making your own sourdough starter

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About seven months ago, I finally cultivated my own sourdough starter. While this might sound either impressive or difficult, it’s really neither, and if you love to bake bread you really should try it. Why? Because using a sourdough starter in baking bread is the single best way to add complexity and depth to its flavor. The amount of sourdough starter you use in making bread determines how subtly sour or strongly tangy it tastes. In addition, the sourdough starter pre-digests the wheat flour(1), making the vitamins and minerals it contains more available for nourishment, and the bread easier to digest when you eat it. The starter also gives the bread a longer shelf life. 

The following formula, taken from The Fundamental Techniques of Classic Bread Baking by The French Culinary Institute, and very slightly modified, is the one that finally brought me success (it was my third attempt overall, after two failed attempts with a different formula). This formula is nearly a two-week process; by the eleventh day, if all goes well, you’ll have a strong, reliable starter that you can use to leaven your bread. In fact, in a couple of weeks I’ll be posting a recipe for a sourdough pizza crust, timed to coincide with your brand new starter. If you start your culture this weekend, you’ll be able to make that pizza crust. Once you taste the difference, you may never want to go back to using commercial yeast again.

I’ve listed a few pointers to remember as you patiently wait for those wild yeast and bacteria to develop into a balanced, fragrant community. First, purchase high-quality commercially-milled flours, preferably from a bag and not an open bin. Avoid using flour from whole grain that you’ve milled at home to cultivate a starter; over time it takes on an unpleasantly tainted odor. It’s important to use bottled spring water, not distilled water, which is too clean, and not tap, which may have chlorine. Make sure all the ingredients you use are at room temperature. Use a digital scale when measuring the ingredients; it makes the process more foolproof because the amounts are more accurate. Try to feed the culture around the same time every day. I like to keep the jar swaddled in a kitchen towel to keep the temperature stable. Until the culture begins to develop obvious foamy bubbles and a regular cycle of rising and falling, help it by stirring it, up to three times per day, as it sits in the jar. This introduces more oxygen into the culture, helping the yeast to grow and also preventing mold from forming on the surface.

When I finally successfully developed a sourdough starter, I felt like I’d moved to a new level in baking bread. But the amazing improvement in taste in the bread I bake is really what makes the extra effort worth it to me. Though it might be a new process to you, it’s really a very old and time-proven method; it’s the transformation of flour and water into something that then changes the bread we eat in a very good way. It might change the way you bake, too.


Sourdough Starter

(adapted from The Fundamental Techniques of Classic Bread Baking by The French Culinary Institute)

1/2 pound/227 grams of whole rye flour
5 pounds/2.27 kilograms whole white wheat or whole red wheat flour
5 pounds/2.27 kilograms unbleached bread flour
1 gallon/3.785 liters bottled spring water (avoid distilled or tap water)
a one-quart mason jar with lid
a wooden spoon
a spatula
a medium container, about the size of a quart, for mixing
a large container with an air-tight lid, for storing the 50/50 flour mix
a digital scale with a zero/tare function

day 1: whole rye flour and spring water culture

Day 1, morning: Place the medium container on the digital scale. Zero or tare the weight to adjust for the weight of the bowl. Add 100 grams/3-1/2 ounces whole rye flour, and 125 grams/4-1/2 ounces spring water to the container. Stir well with a wooden spoon until the flour is completely incorporated and no lumps remain. Pour the mixture into a quart-sized mason jar, using a spatula to scrape the residue into the jar.

kitchen towel wrapped around mason jar to keep culture temperature stable

Cover the jar with its inner lid, but don’t seal with the outer ring. Wrap with a kitchen towel, then set in an undisturbed corner of the kitchen where the temperature remains fairly stable. Stir at least once throughout the day and again in the evening before you go to bed.

day 2, morning: previous rye culture, newly refreshed with whole rye flour and spring water

Day 2, morning: Place the medium container on the digital scale. Zero or tare the weight to adjust for the weight of the bowl. Stir the culture in the mason jar. Pour 115 grams/4 ounces of the culture into the container, discard the rest, rinse and dry the mason jar. Measure 100 grams/3-1/2 ounces of whole rye flour and 125 grams/4-1/2 ounces spring water into the container with the culture, stir well. Pour the mixture into the clean mason jar, using a spatula to scrape the residue into the jar. Cover with inner lid and wrap with the towel; place back in an undisturbed area of kitchen. Stir at least once throughout the day and again in the evening before you go to bed.

day 2, afternoon: whole rye flour and spring water culture, fermenting

Around the 2nd day, the culture will begin to actively ferment and rise, topping the jar, and then it will subside and fall. It will also start to smell like very ripe fruit. If a layer of liquid separates from the mixture and floats on top, simply stir it back into the mixture. The liquid is a by-product of the fermentation process. In the meantime, to prepare for Day 3, in a very large bowl, mix together the 5 pounds of whole wheat flour with the 5 pounds of unbleached bread flour. Store in an air-tight container that can hold ten pounds of flour; alternatively, if you don’t have a very large container, mix smaller equal amounts of the whole wheat flour and unbleached bread flour, and store in an air-tight container. This mixture will be the 50/50 wheat flour that you use to feed your culture while it is developing, and also to maintain the starter on a regular basis.

day 3, morning: previous rye culture, newly refreshed with 50/50 wheat flour and spring water

Day 3, morning: Place the medium container on the digital scale. Zero or tare the weight to adjust for the weight of the bowl. Stir the culture in the mason jar. Look for some signs of life in the culture, such as small, active bubbles; if you don’t see any activity at all, even after the occasional stirring, and especially if you notice a pinkish color or mold in the culture, you’ll need to start over. At this point, the culture will smell stronger, with an odor very much like overripe fruit. Pour 115 grams/4 ounces of the culture into the container, discard the rest, rinse and dry the mason jar. Measure 100 grams/3-1/2 ounces of the 50/50 wheat flour mix and 125 grams/4-1/2 ounces spring water into the container with the culture, stir well. Pour the mixture into the clean mason jar, using a spatula to scrape the residue into the jar. Cover with inner lid and wrap with the towel; place back in an undisturbed area of kitchen. Stir at least once throughout the day and again in the evening before you go to bed.

day 5, mid-day: three hours after feeding, volume has almost doubled

Day 4 through Day 11, each morning: Place the medium container on the digital scale. Zero or tare the weight to adjust for the weight of the bowl. Stir the culture in the mason jar. Pour 115 grams/4 ounces of the culture into the container, discard the rest, rinse and dry the mason jar. Measure 100 grams/3-1/2 ounces of the 50/50 wheat flour mix and 125 grams/4-1/2 ounces spring water into the container with the culture, stir well. Pour the mixture into the clean mason jar, using a spatula to scrape the residue into the jar. Cover with inner lid and wrap with the towel; place back in an undisturbed area of kitchen. Eventually the culture should begin to follow a regular pattern of rising as it bubbles and foams for several hours after the morning feeding, and then falling again for several hours after it reaches its peak. This is a normal process as the yeast feed on the fresh flour and water. Ideally the culture should at least be doubling in volume by Day 11. The culture should also have a somewhat sweet, yeasty smell that becomes sweeter just after feeding and stronger after several hours. Stir the culture well each evening before you go to bed.

On Day 11, your culture should be ready to use. This is now your sourdough starter. Here is the basic formula for maintaining an established sourdough starter (kept at 125% hydration):

115 grams/4 ounces previous culture
100 grams/3-1/2 ounces 50/50 wheat flour mix
125 grams/4-1/2 ounces spring water

If you want to keep a smaller amount of sourdough starter, you can halve the above formula, which would be roughly:

58 grams/2 ounces previous culture
50 grams/1-3/4 ounces 50/50 wheat flour mix
62 grams/2-1/4 ounces spring water

If you want to make a larger amount of this sourdough starter, the ratio to use is 20% culture, 100% flour, and 125% water.

If you are baking often, such as every other day, you can keep the starter at room temperature. If you do this, you’ll need to feed the starter every 12 hours (twice daily) on a regular basis, in order for it to keep its strength. If you bake only once a week or so, you can refrigerate the starter, feeding it once a week. To do this, remove the starter from the refrigerator. There will usually be a layer of liquid on top that has separated from the starter; this is the alcohol by-product from the fermentation process. You can either carefully pour this liquid off or stir it back into the starter. Repeat the same process you used while you were developing the starter, using a digital scale to measure each ingredient, measuring the correct amount of previous culture, flour and water into a separate container and mixing well, rinsing and drying the mason jar, and pouring the mixture back into the clean mason jar, covering with the inner lid. Let the starter ferment fully for several hours until it reaches its peak. Once the starter begins to fall, seal the inner lid with the outer ring and put the starter back in the refrigerator. When you need to use the refrigerated starter for baking, remove it from the refrigerator the day before you intend to bake, keeping it at room temperature, and feed it twice (every 12 hours), before you use it in baking. I maintain a smaller starter in a pint-size mason jar, which is half the size of the original culture, to keep from wasting too much flour and water, as this suits my baking needs better.

(1)Sandor Ellix Katz, “Sourdough: Starting One and Maintaining It,” p. 231-238, The Art of Fermentation, Chelsea Green Publishing, 2012

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