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
As noted above, refreshing your starter means providing fresh water and flour for the natural yeast to feed on. When refreshing, or feeding, my starter, I discard all but a few tablespoons (remember, you can use this discard in a variety of recipes if you want) and add equal parts AP flour and water, usually around 150 grams of each. Stir until there are no dry bits, then cover loosely with plastic wrap. Depending on what your plans are, you can leave it on the counter or place it in the refrigerator.
How often you plan to use your sourdough starter will impact how often you refresh it. Refreshing can be done as little as once a week all the way up to two or three times a day. If you don’t intend to bake with your starter for a while, refreshing it once a week is fine. I store it in the refrigerator where the cool temperature slows the yeast growth rate. 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.
Now if you are intending to bake with your sourdough, you will want to get it refreshed and happy a few days before baking. For example, if I want to prepare dough on Sunday morning, I might begin to feed my sourdough on Friday night. Friday night I’ll remove the starter from the fridge and refresh like normal but leave it out on the counter. Saturday morning I’ll refresh again, followed by a refresh later that night. Then, Sunday morning my starter is bubbly and ready to use.
You can refresh your starter just once before baking and use it, but you will see better results if you are able to refresh a few times before your bake. Serious bakers will always have their starter out on the counter and feed it at least 2 times per day. While I wish I could, my schedule just doesn’t allow for this sort of thing.
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.