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Making a Sourdough Starter

I was initially drawn to sourdough because of the flavor, but what is sourdough and why is it different than regular bread? Basically, sourdough is regular bread, but slower. Sourdough uses wild yeast rather than commercial (think packet from the store). Yeast can be found pretty much everywhere: the air, your hands, surfaces of your house, but the varieties of yeast that exist in the environment are not as fast-acting as the stuff you can buy from the store. Believe it or not, that's a good thing! The longer the bread takes to rise, the more flavor develops. As yeast works it's magic, it releases acids and other compounds into the dough, which results in a more complex flavor.


At the beginning of the pandemic, a lot of people turned to sourdough bread baking in order to pass the time and develop some new skills. I had actually just created my own starter before the pandemic hit, so I was pleased to find several online communities, articles and recipes springing up practically overnight to help me learn how to use mine. After having more than a year to practice with it, I can honestly say that I love my starter and can't believe I went so long without having one. I would definitely describe myself as a sourdough convert at this point. So, to help others learn how to make their own starter, I've answered as many FAQs as I could think of and included a step-by-step of my favorite starter method for beginners. I've also added some great resources at the bottom of this article (and throughout) to help you along the way. And for those of you who are gluten free, well you might find that sourdough is good for you too! But if you would still rather avoid gluten altogether, there are some links to gluten free starters below as well!

What is a sourdough starter?


A sourdough starter is way to harness wild yeast and build up the colonies to a level that can be used effectively in baking. Sourdough was the first and only way to leaven bread until just a couple of centuries ago. Before commercial yeast, people needed allow yeast to grow naturally and slowly and wait for it to ferment before baking. Some people think that, when making a starter, you're collecting yeast from the air, and while some of what's floating around may ultimately end up in your starter, the bulk of the yeast you will be gathering is from the surface of the grains you're using to make your starter. Because of this, the type of flour you start with is very important. (More on that below.)


By providing regular water and food (in the form of flour) to your starter over several days, you can encourage the growth of yeast to a level that will produce a good rise in your baked goods. Then, instead of using that yeast packet, you can just add a little of your starter when creating your batter or dough, which will not only make it rise, but also add a ton of flavor. The rise will take longer than commercial yeast, as I mentioned. Usually it will take place overnight, or if you slow it down further, several days. This may sound inconvenient, but I've found it to be the opposite. I like to plan all my meals in advance for the week, so if I know what I'm making, I can prep it ahead of time without having to actually make it right away. When it comes time to bake or cook, I just start it up with minimal work on the day of the meal. Easy peasy!


Is sourdough healthy?


Well it depends what you mean by healthy. It's still bread, after all. I'm not so sure I would buy the idea that it has good bacteria (yes, it's fermented, but you killed it all in the oven). I also haven't come across any sources that reliably claim that anything is added to the bread's nutritional value because of using a starter.


However, due to it's long fermentation time, during which starches are broken down, sourdough bread does have a lower glycemic index than bread made with commercial yeast. This means that, while it is still a carbohydrate, it will not spike your blood sugar in the same way as bread made with commercial yeast will. Additionally, some people who are gluten-sensitive (not celiac), find that, while they can't eat regular bread, they are able to eat sourdough. While limited, there are also some studies that suggest that sourdough also has better digestibility.


Is keeping a starter time consuming?


Not at all! Creating a sourdough starter will take several days, but minimal time. You'll only need a few minutes a day as it gets started. Once your starter is established, you'll need to feed it on a regular schedule. If you use it weekly or daily, you'll want to keep it on the counter. In this case it will need to be fed once a day (if your kitchen environment is cold) or every 12 hours (if your kitchen is hot). If you bake less often, however, you can stash it in the fridge, which will slow it down. When it's refrigerated, it will only need to be fed once a week or so. I've gone a few weeks without feeding my refrigerated starter without any harm done.


But what if you'll be away for a REALLY long time, or you've decided that you don't want to bake for several months and don't want to feed it during that time? You can actually dry your starter, and store it until you're ready to use it again. If dried and kept in the freezer, you can keep your starter alive for a year or more without ever feeding it.


What can I make with my sourdough starter?


There are so many things you can make using starter!

  • Yeasted cakes and muffins

  • Pizza dough

  • Pancakes and waffles

  • Breads and rolls

  • Crumpets

  • English Muffins

  • Bagels

  • Crackers

  • Pita and flatbread

  • and lots more...

Getting started


In order to create your starter, you're going to need a few things.

  1. A large, non-reactive vessel and spoon. They sell crocks specifically for sourdough starters, but I prefer a glass jar with a wide mouth (for easy pouring and cleaning) and straight sides, which allow me to see the level of rise and measure it easily. One quart or a little larger is a good size jar. There won't be much in the jar initially, but it will need several inches of room to expand as it gets stronger and begins to double. The one I use is similar to this one. Just be sure to remove the rubber gasket as you want air to be able to get in and out. You want it to be covered, not air tight.

  2. A kitchen scale. Yes, this is necessary. They are relatively inexpensive and easy to store. You'll need to weigh out your ingredients precisely both when baking with your starter and when feeding or you run the risk of over- or under-feeding your starter. Both of these scenarios will have an impact on it's health and performance.

  3. Water. If you use public water that is treated with any chemicals, use filtered water, especially when it's just getting started. Likewise, if you have your own well, and it's treated, you may want to use filtered or bottled water. Make sure the water is room temperature. Hot water will kill yeast and cold water will slow it down.

  4. Flour. Not only is this what your starter will "eat", but it is also where a majority of your yeast will come from, so it is essential that you start out with quality flour. The best flour to use is organic rye. If you can't get rye, get organic whole wheat flour. The exception, of course, is if you are gluten free. Be sure, however, that your flour is organic. Flours that aren't organic have been treated with chemicals, which strips the yeast from the outside of the wheat. Without yeast and bacteria, your starter won't...well...start. Once your starter is established, you can switch out to regular, all purpose flour, which doesn't have to be organic. The special flour is only for the beginning.

  5. Pineapple juice. People have been using fruit juices for years to make their starters. It is sometimes thought that you get some extra yeast from these fruit juices, but that just isn't true. Most juices that you'll get are pasteurized, which means that there will be nothing living in them. Even if you decided to use fresh, you probably won't be getting a significant amount of yeast from the juice. The real purpose of the juice is the lower the pH of your mixture. As your starter matures, this will happen naturally. Good bacteria will create lactic and acetic acids, which lowers the pH and keeps bad bacteria, which can't survive in the higher acidic environment, from growing. However, until the good bacteria can take hold in your starter, it is vulnerable to invasion by bad bacteria. While unlikely, the juice in this formula serves as an additional fail safe to keep your starter from going bad before it has a chance to get going.

Making your starter

I made my starter just before the boom in sourdough popularity. That meant that there weren't nearly as many resources to choose from online as there are now. I managed to make my starter, but it could have gone a lot smoother had I known where to look. The instructions I'm providing below are based on a tutorial by an amazing chef, Ben Starr. If you aren't following him, you should be! I've linked his video tutorial below. It's a great walk-through of the process and perfect for visual and auditory learners. I've sifted through my fair share of sourdough starter instructions, and most include rye or whole wheat flour and pineapple juice, so nothing special there. What I like about the method he promotes, though, is the high hydration rate used for the first few days. This method works for a few reasons:

  1. It simplifies feeding because you don't have to add any liquid during the first couple feedings.

  2. It means that you don't have to discard at all during the first several days. This is beneficial because your starter is trying to get stronger and establish the yeast and bacterial colonies it needs to survive. While many different versions of starter instructions will have you discard early on when you feed, you will also be discarding these young colonies as well. By keeping them on board until at least day 5, you'll be giving it a great chance for these organisms to really establish themselves. By the end of the 4 days, you will have a 100% hydration starter.

  3. Because this mixture has more of a batter consistency, it's much easier to mix, which means it's easier to get air all the way down to the bottom of the mixture.

If you are making a gluten free starter, see recipe link below.


Easy Recipe for a Starter


Ingredients

  • 1 Bag organic rye or organic whole wheat flour

  • Luke warm water, tap or bottled water (use bottled if tap has been treated with chemicals)

  • 30g (a little more than 2oz) Pineapple Juice

Instructions

  • Day 1- Combine 30g flour with 30g water, and 30g pineapple juice in a nonreactive container - stir well to make sure that all of the flour is incorporated, and to work some air into the mixture. Cover with a lid that is not air tight. Throughout the day, stir the mixture every few hours, or when you think of it, (you don't have to make yourself crazy) to keep the mixture thoroughly oxygenated.

  • Day 2- Continue stirring your mixture when you can. Try to stir for at least 10 seconds or so to really work as much oxygen in as you can.

  • Day 3- Add 15 g flour to the mixture and stir well to incorporate. Continue to oxygenate occasionally. You may start to see some bubbles on this day. If not, continue with the process. If you are worried, check the troubleshooting section below to see if there is anything you can improve in your starter's conditions.

  • Day 4- Add 15 g flour and stir well. Continue stirring when you can. You should be seeing some signs of activity.

  • Day 5- Feed your starter 120g flour and 120g water; combine well. Mark the jar with masking tape or, if you have a sturdy container like glass, place a large rubber band around the outside at the line where the starter is touching to mark its location. This will help you determine how much your starter has risen. (I still use this trick when I am making bread and need to see when my starter is ready).

  • Day 6- Discard all but 120g of starter. Feed with 120g flour and 120g water. Mark the jar once again and continue to monitor.

  • Continue in this way, discarding and feeding, until your starter is strong enough to bake with, which is when it at least doubles in size in 24 hours. Once your starter can double in 24 hours, it's ready to use! At this point, you can start baking or store it in the fridge until you're ready to use it.

Troubleshooting


If you have gotten to day 5 and still don't have any reliable signs of activity, there are some things you should consider:

  • Temperature. Make sure the environment in which you are keeping your starter is an optimal temperature. The ideal temperature for a sourdough starter is between 65 and 85 degrees Fahrenheit. If your kitchen is colder than this, try moving it to a warmer location until it really gets going. Some good spots are the top of the fridge, the inside of the microwave, and the oven with the light on (be sure it's off and everyone who might use the oven is aware that it is inside). If your kitchen is warmer than this, try storing it in the back of a dark cupboard or a cooler room in your house.

  • Flour. Are you using organic flour? Is it whole wheat or rye? If not, it may take a few extra days or more to get going because you will be working with less yeast at the outset. It may work eventually if you keep at it, or you may need to switch to a flour that did not have as much treatment.

  • Water. What kind of water are you using? I have well water, but we have a treatment system, so I always use bottled. It may not even be necessary in my case to do so, but it's one less factor that I have to worry about. If you are unsure, use bottled or filtered water for a couple days and see if it helps.

  • Oxygen. The last thing to consider is your mixing. Make sure you're mixing thoroughly for at least 10 seconds, reaching right down to the bottom of the container. This is an essential step that introduces oxygen into your mixture. Since yeast needs oxygen to survive, this is just one more way to provide a happy home for your yeast.

Maintaining Your Starter


Now that you have your starter, you'll want to keep it alive, so it needs to be fed on a regular schedule. This schedule will vary depending on how it will be stored. If you keep it on the counter, you'll need to feed it at least every 24 hours. If it is particularly warm in your kitchen, it may be extra active, in which case you'll need to feed it every 12 hours. Over time, you'll learn what your starter looks like when it's "hungry." When your starter is fed, it will be fluffy, wobbly, and bubbly. When it is hungry, it will look more like a dense batter. It may even have some liquid on top. If you are storing your starter in the fridge, you should feed it every one to two weeks or when it looks hungry.

A tall, glass mason jar sits on a dark, wooden cutting board. The jar contains starter and is filled about 3 inches deep. The starter is still somewhat bubbly, but there is a line on the glass about 2 inches from the line where the starter is that indicates that the starter has fallen.

The photo above (or to the right if you're on desktop) is what my starter looked like when I took it out of the fridge after it had been in there for about a week. You can see the line on the glass to where it had risen and then fell again. Once it falls it can be fed again.


Hydration


Most recipes are written for a 100% hydration starter, so that's how I maintain my starter, and what you've created using the instructions above. Hydration rate is important when baking bread, pizza, and most baked goods, so this is an important number to maintain with accuracy (and why we use a scale), but it's not nearly as hard as it sounds. To calculate hydration rate, you simply divide the weight of the water by the weight of the flour, and then multiply by 100 to get the percentage. Since we want a 100% hydration for our starter, that means that we will be using the same amount of water as flour by weight when we feed our starter.


Discard


When you feed your starter, you will always discard a bit. Why do we do that? Well, you don't HAVE to, but if you don't, you're going to end up with a LOT of starter after a couple of feedings. There are plenty of ways to use the discard if you feel bad throwing it away. Just google "discard recipes" and you'll find tons of them. A good number that I always keep on hand is about 120g. It's a good, round number. Other people suggest 113g. Whatever you choose, use grams because it is more precise.


Feeding


To feed your starter, mix it up really well to make sure there's no liquid floating on top. Then measure out 120g of starter, add 120g all purpose flour, and 120g of water. Mix, return it to its container, cover (to avoid a skin forming), and that's it! If you plan to store it in the fridge, allow it to rise for an hour or two before putting it away. You must feed it at least the amount of flour and water that you have of starter. So if you are starting with 120g of starter, you must feed it at least 120g of flour and 120g of water. If you feed it less, there will not be enough food for all the yeast and it will begin to die. If you need a larger volume of starter to bake a specific recipe (or many recipes), you can feed it as much as you need to in order to reach that amount. You can also just continue to feed it as usual, but without discarding until you reach the amount needed.


What does a normal starter look like?


Your starter can do some pretty startling things that are totally safe and normal.

  • A skin develops on the top? Totally fine, just take it off and throw it out; it's just dry starter.

  • It's all liquid on top with the solids on the bottom? Normal. This happens if it's hungry, and especially if it's stored in the fridge.

  • The liquid on top is a blackish grey? Scary looking, but also totally normal. This liquid is a by-product of the fermentation process. It's a type of alcohol called hooch (but don't drink it...yuck), and it was produced because your starter is really hungry; you probably forgot to feed it. Just stir it back into the mixture. It is quite sour, but don't pour it off because it will throw off your hydration. Just give it a few feedings on time, and the sourness will tone down once again.

Signs of problems

  • Color. If you see pink or orange in your starter, discard it and start again. These colors are signs that your starter has been contaminated by dangerous bacteria and it should not be used.

  • Smell. When you first begin your starter, you will notice many smells. It may smell fruity, vinegary, sour, even sweet. Eventually, it will smell like bread or yeasted bread dough. However, it should never, ever smell putrid. If you are repulsed by the smell of your starter, something has gone wrong and it should not be used.

Additional Resources


There are so many articles and sources of information on sourdough, and learning to use it properly requires a bit of a learning curve. To help with that, I've put together some great resources about sourdough starter to give you some different perspectives and help you get started. In addition to some articles and videos, I've also provided a link to King Arthur Baking. If you really want a starter, but don't want to go through the trial and error part of getting it going, you can actually purchase one. They have a small kit on their website that includes the dried starter you'll need in order to have your own. I hope this has answered some of the questions you have about sourdough and sourdough starters and that these resources prove helpful as you begin working with this fun and interesting ingredient. Happy baking!


For some excellent breakdowns of how a sourdough starter works:

Feeding and baking:

Gluten free recipes

Buy a starter

More articles:




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