A Primer: On Sourdough Starters

Last week I made another delicious sourdough loaf that I’ll be posting about shortly.  However before that happens I wanted to clear the air about sourdough, starters, and the general confusion which seems to surround making this bread yourself.

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First off, this is way easier than people think.  The first year I made bread I felt completely overwhelmed by what was involved in making sourdough.  The biggest roadblock for me was the starter.  How did I make/get one?  What sort of care was involved?

I soon discovered that it was not nearly as difficult as expected and once you have starter in hand it is no more difficult to make than any other bread.  On top of all that, you can (and I do) use your sourdough starter to make a number of other delicious things like sourdough pancakes, sourdough waffles, sourdough pizza, sourdough cake, sourdough gumbo, sourdough creole, sourdough stew.  Ok, maybe not the last couple, but definitely the first three (or four?  I’ve never made a sourdough cake).

I’ll go into the actual science behind the starter in a bit, but first let’s talk about how you actually get one going.  The easiest way is to just take a bit (literally an ounce will do) of an existing one and feed it with flour and water.  My girlfriend’s parents were kind enough to send me some of theirs and if you have a friend who has one you don’t need much.  Depending on how protective they are of their flavors/recipes local bakeries may sell you some as well (Zingerman’s in Ann Arbor does not).  If you’re in Ann Arbor and want some I’ve got plenty to go around.

If you don’t know anyone with a starter it is very easy to order some online.  You should be aware though that as you refresh your starter over time it will develop a flavor unique to the environment.  So while you may get a few loaves out of one you buy from San Francisco or France, overtime they will taste exactly the same.  If you’re interested in purchasing some I’d suggest ordering what King Arthur offers.

So let’s talk about the science behind the starter (Time to put my biology minor to use!).  What makes sourdough different from most breads is that the yeast comes from the starter rather than being directly added.  Starters are created by introducing microorganisms into a hospitable environment and allowing them to grow.  If you do it right, eventually yeast and a lactic acid bacteria (lactobacillius) will dominate.  The specific strain of bacteria is often what gives a sourdough its unique taste.

Starter directly after being refreshed on Friday night

Starter directly after being refreshed on Friday night

12 hours later it is active and ready for baking!

12 hours later it is active and ready for baking!

The yeast and bacteria will flourish if you create a friendly environment by continually refreshing with more flour and water.  At the same time however you want to keep this growth in check, so every now and again you take some out and refresh (feeding your starter) with flour/water, cutting back on their numbers.  Here’s my starter directly after a feeding and 12 hours later.  Apologies for the odd tints in each one (my starter is neither maize nor blue although that would be cool), I am currently working with my iPhone camera which captures light in my kitchen very strangely.

The best example I’ve found for sourdough so far is with a lawn and weeds.  Making a starter is like planting weeds in your lawn.  You let them grow but every now and again mow the law to keep their growth in check.  You want steady growth but not a complete takeover.  You’ll notice if you leave your starter unfed for too long a green film develops on the top; that means the weeds are taking over and need to be mowed.  Also I think I just properly used a semicolon for the first time other than to show I can properly use a semicolon.

On the surface the simplest way to make your own starter is to mix flour and water and leave it uncovered, allowing bacteria to find its way in and start growing.  I promise you something will always start growing if you do this, it just might not be what you want.  For something more controlled, you can use flours like rye or wheat which are heavy in microorganisms and more reliable than what might be floating around on your windowsill. Creating a starter from scratch requires attentiveness and a lot of time (up to a week of feeding twice a day), so keep that in mind if you are looking to start one.  I’d recommend the always trusty Peter Reinhart if you want more specific directions.

When it comes to sourdough care, all you need to do is stir it down once a week, remove about half of it (which can be used to make delicious pancakes and waffles, don’t just throw it out!) and refresh with a 2:1 ratio of flour and water.  If you neglect your starter (*shifty eyes* not that I haven’t), it will usually be fine for up to a few weeks without being fed.  That green film mentioned above will disappear if you stir it down.  Don’t let it get too out of control, but if you miss a week it will be just fine when you get around to feeding it.

So with that in mind, be on the look out for a sourdough loaf post this weekend!

3 thoughts on “A Primer: On Sourdough Starters

  1. I’ve just got into making sourdough bread. It looked difficult but it fact turned out to be quite easy. Love the crusty, chewy nutty taste, my boys love it!

  2. Pingback: Sourdough So Simple A Spartan Could Make It | Bakers & Best

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