Ancient, unencumbered and untamed, are the wild yeast spores that attach to stalks of wheat, float about my kitchen, are found on my baker hands. The energy to convert flour and water into a crackling-crusted, creamy-crumbed loaf of bread is a thing of wonder and pure joy. This energy lives in a jar on my counter.
Sourdough starter is a mixture of wild yeast and lactic bacteria, enabling the rise and flavor of naturally-fermented breads, bagels and biscuits. This yeast is ancient, with unique terroir characteristics. It works slowly, manipulated with temperature and types of flour. A baker knows her starter like a parent knows a child; knows when it’s happy, hungry or just seeming off. I think of my starter more like a beloved pet rather than a child, caring for it with food, attention and exercise. Anyone can nurture a sourdough starter of their own, starting with only flour and water.
Over the course of seven to fourteen days, a mixture of flour and water will gradually ferment, becoming a new little powerhouse. Once a starter is ready to work, I give it a name. Bob is my longtime companion, a starter I grew almost twenty years ago. I chose the name Bob to give homage to the Bill Murray classic What About Bob? and because a test of a starter’s virility is the float test: taking a small amount of starter and seeing if it will float in water…float in water like a little fishing bob? Yeah, I know. I do have a second starter as well. Since I teach classes on sourdough bread making, I may choose to develop a new starter for the class as show-and-tell. I did this in April 2020, my first Zoom sourdough class. I named the starter Agnes. So while Agnes and Bob are, for all intents and purposes, the same, I maintain them individually, choosing whichever looks the most active for any given project.
There are many thoughts and opinions on the best way to create a starter. The simplest, letting flour and water ferment together over a period of days, is outlined below. You will need to choose a time of day to routinely check up on your project: either to observe or feed. Just a little commitment. The instructions may seem daunting at first glance but just do one-day-at-a-time, good advice for all of life. On Day 3, you will begin discarding some of the developing starter. Do this or you will exponentially end up with a bathtub full of the stuff! When the starter has matured, the discard can be saved in the fridge and used for waffles or pancakes, or as an added ingredient to biscuits or muffins or cookies or more. For the flour mix mentioned, I use approximately 75% all-purpose flour plus 25% whole grain rye. You can use just all-purpose or combine with whole wheat flour. See my previous post on Baker’s Math.
Day 1: Place clean jar on scale and measure 100 grams of flour mix (about ¾ cup + 1½ tablespoons, spooned into cup and gently leveled). Add 115 grams (about ½ cup) lukewarm water. If your kitchen is very cold, use warmer water but not hot. Mix thoroughly. Your mix will be like thick pancake batter. It will taste like wheaty paste. Cover loosely with the lid.
Day 2: At the same time of day, come back to your starter and stir. Taste the mix and see if you notice any flavors developing. Has the consistency or texture changed at all?
Day 3: Return to your jar at the appointed time. Hopefully, you will detect signs of early fermentation: little bubbles, slight acidic smell. Even if not much seems to be happening, we will start feeding the starter. Feeding your starter around the same time each day will help train it to ferment in a predictable way. Feeding: Remove 75 grams of starter to a new jar. Add 100 grams of flour mix and 115 grams of water. Mix thoroughly. Compost the leftover.
Day 4: Repeat Day 3.
Day 5: On this day we will start feeding twice a day. At your usual time of feeding, remove 75 grams of starter to a clean jar. Add 100 grams flour mix, plus 115 grams of water. Mix thoroughly, loosely lid and let rest for 12 hours. Compost leftover. 12 hours later, repeat the feeding using another clean jar.
Day 6: Repeat Day 5
Day 7 to 14: If your starter doesn’t seem super active at this point, continue the feeding schedule for another day or two. Not all flours or kitchens are the same so results will vary. If your starter seems lively, begin this altered feeding. Remove 50 grams of starter to a clean jar and add 100 grams of flour mix plus 100 grams of water. Stir well, cover loosely and rest. Repeat after 12 hours. At this point in the process your starter will be lively enough to begin saving discard if you want to. I keep a quart jar in my fridge and after feeding, scrape the remaining “old” starter into it. I return to the fridge and save to use in all manner of recipes.
Day 15 & Beyond: At this point your starter should be ready to bake bread. Maintaining your starter can feel like a chore but things can be done to simplify your process. Since I bake a lot and want my starter to be strong, ready and not too sour, I maintain a liquid starter, feeding twice daily.
Maintenance: At each feeding, I spoon10-12 grams of starter into a clean jar and add 3-4 times that amount of water and flour. If the room is warm I’ll use more flour/water to give the yeast more to eat. Yeast eat faster in warm conditions. If I miss my usual feeding time in the morning, I’ll feed the starter less flour/water since it doesn’t have to wait as long for the evening feed. I put a rubberband around my jar at the topmost point of the newly fed starter. This allows me to see at a quick glance how the starter is rising or falling. If your starter is peaking before the 12 or 24 hour mark, use more flour or less water and adjust the ambient temperature if you. On very warm days, use cold water when feeding. After you feed your starter for a while, you’ll get to know the quantities that work for you and may choose not to weigh but just eye-ball the ingredients.
Occasional Baker: If you don’t bake often, you can keep your happy starter in the fridge. Feed your starter at the normal time, then let sit at room temperature until you see activity begin: bubbles, increasing in size, nice smell etc. At this point, place your starter in the fridge until you need to use it, feeding it every week. You’ll get the most consistent bread results if you take starter from fridge 2 days before baking and feed it twice a day to get it up and running. There are folks who bake directly from the fridge starter and are happy with their results. You can always try that method for yourself.
If you’ve always wanted to try your hand at sourdough, now’s your chance! Grow a little countertop pet of your own and let me know how it goes and what you’ve named your little one. Cheers!