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A sourdough cake starter called "Herman"

My friend gave me a bowl of sourdough cake starter, called "Herman".  A bit of a google revealed that this cake starter has been around for a long time, maybe not this particular starter mixture in my kitchen, but the idea of this cake starter has been circulating since the 1980s or earlier.  There's actually an entire website devoted to it, as well as lots of newspaper articles and forum discussions.  Have you heard of it before now?

Herman when he arrived - pictured with my Danish bread dough whisk,
which was a very cool xmas pressie from a friend, and I've been using it at every opportunity
In its current incarnation, the mix is given away with instructions on how to look after it for 10 days.  It needs to be "fed" with flour, sugar and water on day 4 and 10, and stirred on each of the other days.  On the 10th day the started is split into four portions, three to give away and one used to make a cake.  The recipe that comes with Herman is for an apple and cinnamon cake, which I hear is delicious.

As you know, I love trying fermentations.  Fermenting is both a low energy and simple method of preserving food and way to partially digest and improve the food before we eat it.  I make and eat fermented dairy products (yoghurt, kefir and cheese), fermented beverages (ginger ale, barley water and beet kvass), fermented vegetables (picked cucumbers and sauerkraut), and I "soak" all grains and flour with kefir or whey prior to cooking.  In the case of rice and quinoa, if I want to cook these in the evening, that morning I put the grain in a pot with the correct amount of cooking water and a few tablespoons of kefir, and then cook them as normal in the evening.  For bread, I mix up the flour and water in the morning and add the yeast and bake it in the afternoon.  I hadn't figured out how to soak the flour for cake yet though... until Herman turned up.

Herman after being fed, bubbling nicely :)

Herman is a sourdough cake starter, which is similar to sourdough bread starter, but the difference is that the sourdough bread starter is used to both pre-ferment/soak the flour prior to baking AND to provide the yeast to rise the bread (for my bread method, I presoak with kefir and add conventional bakers yeast).  In comparison, the cake starter is ONLY used to pre-ferment/soak the flour, as baking soda is used to rise the cake.  This seems to have caused some confusion on some of the forum threads that I read, in which people wonder a) why the yeast is needed to bake the cake (answer: its not needed) and b) why you would want to leave it on your kitchen bench for 10 days (answer: to ferment the flour so that its easier to digest).

Once I figured out that Herman was a sourdough starter, I started to investigate all the cake recipes for Herman and for sourdough starters in general.  I could have just made the recipe that came with Herman, but I really like chocolate cake, so of course I looked for something chocolate.  I based my cake on this recipe, but you know I can't stick to a recipe, so here's what I really did:

the finished product, to encourage you to keep reading...
  1. the night before I made the cake I followed these instructions to feed Herman, instead of the instructions that came with him.  I honestly didn't want to make so much starter, so I didn't want to add 1 cup of flour AND 1 cup of sugar and 1 cup of milk and then have excess to give away, so I only used half a cup of flour and half a cup of flour, and I washed 1 cup of the starter down the sink first (I know!  I felt awful doing this!  but I gather that this is essential to make room for the fresh ingredients).
  2. In the morning I combined 1 cup of the now very bubbly Herman, with 2 cups of organic white flour and 1 cup of raw milk. 
  3. In the afternoon I then combined 1 cup of rapadura sugar, 1 cup of cocoa, 1.5 tsp of baking soda, 1 cup of coconut oil, a splash of vanilla essence and 2 eggs.  I then mixed in the starter mixture.  It was very think and difficult to mix, I didn't want to ruin it by mixing too much, so it ended up a bit of a marble cake :)
  4. I then baked it in the Weber BBQ for about an hour at around 180degC until it seemed cooked
  5. Served warm with natural yoghurt (I can never be bothered with icing), it was delicious!
Don't get me wrong, this cake is still full of sugar and not something you want to eat everyday, or bake every week, but that seems difficult to avoid if you're supposed to keep feeding and using Herman.  Fortunately, just like a sourdough bread starter, Herman will survive in the fridge or freezer for several weeks, until your next cake (or muffins, or pancakes etc).  You just need to get him out the night before you need him and feed him again (maybe even earlier if he's frozen), so that's he's ready to combine with your flour in the morning and ready to cook in the afternoon.

Traditionalists prefer to keep their starter in a glass jar with a muslin cover or in a ceramic crock.  Honestly, we have a massive ant problem in our kitchen at the moment, so I have been keeping my Herman in a plastic container with a lid that has a pop up thingy to release steam when you microwave (I actually bought it for aging cheese, which it is very good at too).  And I've had to keep it on the dining table away from the ants.  

I think I'll put some Herman in the freezer just in case I break the one I have at the moment, and I'll keep the rest out for the occasional cake experiment, until I get sick of it and then it can go in the fridge for a while.

So what do you think?  Do you have any personal experience with Herman?  Do you keep one yourself?


  1. I had a Herman last year for a few weeks. It does make lovely cakes. The giving away three quarters was sometimes difficult as you ran out of people to give it to!. I used to make 2 cakes keep one Herman and give one starter away. The cakes kept in a tin for over a week easily and also froze well. Like you, I rang the changes with flavourings and ingredients and all turned out okay. Eventually I just stopped making them. I used to use a basin with clipfilm on top to keep him in. Gill in England

  2. Yes I can remember making these, but haven't seen them for ages. I don't bake with sugar any more if I can help it. That reminds me I should post a recipe for the marvellous sugar free carrot and banana cake I just made.

  3. I haven't made a "Herman" the German cake but I did make "Herman" the sourdough who turned out to be 99% lactobacillus and 1% yeast...the resulting vinegar bricks were fit only for the possums to fight over (it took them a week to eat it!). I recently got some sourdough from a good friend on the mainland and Audrey is amazing. The very first thing we made with her was a batch of cinnamon muffins and then a massive chocolate cake...the very same chocolate cake that you shared here! I freaked out a bit when I saw your recipe :). I don't think that I would keep a cake sourdough because, to be honest, I can make cakes with Audrey so I don't really need another ferment to keep going. I already have kefir and sourdough and that's enough for me...unless I can source some water kefir...and a kombucha scoby... ;)

  4. Oh I wish someone would give me a 'herman'. I didn't realise you could make sour dough cakes. We found with our son being wheat intolerant, he could actually handle eating any bread that was made with sour dough, as the sour dough kind of pre digests the gluten I think. I am wondering if I made a sour dough starter and put it in a cake if the same thing would work .

    1. Hi Kim, you can make your own herman starter (see some of the links in my post), or convert some of you bread sourdough starter by adding some sugar. I'm sure you will work something out. Good luck!

  5. We had a herman last year and it was great. But there was no way we were gonig to make cake every week. I'm too much of a gluton as it is!

  6. thanks for the comments everyone, I got sick of making a cake every week too, but fortunately the starter can be kept in the fridge for weeks and just refreshed with flour, sugar and water occasionally. I have just been tipping half out and topping it up (I would give it away if anyone I knew wanted it!).

  7. oh Herman is such a lovely cake Brings back lovely memories of my mom

  8. Herman is ancient. My dad's family are Germans from Russia and they made breads and cakes from their own starter such as this. You can bake more than cakes with it. Regular loaf bread or even pancakes are yummy too.
    It was known as Backwasser and was typically made with flour, sugar and water with a small amount of dry yeast, if available, but often it was sourced wild. That is why sourdoughs all have a bit different flavor. The yeasts of each area are a bit different. They also called it Herman. I'd love to know why.

  9. Hi, I was given a Herman starter 3 and a half years ago and have been baking with it ever since. It lives on my bench in a big bowl with a tea towel over the top - I have never put it in the fridge. If I'm going away I'll take some with me, get a friend to babysit it (stir and feed it) and/or put a portion in the freezer. But that's very occasionally.
    I don't follow the rigid rules outlined in the orginal instructions but I do stir it every day and feed it every 4-5 days. I feed it with equal proportions of flour, sugar and milk. Usually half a cup of each unless I'm doing a lot of baking and then I'll do 1 cup of each. I very rarely give any away and I don't ever throw excess starter away. I make all sorts of cakes with it, add it in bread i make with a bread maker and add it to cookies, biscuits and other baking.
    In addition to my standard Herman (made with standard flour) I also have one which uses gluten free flour. I started it from the original Herman and just started to add gluten free flour instead of standard flour when I feed it. After a few months of this I felt confident to offer these cakes to my gluten free friends (and daughter) and have had very good results. I simply swap standard flour for gluten free flour in both the starter/sourdough mixture and in the cake recipe.
    Yes I do make a lot of cakes but you can reduce the sugar content and use ingredients like carrots, fresh fruit, seeds etc to make the cakes more nutritious. You don't need icing with them. And it's great to be able to quickly whip up a cake when you have visitors or to take somewhere. My work really enjoys the cakes - which I never ice unless it's a birthday or other significant celebration. I'm very happy to share any tips or recipes if anyone is interested.

  10. Hi, I've been making Herman cakes (and all sorts of other baked goods) for well over 3 years now. Herman sits on my bench top in a big bowl with a tea towel over the top. I feed it when needed. Usually half a cup of flour, half a cup of sugar and half a cup of milk every 4-5 days. If I'm doing more baking I'll add one cup of each. I don't ever throw excess starter away. And I rarely give it away.
    I do make a lot of cakes but you can reduce the sugar content and use more nutritious ingredients like carrot, fresh fruit, seeds etc. and you definitely don't need icing. I only use icing for celebration cakes. It's really useful to be able to quickly whip up a cake if you have visitors and to take places.
    I also have a gluten free version - I just add gluten free flour instead of standard flour when I feed Herman. And then swap standard flour for gluten free flour in the cake recipe. I've had very good results with both.
    I love it and would be happy to share tips, recipes if anyone was interested.


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