The sourdough starter
Sourdough has a fascinating history, dating as far back as 4,000BC in Egypt.
The flour and water mix is called a starter.
When mixed with extra flour, water, and other ingredients such as raisins or spices you can then make bread, flapjacks, or simply wrap the dough around a stick and cook it over a campfire.
For American pioneers, cowboys, and Alaskan gold prospectors having a sourdough starter tucked in your wagon in a crock, or hanging in your tent in a tin, meant you had a meal.
Passed from family to family, generation to generation, sourdough starters have always been treasured and will even be given a name!
How a sourdough starter begins
The starter is a thick slurry of flour and water that has fermented.
And the only way that can happen is when good bacteria in the flour meet the airborne yeast microbes who are activated by the moisture.
We can’t see them but microscopic yeast floats in the air and is always landing on surfaces, even in our homes.
When this yeast settles on wet flour, the microbes have found a food source and begin to multiply.
In less than 48 hours your sourdough starter is fermenting and bubbling.
The bubbling is carbon dioxide and is the waste product of activity.
The flavours of sourdough bread vary, depending on the age of your starter and the type of yeast you have in the air and the flour you use.
San Francisco became famous for their sourdough because of the type of yeast found in that area.
And don’t be put off by the name!
Even though the term ‘sour’ is used, the smell is actually sweeter, more like fresh unbaked bread or yeast.
The equipment and ingredients
Thankfully, this is an easy project.
All you need is:
- a clean, clear 1.5-quart, wide-mouth glass jar with a lid
- a clean old piece of cloth to cover the mouth
- 2 rubber bands
- a set of scales or measuring cups
- your choice of flour: whole wheat, all-purpose, rye*, etc
*If you are a beginner, I recommending using less expensive and more readily available flours.
Therefore, this recipe uses whole wheat and all-purpose flours.
If your diet is gluten-free or you can not digest fibre, feel free to use a substitute that best suits you.
Just ran out of eggs?
This easy tip sheet helps you quickly find an ingredient substitute.
Notes on the equipment
The wide-mouth jar makes it easier to work with. It will give you enough space to remove some starter then add flour and water without creating dirty dishes.
The cloth allows yeast microbes to find the flour and water mixture, lets air circulate inside, and keeps foreign crumbs or insects out.
Rubber bands keep the cloth in place and are used to measure your starter’s growth.
Scales are preferable over measuring cups for accuracy but not absolutely necessary.
Notes on the ingredients
You can’t really go wrong with the flour you choose, and the biggest decision for you might be whether to go gluten-free or not.
The only ones you should avoid are; self-raising flour, cake or pastry flour, and gluten-free flour blends as they usually have other ingredients!
The best flour for beginners, if possible, is organic, strong white bread flour.
For a gluten-free sourdough, try buckwheat, white or brown rice, millet, teff, quinoa, sorghum, flour.
Highly recommended is an equal blend of quinoa and sorghum.
Some recipes call for filtered or bottled water.
Since getting a S’well stainless water bottle and Soda Stream, I’ve stopped buying bottled water.
I use city tap water, and if I remember to leave some out overnight for the chlorine to evaporate, that’s great, and if I forget, nothing bad has happened to the starter.
- 1/2 cup (60g) whole wheat flour
- 1/4 cup (60g) water
If you are using the volume and not scales, add a little more water, or until you have a thick paste.
Using a fork, combine both ingredients in a clean, clear wide-mouth jar.
Cover with an old, clean, tea towel and stand in a warm place on your kitchen counter.
Check your sourdough starter for activity.
Somewhere between 24 – 48 hours you’ll notice pockets of air bubbles here and there. Your yeast microbes are busy converting flour into a sourdough starter.
It’s time to stir your starter.
Stirring moves the carbon dioxide gases out and brings oxygen in.
Your yeast needs both the flour and oxygen to reproduce.
Tomorrow you’ll feed your starter.
Today you’ll feed your stater EVEN if you haven’t seen a single bubble.
The reason is, you might have missed them while the yeast worked overnight.
- Pour or scoop out approximately half the starter. This is called the discard. Keep that for a new recipe.
- Add 1/2 cup (60 g) all-purpose or whole wheat flour to the jar.
If using a measuring cup, make sure the flour is levelled for accuracy.
- Add 1/4 cup (60g) water to the jar.
If using scales, the 60 grams is an accurate measure.
If using a measuring cup, add a little more water as it’s not as accurate.
- Stir the flour and water with a fork until you have a batter-like or yogurt consistency.
- Cover the open jar with a clean cloth and rubber band to hold it in place.
- Add a second rubber band or piece of tape outside the jar, along the top edge of your starter.
The rubber band helps you measure the health of your starter and know when it’s ready to use.
Days 4, 5, & 6
Repeat the steps outlined in Day 3 and sooner or later your starter will double in size, sometimes within hours of being fed.
Days 4, 5, and 6 are for building up the strength and health of your starter.
These days are not set in stone and are meant as a guide.
IF your starter has tripled in size on Day 6, it’s ready to make a loaf of bread.
IF your starter triples in size on Day 11, only then is it ready.
Here’s the reason why: your starter needs to so healthy, that when you add it to a lot more flour and water, like making bread, there’s enough yeast and good bacteria to help the dough rise over the next few hours.
It’s important to also know each time you re-build a starter, it may not act the same
. . . even if you keep back some starter for the next batch.
The quickest turn-around time I ever had was 3 days, and I’ve also waited for almost 2 weeks.
The one way you know when your starter’s ready, is with the rubber band.
This is the typical day you might be able to make a loaf of sourdough bread.
If your bubbling brew has tripled in size and looks like foamy marshmallows when stirred, scoop off the amount you need for a recipe.
Pour your remaining starter into a clean, jar and feed it.
Don’t forget the rubber band.
If you haven’t got a happy, bubbling brew, don’t worry.
As long as nothing smells skanky, keep going on the same discard-feed schedule.
Good flour bacteria and air-borne yeast can take longer to connect than 7 days.
But, discarding sourdough starter seems so wasteful!
Most recipes using a sourdough starter, such as a loaf of bread, only need 1/4 to 1/2 cup of your bubbling brew.
This means there’s no need to make a massive amount of starter.
The reason you remove half of the flour is to reduce the carbon dioxide, a byproduct of cellular waste, and help your brew strong and healthy.
What happens if you don't discard your sourdough starter
If you don’t discard half the starter each time, you’ll soon end up needing a truckload of flour to feed it and a trailer to mix it in.
The other reason you’re keeping the sourdough starter small is to have gut-friendly yeast bacteria ready for when you make your next amazing pizza base or loaf of bread.
Along the way, you can make cookies, crackers, pancakes, and waffles with the discarded starter.
If your sourdough starter feels out of control
When you’re throwing out more starter than you’re using or you can’t face the idea of baking one more thing, here are some ideas that may help:
- Give your discard to a friend who would like to try this too.
- Pop your jar of starter in the fridge for a week or a month and catch your breath.
- Dehydrate your starter.
- Freeze your discard with labels.
- Add the discard to your compost giving a much-needed boost of bacteria-friendly nutrients.
- Mix discard with a little honey for your next skincare regime. You’ll get enough for a nourishing and rejuvenating face and hand mask.
- Or mix discard with 1 Tablespoon of coarse sugar for a nutritional exfoliation.
And at this price, don’t forget your neck, decolletage, hands, and feet.
There’s nothing worse than feeling bad about wasting ingredients and not using any of it.
And if you miss a few feeding days in a row, the worst that happens is, the bubbling slow down as the yeast microbes die off.
When you remember, add a little flour and water and gently coax your starter back to life.
How to dehydrate, rehydrate, then coax your sourdough starter back to life
Dehydrating your starter
- Line a sheet pan with parchment paper and pour then spread a thin layer.
- Let your starter air dry in a safe place -probably the oven (turned off)
- In 1-3 days, depending on your humidity, break the starter into small pieces and store in an airtight labelled container.
- Keeps for six months.
Rehydrating your starter
- Add 1 tablespoon of crushed, dried starter to 1/4 cup (30 g) flour and 2 tablespoons (30 g) water.
- Stir well, add a cover, then leave your starter out and at room temperature.
Coaxing your starter back to life
Next, it’s time to gradually re-introduce food to your starter.
The typical recipe amounts won’t work as there isn’t enough bacteria for the volume of flour.
Once the bacteria have multiplied to match their food source, you can get back to the regular recipe.
Here’s what you do:
8-12 hours later
Add 1/4 cup (30 g) flour and 1/4 cup (30g) water.
Mix well, cover, and leave.
Another 12 hours later
Add 1/2 cup (60 g) flour and 1/2 cup (60g) water.
Mix well and add a rubber band to the jar so you can measure your starter’s activity.
Now that the starter is active again, you are ready for your first discard!
How long do I have to use my sourdough discard?
I like to plan on using the discard that day and before it’s lost the air bubbles needed to keep the recipe light and airy.
What is the black water on the top?
This layer of black water on the top doesn’t always happen, but when it does, it’s called ‘hooch’.
Hooch is a natural, harmless form of alcohol made once starch converts to sugar.
It’s also a signal your starter is super-hungry.
Do NOT stir it back in!
Pour off as much liquid as possible and immediately feed your starter.
If your starter smells skanky or looks dark-brownish or even pinkish, you probably have a contaminated batch.
Toss it and start again.
The only food source your yeast is looking for is starch which is found in all grains.
This means you can also make a gluten-free sourdough starter!
- Measuring cups
- Open-mouth glass jar
- Clean cloth
- Rubber band or tape
- Scales (optional)
- Fork or spoon to stir
- 1/2 cup whole wheat flour 60 grams
- 1/4 cup water 60 grams
- Add whole wheat flour and water to a clean open-mouth jar.
- Add a little more water if not using the scale as 60 grams of water is a little more than 1/4 cup.
- Stir until you have a thick paste.
- Cover with a clean cloth and leave in a warm place for 24 hours.
- Stir to remove the carbon dioxide and add oxygen. Do not feed.
- Even if you see NO bubbles, remove and reserve half the starter for another recipe.
- Add another 1/2 c (60g) flour and 1/4c (60g) water and stir until blended. Your starter should look like a thick batter, not a paste. Add more water if needed.
- Cover with a clean cloth. Mark the top of the starter with a rubber band or tape and leave for 24 hours.
Days 4, 5, & 6
- Repeat the steps in Day 3 to encourage a healthy, active starter. Use the rubber band or tape to see how quickly your starter rises.
- Continue to feed and discard on a daily basis. If your starter triples in size after being fed on any of these days, it is ready to use.
- Your starter should be spongy and filled with large and small air bubbles - ready to make a loaf of bread. The smell should be sweet and yeasty. Scoop out the amount needed for a recipe.
- Transfer the remaining healthy starter to a clean jar and if you like, as per tradition, give it a name.
Your starter is alive, so it may mature earlier, or much later than the recipe indicates.
Use the days as a guide. Consider making your sourdough gluten-free with many other flours now available.
Typical bread making equipment
Bread lames like these are sharp-bladed tools used to slice the top of a proofed loaf before it is baked.
Bread bakers take pride in giving each loaf their signature slash which gives the bread that inviting, open crust look.
The blades slide back into their protective cover and make a great gift idea for the bread baker in your family.
You could use the tip of a sharp knife but that’s not as easy as it sounds.
Surprisingly, it’s actually quite hard to cut through the soft, resilient surface of a proofed loaf!
For the bread maker in your family, this knife is designed to give the perfect double lined cut look on top.
Chefs interested in this tool are looking for creative ways to get more loaf expansion without sacrificing moisture loss.
Just shows you, bread making is a craft!
Once you’ve sliced the loaf’s surface a little, it’s time to add that final home-craft touch.
Baked With Love and Home Baked are two stencil ideas you could use.
Before baking, lay the stencil on your loaf and sprinkle with a light dusting of flour.
Remove the stencil, admire your handiwork, and start baking.
More gift ideas
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Banneton bowls allow the dough to rise and take on the rounded loaf shape with ridges.
This all-in-one package includes a traditional Banneton resting bowl, and slicing tool.
A smaller decorative type of stencil gives your loaf a European look with classy elegance.