For some time now, I’ve been looking for good instructions on how to get a sourdough starter, started. The results have not been good.
Every set of instructions I’ve found (and found wanting) have presented it like it’s the easiest thing ever. And yet they all seem to leave out big, crucial details. You just do this, that and the other, and you’ve got a culture full of wild yeasts, just ready to make delicious breads, right? But when I followed those instructions, what I got was (at best) an inert, under-performing mass of dough that just would not make a loaf of bread rise. At worst, I got a stinky mass of vinegar slime.
The other problem I ran into was the assumption that I wanted to make sourdough as a sort of novelty; that I’d be using active dry yeast for everything else. Actually, I’d like to use it for everything. Cake. Pizza dough. You name it.
Then I found something better. Instructions I could believe in.
The lady who runs the above-linked-to blog doesn’t just use sourdough now and then. She makes bread, sure – but how about English muffins? How about doughnuts? The possibilities (and the pictures) blew my mind.
In any case, I followed her advice, and from it, adapted a simple sourdough starter recipe that actually works.
FIRST STEP: SOMETHING FROM NOTHING
Get your hands on an 8oz. canning jar with a lid. For best results, get yourself a kitchen scale, too. Cooking by weight is so much more accurate than cooking by volume, and when you’re working with the thousand variables that come with live, microscopic cultures, accuracy is a big plus.
Add 25g whole flour. Wheat, rye, whatever you prefer. Then add 25g lukewarm water. (If you don’t have a scale, use 3/8 c. flour and 1/4 c. water instead.) Mix well.
Slide a rubber band onto the outside of the jar, setting it level to the top of the mixture.
Screw the lid on loosely. Leave the jar on the counter. Go about your life.
SECOND STEP: BLOWING BUBBLES
A day or two later (depending on the climate of your kitchen), you’ll notice some bubbles beginning to form in the dough, which you can see best from the side of the jar, through the glass. This is your cue to add another 25g flour, 25g water. Cover it, leave it out, and walk away.
THIRD STEP: GET INTO THE ROUTINE
12 hours later, you begin what will become an ongoing morning/ evening routine: remove 50g of dough; then add back a fresh 25g flour and 25g water.
Why do you remove 50g? Because in order to create a thriving, lively culture of good bacteria in your dough, you need to double its mass at every feeding. If you didn’t remove half of it each time, you’d end up increasing the amount exponentially twice a day. 50g would become 100g, then 200, then 400… 800… 1600… and that, after only three days!
But what to do with the discarded dough? For now, just discard it. Don’t worry about waste: later on, when your culture’s really thriving, you’ll be able to put that excess to good use.
FOURTH STEP: IT’S ALIVE!
Here’s the great part. After some days – maybe as many as two weeks – your starter will actually rise to double between each feeding.
Remember that rubber band, marking the original level of the dough? Whenever you return to give your starter another feeding, you’ll notice the level is actually twice what it was. That’s the sign it’s really hit its stride.
From this point on, you don’t need to throw out the dough you remove at each feeding. Rather, set it aside in its own jar, and put that jar in the fridge. Each morning and evening, add the dough you’re discarding to that jar. The cool environment will make it go dormant until you want it for baking.
When that moment comes, simply bring it out, feed it (doubling whatever its weight is, of course), and leave it out for 12 hours. In the morning it should have come back to life, doubling its volume, demonstrating that its cultures are happy and ready to get to work.
Sourdough is a complex and wonderful food, and there’s a lot more we could say about it.
For instance, maybe you’ve heard a sourdough starter shouldn’t be covered, yet here we are recommending you use a lid. Or you’ve heard your starter is supposed to live in the refrigerator, whereas we’re saying leave it out on the counter. Then there are the many health benefits and nutritional aspects of baking with sourdough!
For the sake of simplicity, we’re not going into the whole science and theory behind sourdough in this humble blog post. Perhaps we’ll get into all that later, do some sourdough follow-up down the road.
For now, suffice it to say that if you follow the steps above, you will achieve a healthy, happy sourdough starter. One that’s multi-purpose and dynamically yeasty. One that will actually do its job in your oven.
Now, as for how and what to bake… that’s a topic we will definitely be coming back to.