Have you heard the story about the fire that took place in San Francisco, CA in 1909 and how the famous Boudin sourdough starter was saved in a bucket? This story fascinated me as a child because sourdough seemed like such a strange thing to save. There are also stories of people bringing sourdough starters that had been started by their grandparents along with them when the moved to different cities, states or even countries. Until I started learning about fermentation, I didn’t quite understand why people would go to so much trouble for bread. But now I understand the power of fermentation, and the connection it brings between us and our food.
Making your own sourdough starter is really easy. Basically, a sourdough starter is flour and water mixed together which sits and eventually starts forming bubbles. If you bake often, you can just let this mixture sit on your countertop and use a bit of it every day, always replacing what you take out with more flour and water. If you bake less frequently, you can store the mixture in the fridge and only use it around once per week. The act of taking some starter out to use in a dough and replacing what you take out with fresh flour and water is called “feeding” the starter. This is what keeps the starter alive, bubbly and vivacious. But before we get to how to make your own sourdough starter, I’d like to get into a bit of history about why starters have been around for so long and how they are still an important factor in breadmaking.
In recent years sourdough (or "natural leaven") has been considered more of a unique treat from an artisan bakery rather than every-day bread, but sourdough is traditionally how bread has been made ever since humans started experimenting with baking. This bread is made from a “starter” which is basically just flour and water mixed together. When this mixture sits at room temperature, the natural wild yeasts that exist in the flour, water and air mix together to create a bubbly, liquid solution. Those bubbles are how the bread rises. The carbon dioxide that the natural yeasts produce by consuming the carbohydrates in the grain create those bubbles that rise the bread. Without the yeasts that make those bubbles, the dough would create a product more like a flat cracker rather than a textured bread.
Around 150 years ago, scientists were able to figure out how to isolate specific strands of yeast, which they could package and sell. These isolated yeasts were seen as a convenient way to speed up the bread making process. Now, both commercially available breads and most home bread making recipes are made with specific, isolated strands of packaged yeasts which helps the producers create a quick, uniformed bread. However, this doesn’t give the bread the rich flavor of wild yeasts.
Beyond flavor and texture, there are other benefits to using a sourdough starter rather than packaged yeasts, too. One of the biggest and most often overlooked benefits is the pre-digestion quality that the wild yeasts offer to the bread. Simply put, this means that through the rising process of the bread dough, the wild yeasts that have been cultivated in the starter are breaking down the cell walls of the grains in the flour used. This makes it easier for our bodies to digest the bread. Often, someone who has a grain sensitivity (not allergy) is able to eat traditionally prepared sourdough bread without their body having any issues even if they can’t eat other commercially available breads.
Another benefit with using a sourdough starter to make bread is that the bread’s shelf life is extended. Without the addition of chemical preservatives, commercially available bread would be dry in a day or two. Even home baked bread that used packaged yeast will dry out in the same amount of time. But when a sourdough starter has been used, the bread will stay moist for a week or more. Even if the outside crust starts to dry, the inside will stay mold-free and taste like it was just baked.
A few tips:
- Use filtered water. Chlorine and other chemicals will kill off the beneficial yeasts you need to have a successful starter.
- You can use any grain-based flour as long as it is unbleached (and preferably organic).
- While you are feeding your starter, make sure to cover the jar or bowl you are using with a cloth held tight with a rubber band or something similar. This will keep out any bugs, but still allow the air to mix with the flour and water.
- If you are using your starter daily or every-other day, you will not need a lid for your container - just keep using the cloth and rubber band. If you will be storing the container in the fridge for more infrequent feedings, use the cloth and rubber band while the container is sitting on the counter, but then tightly lid the container when it is in the refrigerator. I use an old butter crock for my starter so that when I store mine in the refrigerator all I have to do is put the lid on and put it in the fridge.
------------------------------------ Sourdough Starter
Ingredients: flour filtered water a large bowl
Directions: Starting the sourdough: Whisk ¼ cup flour with 3 tablespoons filtered water in a small bowl. Pour this into a jar or a ceramic or glass bowl, and let it sit for 12-24 hours, depending on how warm it is (the warmer it is, the less time you will give it). After it has sat, whisk in ½ cup flour with ⅓ cup filtered water and continue adding ½ cup flour and ⅓ cup water every 12-24 hours for one to two weeks until your starter is brisk and bubbling (note that the action of stirring the batter may create some bubbles. Do not confuse these with the bubbles the batter produces when you are not actively stirring). Each time you are adding in new flour and water, make sure to whisk everything together until there are no lumps.
Maintaining the sourdough: After a week or two, your sourdough can be stored in the fridge if you want. This is helpful if you bake infrequently (that is: if you bake less than once a week). To Store your starter, cover the container tightly with a lid and place in the refrigerator. The next time you want to use it, take the container out of the fridge, remove the lid, cover with the cloth and rubber band, and bring it up to room temperature at least 12 hours before you want to bake with the starter. If you bake more frequently (every day or a few times a week) you can leave the starter on the counter with the cloth and rubber band covering the container, and feed it with ½ cup flour and ⅓ cup filtered water once a day.
As an FYI: If a brown liquid appears floating on top of your sourdough starter, simply pour it off. This liquid is harmless but it can mean that either you have fed your starter too much water in relation to flour, or you haven’t fed your starter frequently enough. Your starter is still usable, though! Just make sure to follow the instructions above and you will find the right balance for your own kitchen’s ecosystem.
Good luck with making your own sourdough starter, and please make sure to let me know in the comments below if you are making your own! I’ll be sharing some of my sourdough recipes in the weeks to come, too!