Revisited: A Primer on Sourdough Starters
While I regrettably have not done much bread baking since we got Maple over one month ago, I know of many others who have. In the past few weeks I’ve met up with four people in Ann Arbor to share some of my sourdough starter. Each had been searching for a place in town to grab some starter (sometimes bakeries will share) and came across my almost four year old post on the science and care of a sourdough starter. Unsurprisingly I have learned a lot in the last four years and thought it was time to give that post a face-lift. Of course to anyone in the Ann Arbor area my offer still stands, feel free to send me an email if you’re interested in getting some of my sourdough starter.
Sometimes when talking about bread I get over excited and dive into too much detail without spending enough time on the foundation. Let’s start with the basics: a sourdough starter is a culture of flour and water that has yeast and bacteria (lactobacillius) living in it. These are what will give life to your loaf of bread; the yeast will help it rise and the bacteria will lend it flavor and help the yeast do its job. When formulating recipes your starter will take the place of commercial yeast (instant, active dry, or fresh).
Now because your sourdough starter is a living culture, it needs attention. You’ll hear bakers talking about when they feed or refresh their starter. This means providing fresh flour for the yeast and bacteria to feed on. The carbon dioxide that helps to raise your loaf is the byproduct of yeast feeding on sugars in the flour. If it’s been too long since they had fresh flour to eat then it is likely that they’ve exhausted their resources. So periodically (about once a week for me) you want to refresh your starter. This means discarding all but a few spoonfuls and stirring in equal parts flour and water. The discard doesn’t have to go to waste; you can make all sorts of great things with it including pancakes & waffles, muffins, biscuits, and more.
I keep my starter in the refrigerator. This slows down the yeast and bacteria activity and is what allows me to only feed it once per week. More active and professional bakers will keep theirs at room temperature which requires more frequent feedings.
OK, so you’re ready to make a loaf of bread. What do you do? You’ll take a portion of your starter, just a spoonful is enough, and essentially create a second one. This will be called your levain. As I said, it is basically just your starter but the levain is what will be added to your other dough ingredients. You want to keep your starter separate; keep it healthy and happy and just take what you need periodically.
So to make your levain follow the same steps you would to make your sourdough starter. Take a spoonful or two of your starter, and mix it with flour and water. The amounts you need will be dictated by the recipe and how much bread you are making. If you’re just making one loaf of bread, you don’t need to be making 5 cups of levain.
Sourdough recipes do require a bit more planning than bread made with commercial yeast. After feeding your starter or levain the yeast and bacteria need a few hours to get going. Depending on the temperature this could be 6-10 hours. Usually if I’d like to make dough in the morning I’ll prepare my levain the night before. That way when I wake up it is happy, bubbling, and ready to go.
Once the levain is active (a bit of your levain should float in water) you can start to make your bread! While your sourdough loaf will require a bit more forethought, the slower rise times give your more flexibility once you’ve decided to make your bread. As always you can slow down the process if needed by refrigerating your dough during any stage.
I hope you’ll find this to be a good explanation of what a sourdough starter is and how to care for one. I encourage you to explore some of the many sourdough recipes I have, let me know if you have questions, and again if you’re in the Ann Arbor area I’m happy to share my starter with you!