Sourdough bread; one of the great mysteries of the world. How can a humble combination of flour and water come together to create a loaf of bread full of delicious complex flavors, densely rich in nutrients and surprisingly resistant to mold? Let’s discuss.
I’m not a food scientist (and I don’t play one on TV), but I’ll try to give you the Cliff Note version of what’s going on with sourdough bread. It starts with the starter. In fact, the starter does the majority of the heavy lifting in the whole process (pun definitely intended). Do you remember when your parents sat you down to give you “the talk” about the Birds & Bees? Well, I’m going to give you “the talk” about Flour & Water.
In a nutshell, when flour and water are combined, wild yeast and bacteria present in the flour will begin to ferment, forming a culture. As the culture goes into survival mode by consuming available nutrients, it will give off by-products such as carbon dioxide, which will eventually give the starter the strength to raise or leaven a loaf of bread. Wild yeast and Lactic Acid Bacteria (largely responsible for the unique sourness of sourdough bread) also give off toxins and poisons that are not hospitable to other microbes, ensuring their environment is maintained and advantageous for their own survival. In other words, they keep a clean house.
Basically, starter is the heart of the process and the most important ingredient. If we break it down, it is just water and flour that’s been transformed into its best, most powerful self. It will take between
5 – 10 days to get it strong enough to raise a loaf of bread, but after that, it will be ready when you need it with some simple maintenance.
SOURDOUGH STARTER FROM SCRATCH
liquid measuring cup
dry measuring cup
clean jar (I use a 24oz mason jar, but any medium size jar will do)
*A note about measuring dry ingredients. If you find that you enjoy this process and want to continue your sourdough bread journey for many moons to come, I highly recommend ditching the dry measuring cups and investing in a digital scale. Scaling your ingredients will ensure consistency in feeding your starter and baking your bread, and will give you an advantage in playing with hydration percentages later on (no need to worry about that right now, though).
The scale I use is by Escali and runs about $20 – $30. It weighs in grams, ounces & pounds, and has a capacity up to 11 pounds.
- Bread Flour – 2 tablespoons + 2 teaspoons (25 grams)
- Whole Wheat Flour – 2 tablespoons + 2 teaspoons (25 grams)
- *Water – 1/3 cup + 5 teaspoons (100 grams)
*A note about water, some recipes recommend filtered or bottled water, however, I used water from the tap and things turned out just fine. If your tap water is high in chlorine and/or not suitable for drinking, then use filtered or bottled water.
Day One: In a clean, medium size jar, stir together flour and water. It will be the consistency of pancake batter. Cover with a clean kitchen towel and sit it in a slightly warm, draft-free area of your kitchen.
Day 2: Check on your starter. If liquid has begun to form on the top or bottom, stir it back into the mixture. Cover with the same towel.
Day 3: Check on your starter. Again, if the liquid has begun to form on the top or bottom, stir it back into the mixture. If tiny bubbles have started to form, it is time for its first feeding. If there are no bubbles yet, be patient and give it another day.
- New Starter – *scant 1/3 cup (80 grams) discard the rest
- Water – 1/3 cup (80 grams)
- Bread Flour – 4 tablespoons (40 grams)
- Whole Wheat Flour – 4 tablespoons (40 grams)
Stir everything together until the flour is fully incorporated and there is no appearance of dry flour when you lift the jar up and look at it from the bottom.
*scant means “just under”
At this stage, there might be some activity, but when you smell the starter you may not detect any recognizable sour/tangy notes. It is not quite ready to leaven a loaf of bread, but it is well on its way. The next few feedings will train it to respond to feedings in a predictable manner and make it strong enough to bake with. Indicators that it’s ready include…doubling or tripling in size, LOTS of bubbles (some tiny, some larger) and activity (when you look at it from the top, you might even see it “percolating”, so to speak), and the distinct smell of sour and/or nutty notes.
Day 4 (AM): If your starter was not starting to bubble on Day 3 there is a good chance that you’ll see some tiny bubbles today. If that is the case, it is ready for a feeding. Follow the feeding instructions outlined in Day 3.
If you fed your starter on Day 3, guess what? It’s time for another feeding! You may notice some growth, but we want to ensure its good and strong before we use it to bake. Feed it again using the instructions outlined on Day 3. In fact, we’re now going to move to 2 feedings a day.
Day 4 (PM): A couple of hours before bedtime, feed your starter again, using the same Feeding Instructions outlined in Day 3. We’re getting close!
Day 5 (AM): If your starter is still not showing signs of activity (tiny bubbles), I recommend feeding it using the Feeding Instructions outlined on Day 3 to see if you can kickstart a reaction. If that does not work, it’s time to start over. I know. Sad day, but it happens and it can be due to a myriad of reasons, many outside of our control.
If your starter is active and bubbling (yahoo!), continue with the Feeding Instructions outlined on Day 3.
Day 5 (PM): You guessed it! It’s time for another feeding!
Day 6 & 7 (AM & PM): Continue with twice-a-day feedings. It may seem like a bit much, but remember, this is the growth stage and after we complete this period of development, we can store the starter in the fridge and knock it back to once-a-week feedings.
Note: Every time you check on your starter, be sure to note its appearance, growth, and smell. It will become more and more vibrant and alive each time you feed and check on it.
Day 8: Today’s the day! We can do one of two things…we can build a super levain and bake with it or we can feed it one more time and put it in the fridge. We have built a sturdy starter and trained it to respond predictably to feedings, therefore, it is now strong enough to survive the cool environment of the refrigerator. This puts the starter into a temporary dormant state, where it can survive longer without as many feedings.
Feed it weekly, in the same manner, you have been. When you’re ready to bake, pull it out, feed it again, sit it on the counter in a warm environment to wake it up. It will take between 4-6 hours to triple in size. At that point, it is active and you can use it in your favorite sourdough recipes. Perform the FLOAT TEST if you’re not quite sure. Drop a small spoonful into a bowl of water, if it floats, you’re good to go. Always remember to feed a portion of it and put it back in the fridge for later.
Below you’ll find a somewhat haphazard photo gallery regarding the growth of the last starter I made. It might be a useful reference while you grow your own. Remember that you may have different results than you see here. Your timeline might be off a day or so, also. Just use these pics for general reference and be patient. The starter is the most important ingredient when it comes to baking sourdough, but the next important ingredient is time.
If you’re interested in my standard Sourdough Country Loaf Recipe, I will be adding it soon!