UPDATED 9/2013: I was unsure of what I was doing when I wrote this, and it’s updated with more confidence!
Is there really anything better than sourdough? I consider myself a lover of all varieties of baked goods, but the simple word “sourdough” causes me to salivate more than most others.
This is the first part in a series! To read more about taking your sourdough dreams from idea to reality, be sure to check out parts 2 and 3.
It’s partially the nice crust and chewy crumb, but that funky scent you breathe in leaves such a pleasant aroma and flavor. I’m also an enormous jerk when it comes to sourdough. Far too often have I splurged on a nice loaf only to find no funk at all. Just like in my Jazz History class in college, I only like it when it’s funky.
But, splurging on loaves isn’t something I really like to do. Don’t get me wrong — I want the bread. However, I’d much rather learn to craft these delicious, carby, glutenous loaves myself.
As you might have noticed on my 2013 Foodie Bucket List, I’ve included a plethora of interesting baking projects. The one that excited me the most was sourdough, and I decided that it was worth trying it out. The worst case scenario: I had something weird, moldly thing that I needed to dump. Perhaps I would lose some time and money. Perhaps I would gain some delicious sourdough that made me weep with joy.
Whenever weeping with joy is an option, I’m willing to throw caution to the wind and take a risk.
First things first: sourdough isn’t for the feint of heart. It’s not an impossible feat by any means, but it does feel like a roller coaster ride at the beginning.
Here’s exactly how I started my sourdough.
NOTE: This might not work for you. Sourdough is forgiving, but finicky. Sometimes it doesn’t like you water or flour or air (how desperate does something have to be if it doesn’t even like your air???). I apologize if there are any problems or wasted resources on your behalf, but that’s a risk inherent to all baking endeavors.
Simple Sourdough Starter Recipe
2 cups A-P flour
2 cups warm water (around 110 degrees F)
1 tbs sugar or honey
1 tbs active dry yeast
In a glass bowl or jar, mix the warm water with sugar or honey. Once combined, stir in the active dry yeast and let it foam for about 10 minutes.
Then, whisk in the flour until completely combined. Cover loosely with plastic wrap or a clean kitchen towel, and place somewhere warm in your kitchen.
Okay, I have a starter. Now what?
This next process was the most emotionally tormenting for me. I never really knew if the starter was okay, but I maintain that bubbles = good and that’s all I care about.
I’ve read quite a few starter recipes. This is where many people offer different suggestions. Some said to leave the starter out for 2-5 days, stir often, and let it do its thing. Others said that was a terrible idea, and that you needed to continue feeding the beast regularly.
Personally, I opted for a 30-day starter inception phase. That’s fancy lingo for letting something grow on my counter for an entire month. I would do this again since it gave me an AMAZING starter!
Here’s what I did:
Day 1: Make the starter.
Day 2: Stir thoroughly at least twice daily. I also fed the starter with a shake of flour and pour of water. Measure your quantities instead, and you’ll get a happier starter. Add 1/4 water and 1/4 flour twice a day.
Day 3: I started dumping half of the sourdough starter out at a time, and then mixing in a thicker amount of flour and water. This is when I started following a 50% hydration system, which means I add half as much water as flour per weight/volume. Learn more about hydration percentages here.
I don’t have a food scale, so I do everything through volume. Add 1 cup of flour and 1/2 cup of warm water at least once a day, ideally twice.
Day 4: Same. This is the first time the starter began to double in size after feeding.
Day 5: Continue feeding the same proportions at least twice a day for at least 2 weeks.
From now on: You can continue to follow this cycle for anywhere from another day or so to a month. Different sources suggest different things.
If you have time and energy, continue leaving it out for another 3 weeks or so to develop an even stronger flavor.
If you don’t, that’s okay. You can start to store your starter in the fridge. Feed it once a week after removing 1 cup of starter. This cup can be used to bake, so be sure to do so! That’s why you have this stuff anyway, right?
I’m leaving mine out for the next few weeks because 1) I want funk, and 2) I don’t trust the fridge not to destroy my hard work.
“Once your starter doubles in size within 12 hours of feeding 3 times in a row, your starter is ready to bake with!”
Where to store:
Everyone has a different idea of where to store their sourdough starter. Some put it in the fridge right away while others swear by the tops of their fridges where it’s nice and warm.
Personally, I kept mine on the counter. The kitchen wasn’t especially warm on the day I started this little dude, but it wasn’t cold either. If you cook or bake often, keep it near the stove. Sourdough likes to be about 85 degrees F, so anywhere that can bring that is good. This also includes the counter above the dishwasher.
Don’t take your sourdough for granite: We have granite counter tops. Despite their beauty, they’re terrible at keeping heat. My Dad suggested adding another towel or cloth underneath the jar so as to keep some of the natural heat in the jar. You might want to consider that if you have cold slabs of rock in your kitchen, too!
A note on hooch:
In my excessive researching, I’ve learned quite a bit about weird stuff. The word “hooch” to me always evokes moonshiners, so I was surprised to see it crop up so frequently regarding sourdough. Apparently, it’s a somewhat boozy liquid that develops during the process that consists of dead yeast. Many people said to ditch the stuff or else your sourdough could become too sour in a bad way. Others said to stir it in at least for the first few days as it helps develop a stronger flavor sooner (and could potentially stave off nasty mold).
Personally, I first read that hooch was a good thing to see. It shows that things are working and moving around, and I stirred it in every time. I didn’t pour any off during the very first week, and have yet to do so since. I might change that around once the starter is older (note: I didn’t have any hooch after the first week).
A note on flours:
This is probably one of the biggest questions that I really had no problem with. For the initial starter, I used plain, unbleached all-purpose flour from the grocery store. I used Fleischman’s Yeast and warm water from the tap. Oh yeah, and plain Domino sugar. Nothing special.
I’ve used a wide variety of flours based on my income level at the time, ranging from:
- Whole wheat chapati flour from Costco
- Bob’s Red Mill organic unbleached white wheat flour (my favorite for baking)
- Bob’s Red Mill organic whole wheat flour
- and even plain ol’ Pillsbury unbleached all-purpose
Some people swear that you should start whole grain, then taper off into all-purpose to reduce microbes and funk (wholegrain flours have more natural funk than processed ones, of course).
Others say that you should start with a proportion of rye flour. I didn’t. Why? I don’t have rye flour, and I’m not an enormous rye bread fan (unless we’re talking Reubens), so I wasn’t about to buy any.
I’m perfectly content with my flour choice, but you can also stick with plain white flour and have no problems. Since sourdough isn’t an exact science, you could have problems even if you do everything absolutely right, so just use what you have or what you like to use.
What kind of bowl or container should I use?
This is another contentious topic in the sourdough world. Personally, I do not have glass bowls. I used to, but then I moved. Now I have plastic and metal. Would I let that stop me from making sourdough? Heck no! Some say that metal bowls prohibit yeast activity, but I had no problems with that whatsoever.
After 5 days, I decided to pay more attention to the shockingly large starter I’d created, so I dumped half and switched to a large quart-sized Mason jar. It is messier, but I do like being able to see exactly what’s going on inside and to use the measuring notches to gauge growth. Plus, I freakin’ love Mason jars.
If you have glass, go with that. If you don’t, go with what you have. I’d avoid plastic, but go for it with metal!
Really want to go pro? Try one of these beautiful crocks:
Can’t I just buy a sourdough starter from a fancy company?
Yes, of course! But, that defeats the purpose for me. I didn’t want to buy some beautiful, perfect starter that only took a day or two to get going. I wanted to transform simple ingredients from my simple pantry into something many people just don’t get to have anymore.
If you don’t want the fuss but do want the flavor, you might want to go that route.
Which yeast is best?
Oh, yeast. You weird, omnipresent thing you. As noted above, I used Fleischmann’s Active Dry Yeast because that’s what was in my cupboard. You could totally use Red Star Yeast, but I don’t have any (sad face). You could also allow your starter to take on natural, environmental yeast and not add any commercially produced dudes at all. This process is a little different, and since I didn’t follow that path, these are not necessarily the directions for those attempting this process.
If you really want to try something different and are open to waiting a month or two, go the snail mail route! For a mere $1, you can order the “Carl Griffith’s 1847 Oregon Trail” sourdough yeast from a place out of Maryland. Seriously. I think I might try this one just for the heck of it in the future.
Hey! Since I’m not an expert by any means, I want to provide you with a list of my favorite resources on sourdough starting.
- Starting a Starter, Mike’s Old Way – Sourdough Home (my favorite)
- How to Care for Your Sourdough Starter – Creating Naturally (different proportions than those I use)
- More Sourdough Lessons – Modern Alternative Mama
- Sourdough Companion – Sourdough.com
Don’t forget! I’ve written a second post about sourdough to teach you everything about starter maintenance!
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