Anyone who’s ever baked a successful loaf of bread at home has experienced pure awe. Yeast is a magical organism, facilitating the transformation of flour, salt, and water from a sticky blob into a light, crusty food. While perfection in home bread-baking can be elusive, the quest is compelling, and I’m here to encourage you to go for it—and particularly, to give sourdough a try. If bread-baking is magical on its own, then sourdough represents an even deeper level of mystique. When you have a healthy starter culture, you can create a loaf of bread with no commercial yeast at all.
Sourdough bread gets its tangy flavor from lactic acid, which bacteria create during their fermentative dance with wild yeast. This is probably the way bread was baked at the very beginning, at the turning point from flatbreads to airy loaves. Long before humans knew how to commercially cultivate yeast, they likely discovered by accident that aging dough under certain conditions creates natural leavening.
You might have heard the rumor that the sourdough bacteria found in San Francisco are different than those found anywhere else in the world. In fact, the strain of bacteria that was originally thought to be present only in San Francisco sourdough, Lactobacillus sanfranciscensis, has been observed in sourdough the world round. However, it is true that a sourdough culture developed over time will give rise to a unique balance of yeast and bacteria strains. This, along with other factors such as your water source, will affect the flavor of your final product. If you’re not in San Francisco, it’s true that your bread won’t be identical to San Francisco sourdough, but not because you’re lacking a specific bacterium. And that uniqueness is part of the beauty, right? It’s a truly local loaf! For excellent professionally baked sourdough in our area, make sure you check out Madison Sourdough, where they’ve maintained their starter for 21 years. Owner Andrew Hutchison describes their breads as “...a reflection and expression of southern Wisconsin, utilizing local micro-organisms to leaven locally grown grain with unique flavors and textures.”
How to start a successful culture
Advice and legends abound for how to start a successful culture at home. Some say you should include fruit juice or grape skins in your starter; some suggest you use rye or whole wheat flour. You can try these, but ultimately, all you really need to begin a culture are regular white all-purpose flour and water. If you are intimidated by beginning a starter from scratch, see if you can get one from someone else. If you don’t have a local source, you can send for a totally free starter from carlsfriends.net/source.html.
If you have a starter that you procured locally or from afar, follow the instructions that came with your starter. Otherwise, get ready to create one! Plan to do this at least a week ahead of your baking day. It’s possible your starter will be ready for use in less than a week, but depending on environmental conditions and other variables that affect the culture of bacteria and yeast in your starter, it’s safest to assume it’ll be a week until you’re able to get a good loaf out of your new starter.
- Combine equal parts (by weight) all-purpose flour and water in a large, clean glass or plastic container. 4 ounces by weight of each is a good starting point. If you don’t have a kitchen scale, you can measure by volume; 3/4 cups + 2 tablespoons flour and 1/2 cup water is roughly equivalent. Filtered, unchlorinated water is best, but tap water sometimes works just fine. If you use tap water and your starter never starts, try unchlorinated water to see if that’s your problem.
- Stir to combine. It’s okay if it’s slightly lumpy; you just don’t want any areas of dry flour. Scrape down the sides of the container as best you can with a spoon or rubber spatula.
- Cover your container loosely with plastic wrap, or the container’s lid, ajar, and let sit for 24 hours at room temperature. Warm room temperature (70-80ºF) will help get your starter going sooner, but a cooler room temperature will still work; it just might take a few more days before you start to see activity. Too warm, and you could run into problems with mold.
- Watch for the bubbles of fermentation, and name this new addition to your household! Well, that latter part is optional, but it might help you feel attached to your creation. Hank, Boinga, Bubbles, Bread Pitt, Levain-na White, Rye Smiley, Mr. Sow R. Doe… your imagination is the only limit, and starters seem to attract cute puns, or at least bakers with an affinity for cute puns.
- Whether or not you’ve seen any bubbles yet, after 24 hours, open up your jar, and discard 4 ounces of your starter. Add another 4 ounces (by weight) of flour and 4 ounces (by weight) of water, and stir to combine. Discarding half the starter helps make sure that it doesn’t take over your kitchen a la Little Shop of Horrors. Don’t worry, the cultures that are beginning to take hold in your starter, even after discarding half, are plenty strong toactivate your new flour and water.
- Repeat step 5 every 24 hours until your starter is ready, about 5-7 days since beginning. Don’t worry if it smells a little strange at first; different microbes take hold at different stages of development, and it’s normal for your culture to smell kind of funky in the few days before it starts to smell pleasant. To know when it’s actually ready for use, appearance is the best way to gauge: you’re looking for the starter to double in volume between feedings. Some sources say that you need to feed your starter twice daily to achieve that result; if your starter hasn’t doubled in volume and it’s been a week, try switching to feeding approximately every 12 hours and see if that does the trick. (Note: If you see a small amount of mold at any point, extract some of the mold-free starter from underneath and transport it to a new, clean jar. As long as none of the mold gets into the new jar, you can feed the uncontaminated starter and likely salvage it.)
Remember that your sourdough starter is alive! Taking care of it is a bit like taking care of a plant or a pet; there is no single step-by-step instruction list that can account for all possible conditions affecting its health. Every culture will develop differently; you may need to troubleshoot when unexpected changes occur. I recommend checking out the forums at www.thefreshloaf.com for a community of bakers offering questions and advice about bread.
It’s time to bake
Once you’ve got a vigorous starter going, it’s time to bake! When planning your time, bear in mind that you’ll need to consult your recipe and then build up your starter before beginning (adding extra flour and water sufficiently far ahead of time for it to ferment before adding it to the final dough), and you might also need to adjust the stiffness of your starter by changing the ratio of flour-to-water that you add in the final feedings. If you build up your starter in the original container, make sure you build it to a little bit larger than you actually need for your recipe, so you’ll have enough left over to feed again and keep it going!
When it comes to recipes, you’ll find countless resources for bread. The Bread Baker’s Apprentice by Peter Reinhart is a favorite book of mine that makes great use of starters. Also check out Bread by Jeffrey Hamelman. The internet, too, is full of recipes. Try www.kingarthurflour.com/recipes/bread/sourdough, www.culturesforhealth.com/sourdough-recipes, and sourdoughhome.com/index.php?content=recipes. These websites include recipes for more than just bread—check out the possibilities for biscuits, bagels, English muffins, pizza crusts—and one of my favorites, sourdough pancakes, at whatscookingamerica.net/Bread/SourdoughPancakes.htm.
Once your starter is healthy and vigorous, you should keep feeding it daily even if you’re not baking with it regularly; or, alternately, you can let it hibernate in the refrigerator for up to a couple of weeks at a time. Take it out a few days before you want to use it, let it come to room temperature, and feed it once or twice before you use it. If you see a layer of liquid on top, that’s normal; you can pour it off or stir it in.
If you’re at a point in life where you don’t have the time to maintain a sourdough starter, there are many recipes out there for baking with overnight preferments, started with commercial yeast. While they won’t offer as complex a flavor as a sourdough, they will have a more developed flavor than breads started the same day, without much extra time or preparation needed. You can make a biga, poolish, orsponge with commercial yeast that sits overnight and is ready to bake with in the morning. Check out this recipe for ciabatta rolls made with a biga: www.thekitchn.com/how-to-make-hom-159913.
Now, go forth and explore, adventuresome bakers! And make sure you take to heart this advice from Madison Sourdough’s Andrew Hutchison: “The twomost important things to remember are: don’t be afraid to fail, and develop a relationship with your starter. You give to it and it gives to you.”
(Adapted from whatscookingamerica.net/Bread/SourdoughPancakes.htm.)
If you’re eager to make something from your new culture before it’s vigorous enough to leaven bread, I recommend the following sourdough pancake recipe. It’s also a great way to quickly use up starter if you’ve got more of it than you need and can’t bear to throw it out. I’ve doubled the original recipe while keeping the same number of servings, because I always seem to eat more pancakes than a recipe thinks I will. But if you end up with extra batter, you can always cook it off and then freeze pancakes in baggies to reheat later!
Prep time: 5 min
Cook time: 5 min
4 cups sourdough starter, room temperature*
4 Tbs. granulated sugar
1/2 cup olive oil
1 tsp. salt
2 tsp. baking soda
2 Tbs. warm water
*The night before using your sourdough starter, remove from refrigerator and let come to room temperature. Then feed the starter with flour and water. Let this sit eight hours or overnight. It is now ready to use in your sourdough pancakes!
Directions: In a large bowl, add sourdough starter, sugar, eggs, olive oil, and salt; mix well; set aside. In a small bowl, dilute 2 teaspoons baking soda in 2 tablespoons of warm water; set aside until ready to bake your pancakes.
Important: Only add the baking soda/water mixture to the pancake batter just before you are ready to cook the pancakes. Make certain everything is ready to go, the griddle hot, so the sourdough can be cooked while the air is still working in the batter. This will produce light sourdough pancakes that melt in your mouth.
When ready to cook your sourdough pancakes, fold the baking soda/water mixture gently into the prepared pancake batter (do not beat). This will cause a gentle foaming and rising action in the batter. Let the mixture bubble and foam a minute or two before using.
Heat up a lightly greased griddle until fairly hot; then pour the sourdough pancake batter onto the griddle. For each pancake, pour 1/4 to 1/2 cup sourdough pancake batter onto hot griddle.
Cook the pancakes 1 to 2 minutes on each side or until golden brown and bubbly. Remove from heat and serve. Serve with your favorite toppings. Yields 4 servings.
Credit where credit is due for those: Hank (Katelyn Dinkgrave), Boinga (Leslie Seltzer), Bubbles (Kelly Flynn), Bread Pitt, Levain-na White, Rye Smiley (all Anita Swarnakar), Mr. Sow R. Doe (yours truly).