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 on 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 muffins, sourdough gumbo, sourdough creole, sourdough stew. Ok, maybe not the last couple, but definitely the first few.
What is it and how does it work?
So let’s talk about the science behind the starter (Time to put my biology minor to use!). Sourdough is a natural leaven, meaning 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.
The yeast and bacteria will flourish if you create a friendly environment by providing flour and water. Eventually however, they will consume all the sugars in the flour and turn to fermentation. To stop this from happening, you ‘refresh’ you starter by providing fresh water and flour.
Refreshing and using your starter
I take care of mine in the following way. Every Sunday I discard all but a few tablespoons of my starter and add 200 grams of AP flour and 200 grams of water. I cover it loosely with plastic wrap and place in the refrigerator. The cool temperature slows the yeast growth rate; otherwise you would have to feed it twice daily. If you neglect if for a week (*shifty eyes* not that I haven’t), it will usually be fine for up to a few weeks without being fed. You may find it topped with a green film, which 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.
If I am baking sourdough, the night (or about 8 hours) before I take a tablespoon or two from my starter and add equal parts flour and water. How much depends on the bread I’m making. If I want to make a loaf that requires 100 grams of starter, I might add 75 grams of both flour and water. This gives me 150 grams total, providing a little buffer just in case.
The two pictures below show the difference between an unfed (straight from the refrigerator) and an active and ready to use starter, 12 hours after it was refreshed.
Starting a starter
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. Check out this great detailed post on The Fresh Loaf for a specific timeline on creating your own starter.
You can also use another existing starter, by simply following the same steps you would to feed your starter; take a few tablespoons and mix with equal parts flour and water. This is how I got my current one, aged 3, going. My fiancée’s parents were kind enough to send me some of theirs. 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.