February 15, 2012
Sourdough Starter (How To)
Quite some time ago, I wrote about baking sourdough bread. I've been meaning to elaborate on that and give more specific instructions for making a starter and which will become the base for a tender crumbed, crusty loaf of bread. In my experiences baking sourdough bread, I've made loaves that were heavier than bricks and, with the help of a good teacher and a fancy oven, loaves that were as good as any bakery. The bread that I make about once a week during the colder months is perhaps not bakery ready, but not even close to brick-like. It is one of my kitchen staples which makes ideal morning toast, a very sturdy sandwich bread, and the one slice that I can never resist when it is still warm from the oven.
The starter, or levain, is what makes it sourdough. Sourdough bread does not always taste sour, but it should always be made from a starter of flour, water, and wild yeast that grows into a living source of leavening. Begin with a clean container to keep your starter in. I use a wide mouth, quart-sized mason jar which I swap out every so often for another clean quart jar. Mine is a whole-grain starter which I mix with white and whole grain flour when I make a loaf. Because whole grains are less refined and have more of their original parts, they usually have more wild yeast on them and are easier to use to start fermentation. Whole wheat, whole rye, or whole spelt can be used in the starter.
Add 4 ounces (1 cup) of whole grain flour to the jar or container where your starter will live (yes, it will soon be alive). You will also add 4 ounces (1/2 cup) of water, but make sure the water isn't full of chlorine, which could kill the yeast. Our water often smells like it, but chlorine evaporates easily, so I let the water sit out overnight before I add it to my starter. I find the simplest way to do this is to keep my tea kettle, which is always on a back burner of the stove, half full of water. Sometimes I forget to fill the kettle and I use water straight from the tap, but when you are first making a starter you should never use chlorinated water.
Stir the flour and water to form a paste. Cover the container loosely and keep it at room temperature for 24 hours. I keep my starter in an out of the way spot on the counter where I will see it and remember to feed it. Don't let it get too warm or too cold (I'll talk about refrigerating your starter later). I put a small plate or a canning lid (without the screw band) on top of the jar to keep it clean and covered. Do not tightly cover the jar or the gas produced by the yeast could eventually cause it explode.
At first not much will happen. After one day, discard half of the starter add another 4 ounces of flour and water, mixing together thoroughly. For the yeast to have enough food to thrive, the starter needs to double in size every day. To keep the starter from taking over your kitchen, home, backyard, in a matter of weeks it is easiest to remove half of the starter and double it from the remaining amount. Once your starter is strong and active you can use the discarded half to make pizza dough, waffles and many other baked goods.
On day three, discard half of the starter and add another 4 ounces of flour and 4 ounces of water. You may start to see some bubbling and notice a yeasty aroma. For the next few days, you will feed the starter every twelve hours, discarding all but 4 ounces of the starter and then adding the same amounts of flour and water. After about 5 days, it should be very bubbly. I recommend continued feeding for a week or 10 days to make sure it is really strong and ready to make bread.
I hope this inspires you to get started. Please ask questions if you have them. I assure you that trying to make your own sourdough does not mean that you can escape feeding it day in and day out. There are many more resources out there and I have more to share, too. In a few days I will post about how I tend to my starter and then after that I'll post the basic sourdough bread recipe that I use. Tea recently wrote about sourdough and shared a lot of good information on starters and baking the bread on her lovely blog, Tea and Cookies.
Sourdough bread from your own oven is delicious and healthy, a fun way to learn about fermentation, and a process that keeps you intimately connected to your food.