Bread, like most things in life, tastes better through fermentation, which is why it’s always great to have a sourdough* starter on hand. Quite a few people I’ve talked to are under the impression that a starter must come from a kit, or a “mother” source like a kombucha culture, or is simply handed down through generations from a batch of sourdough made back when dinosaurs roamed the earth. All of these methods of obtaining a starter are valid, of course, but they all had to be started somewhere. And you, reader, have the power to give birth to your very own starter at home, to be handed down through generations, passed on to friends, or simply stored in the fridge or freezer for safe-keeping. All it takes from you is flour, water, patience, and acceptance of the kind-of-gross fact that yeast is already in and on everything in your house.
*Some people don’t approve of the term “sourdough starter” because it’s just as likely to be used as a natural leavener that doesn’t make the bread taste sour, just slightly tangy (they prefer “mother,” “chef,” or “levain”); I agree with this, but most people recognize it as sourdough, and it does lend a distinctive taste to the bread, so for the purposes of this blog, it will be called sourdough starter.
While commercially made packets of yeast contain millions of organisms from one single strain of yeast, there are many, many different strains of wild yeasts floating around the environment at any given time, just waiting to be captured and set to work in your starter. While these yeasts are more fragile than commercial yeasts, they’re much more hospitable to flavor and growth. Some people think starters from different regions taste different because of the differences in wild yeast colonies, but that’s just marketing hooey by people trying to sell regionally branded starters like San Francisco sourdough—over time, your starter will eventually be colonized by the same yeast that’s in your house, no matter how it starts out.
The whole process takes about a week, but it’s very little active time and totally worth the effort.
In choosing flour to begin a starter, it’s best to start off with rye or whole wheat, as the outer surface has a greater amount of yeast than white flour, and you’ll need all the help you can get in the beginning.
1. Choose a large non-reactive container that can be covered, such as a large bowl, 4-quart measuring cup or, as I use, a large plastic tub with a lid.
2. [DAY 1] Add 2 cups of rye or whole-wheat flour and 2 cups of warm water to your container and stir well to combine. I like to stir using my hand, both because that’s how I learned to make bread and I find it to be most efficient, but feel free to use a plastic or stainless steel spoon or spatula.
3. Leave it uncovered for a couple hours, then either cover with a lid or plastic wrap, put it in a warm spot in your house, and let it sit for about 18 hours.
4. [DAY 2] After about 18 hours: Throw out all but about 1/4 of the mix* (it’s OK to eyeball it) from the previous day, add 2 cups of whole-wheat flour (you can use rye, too, if you still have some, but it’s not as crucial the second day) and 2 cups warm water, stir well again, leave uncovered for a couple hours, then cover, put in a warm spot, and let sit for another 18 or so hours.
*This may eventually seem wasteful, but it’s the same principle as mucking a horse stall or cleaning a cat box—cleaning out the yeasts’ waste so they stay healthy. Plus, once you have an established starter you can cut down the amount of flour and water you add (directions below), based on how much bread you plan to be baking.
5. [DAY 3] Repeat the process: toss out all but 1/4 of the mix, add 2 cups whole-wheat flour and 2 cups warm water, stir, leave uncovered for a couple hours, cover, put in warm spot, let sit for 18 or so hours.
6. [DAY 4] Repeat the process. At some point the mixture will puff up dramatically to about twice its size; this is a good thing and means the yeast are, for lack of a better description, having a party. Like any new living arrangement, the time frame for this may vary. Sometimes it happens on Day 3, sometimes Day 5, sometimes Day 7…in any case, don’t sweat it. It will happen eventually.
7. [DAY 5] Repeat the process, this time with a little less water, and throwing some white flour in the mix (if you never plan on making white bread, feel free to keep it all whole-wheat, but it will be more expensive): 1/2 cup whole wheat flour, 1 1/2 cups white flour, and 1 1/2 cups warm water.
8. [DAY 6] The starter should be ready to use by now in any bread recipe that calls for it. (You can use it before refreshing it, then just refresh what’s left over.) The ratios for Day 5—1/2 cup whole wheat flour, 1 1/2 cups white flour, 1 1/2 cups warm water—are what you will be using for as long as you have the starter. Don’t worry if you can’t yet taste the starter in your bread; it’s working as a leavener, and the older it gets, the more you’ll be able to taste it.
It’s also perfectly acceptable, depending on how much bread you’re baking, to cut in half the amount of flour and water you feed the starter, so long as the ratios are the same. (For example: 1/4 cup whole wheat flour, 3/4 cup white flour, 3/4 cup warm water.) Just be sure to still discard all but 1/4 of the starter before refreshing.
The starter does need to be fed every day—this isn’t a problem if you’re baking bread every day or almost every day, as I am, but it is a problem if you only bake bread occasionally. That’s why it’s perfectly fine to store it in the fridge for up to a month—simply store it in the container it was in, or transfer it to a plastic bag or smaller non-reactive container. Don’t think you’ll be using it in a month? Wrap it up and freeze it indefinitely! Whether you freeze or refrigerate it, it will take a couple of days of feedings (in the case of freezing, after it defrosts) for it to get going again.
I store mine in the fridge quite often. In fact, it was recently stored in the fridge for over 3 weeks, and when I took it out, it had little liquid pockets of alcohol covering the top, as you can sort of see below.
Bonus! (Just kidding.) This is perfectly normal. As long as it doesn’t have any orange bacterial spots or odors that aren’t acidic or alcoholic in nature, it’s good to go. Simply let it warm up and proceed with the normal feeding ratios for a couple days.
If anyone is following these directions and has any questions, feel free to contact me at admin [at] 35aweek.com and I’ll respond as soon as possible.