’re back in Canada. I’m not sure I’ve fully processed it all. But I was glad to sing O Canada this morning.

I’ve never meant the words more. God keep our land glorious and free.

We stand with you. We mourn with you. We are far from “home,” but home has not left our hearts. We are patriots.


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