The basic sourdough starter recipe is something that anyone can make. All you need are flour, water, and patience. It is the magic of breadmaking out of thin air.
Many bakers, find the idea of making sourdough bread a little intimidating. In reality, it is a simple process to master and people around the world have been doing it for centuries. Yeast that we buy from the stores is a fairly new invention and creates only a fraction of the flavors and nutrients created by more diverse organizms found in sourdough starters.
What is sourdough starter?
Simply put the sourdough starter is a fermented dough brimming with wild yeast and bacteria (predominantly lactobacilli). You might see this referred to as levain as well. This is what makes the bread rise and gives sourdough its complex flavors. In other words the starter is the replacement of the dry yeast in bread recipes
There are a variety of ways to make a starter. All of them involves capturing wild yeast in a medium that allows them to grow and multiply. Fruit peels, juices, grains, flowers, berries all are excellent to make a starter. But this post is about the simplest starter of all – the one that requires only flour and water. It is a great way to start your sourdough journey.
Why sourdough starter?
Making one’s own starter is all about harnessing the wild yeast and making it work for you. Why would you do that when commercial yeast is available and does a good job, you ask? Well for one wild yeast makes bread more flavorful, and for another sourdough bread has more micronutrients making it nutritionally richer while being gentler on the digestive system. There have been studies showing that sourdough bread does not cause blood sugar to spike as its commercial yeast counterpart. But for me the biggest reason is its complex flavors.
Here are the things you need
- A non-reactive container (glass, ceramic or plastic) with lid or plastic wrap/cheese cloth
- Flour (unbleached)
- Water (pure, not chlorinated)
- Non reactive spoon/ladle (wood/plastic)
- Kitchen Scale (preferably) / measuring cups
Harnessing wild yeast is requires very little effort and some patience. The secret is to start with clean unprocessed ingredients. Presence of preservatives and contaminants make it difficult, if not impossible, for the yeast develop and thrive. As the process depends so heavily on the ingredients and environment it may take anywhere from 4 to 12 days for an active starter to develop. A lot of it depends on the environment. For example yeast prefers warm temperatures – in warmer summer weather it might just take 4 days for the starter to become active and bubbly. Whereas in winter it might take considerably longer.
As long as there are signs of activity and no mold, and no foul odor it will do fine. Just be patient.
Lets get started !
These are all the things that you need to make the starter – a container and clean stirrer or spoon, equal amount by weight of water and flour (more on this later). Both the spoon and jar have to be made of non-reactive material like glass, ceramic, wood or plastic. Another important thing is to have the utensils dry and clean.
Add the water and flour into the container and mix well. Here I have used 50gs each. Once mixed well scrape down the sides and bring all the mix together. You will get a mix that is slightly droopy, like a thick paste. Close the container lightly and set aside for 24 hours.
Here you might have noticed that I removed the rubber seal from the lid. This is done so that when the jar is closed there is a tiny crack for air circulation. Another option is covering the mouth of the jar with layers of cheesecloth or muslin. The important thing to remember is to allow for some air circulation.
Chances are that on day 2 the starter will not show any signs of activity. The mix might look a little runnier than when you mixed it the day before (top left picture above). Measure the same amount of flour and water as on day 1 and add to to the starter. Mix well, scrape the sides as before and set aside loosely covered for another 24 hours.
The picture shows how this starter looked on day 3 before feeding. At this point, the results will vary widely. For example you might notice a few bubbles and light odor or there might be no activity at all. Don’t worry if it is quiet, some starters take longer to become active.
Follow the same procedure as the day before. Add the measured amounts of water and flour to the starter. Mix well, scrape and set aside lightly covered for 24 hours.
This is how the starter looked before feeding on Day 4. In most cases, there will be noticeable signs of activity. At this point if the starter looks moldy or smells rotten (not acidic or a little off), throw it away and start over. Otherwise repeat the feeding process as in the previous days.
Remember wild yeast activity vary depending on the ambient temperature, and the quality of ingredients used. If there were bubbles in the starter before feeding, the starter might reach its peak activity stage soon. It will be a good idea to check on it about an hour so after feeding. At that time if there are vigorous signs of activity, refrigerate the starter to slow down the fermentation process.
Day 5 and beyond
At this point most probably the starter will be fully active. What that means is that there are a lot of bubbles in the starter and it has doubled in volume.
At the very least there should be a few bubbles. If there is no activity at all then there is something preventing the wild yeast from taking hold and it is time to start over.
If there are just a few bubbles then you may have to feed it a few more days until it gets to its full strength. In this case, reduce the quantity of water and flour used to feed, but keep the water to flour ratio the same. In other words if you were using 50 gms each of water and flour earlier use 25 gs of each. Do this for 2 to 3 more days, at the end of which start over with a fresh batch if the starter does not show any signs of activity.
Maintaining the starter
Now that the starter is active and ready to be played with how do you keep it alive? Many, if not most, sources recommend removing half the starter and replenishing the remainder with equal amounts of flour and water once or twice daily. If you are not baking sourdough bread every day this will be quite wasteful. To prevent this store the starter in the refrigerator. The starter will be perfectly happy to hang out in the fridge for about a week, sometimes longer. Even if the starter is not being used, it is important to feed it at least once every week. Regular feedings keep the starter refreshed and at its peak activity. Missed feedings could cause the starter to turn highly acidic eventually causing the yeast colonies to die.
For every feeding use the same ratio of water and flour as in the starter. You could remove half the starter and replenish it by the same total amount of flour and water mix. For example if the initial starter weighed 200g remove 100 g and replenish with 50gs each of water and flour. Or you could choose not to remove any and add 100gs each of flour and water to the starter as well. Just ensure that the container is large enough to hold the starter once it becomes fully active.
How often should I feed the starter
A starter at room temperature could double every few hours depending on the room temperature. To keep it healthy the starter has to be fed before it deflates completely, which might mean once or twice a day. Often this type of feeding will create way too much starter, so another option is to slow down yeast the activity. Keep the active starter in the fridge reduces the yeast activity making it necessary to feed it only once or twice a week. An ideal schedule is to take out the starter few hours before a planned bake feed and let it come back to full strength (doubled in bulk). From this mix measure out the starter needed for the bake and feed the remaining starter as usual. Once the fed starter becomes active again return it to the fridge to store until needed.
- Unbleached All-Purpose Flour preferably organic
- Pure Drinking Water – not chlorinated.
- Nonreactive Jar with lid, large enough to store the starter (1 qt or larger)
- Nonreactive spoon (wood, plastic, silicone)
- Kitchen scale (preferably) or measuring cups
Till day 5 each feeding consists of 50 g flour and 50g water or a rough equivalent of ½ C sifted and leveled flour and ¼ C water.
Measure the 50g each of water and flour. Add this to the jar and stir to combine. The mix should be a thick paste. Cover the jar (do not close airtight) and set aside undisturbed in a warm area temperature for 24 hours (Note).
There may not be any bubbles in the starter. Add the same amount of flour and water as in the first day and mix well. Cover the jar and set aside for 24 hours as in Day 1.
You might see a few bubbles in the starter and it might begin to smell a little sour. Repeat the process of adding flour and water as the previous day. Cover and set aside for another 24 hours.
Chances are there are bubbles in the starter and the starter has visibly bulked up. Follow the feeding process as the previous days and set aside for 24 hours.
In most cases, the starter will be full of bubbles and doubled in volume. It will have a noticeable smell with light sour tinge. If not do not worry reduce the amount of feeding by half and repeat the process for 2 to 3 days until the starter is filled with bubbles. At t his stage the starter is ready to use. Check the blog for feeding and maintaining instructions and start baking sourdough bread!
Room temperature usually refers to 68°F to 72°F and warm usually means around 75°F or slightly more (about 25 to 25 °C).
Lower temperatures will slow down the growth of the starter while warmer temperatures will speed up the process.
Recipes using the starter
Another popular starter is Herman starter. This is a sweet starter that is made with commercial yeast, milk , flour and sugar. This starter makes one of the most delicious milk breads – Herman milk bread.
Want to know more about maintenance , troubleshooting and tips on converting regular bread recipes to sourdough? Check out part 2 of this article.