At the Table

Sourdough Starter (in which I say “start-” 47 times)

I started something this week that I had been wanting to try for a couple of years.  I started…starter.  Sourdough starter, I mean. I figured this is the next step in mastering the science behind bread and baking.  I tried this a few years ago, and failed miserably – then I realized that the recipe I used left out the important step of feeding the sourdough starter as it ferments.   I tried a second time earlier this year, but the kitchen was too cold and after a week of no action, I scrapped it and started over.  This time, though, the planets have aligned and things are going well!   To preface this journal/tutorial, it’s important to know a little about how wild yeast and sourdough work.  Bear with me on this – the science is important.

Sourdough bread, also called wild yeast bread, is traditionally made by capturing the wild yeast that live on grains.  This is why the starter is begun with whole grain (wheat and rye) flours – better hosts for wild yeast and good bacteria.  It is possible to make sourdough bread that is not wild yeast bread – all you would do is begin it with a commercial yeast.  Capturing and nurturing wild yeast is an exciting challenge, though.  Essentially, the goal in a sourdough/wild yeast starter is to capture yeast and bacteria, and create a balance of the two in your dough.

The recognizable taste of sourdough comes from lactobacillus bacteria (yep, related to those guys who make yogurt delicious), which produce lactic and acetic acid in dough.  There are other bacteria that make brief appearances during the first few days of starting a starter, but these are the ones who will hopefully stick around for the long haul. I won’t go into it here, but you can manipulate the dough to influence the bacteria, which affects the flavor.  There are lots of blogs and websites out there with tons of helpful information if you want your bread to be extra sour (or not sour at all).

Anyhow, I digress…Maintaining a healthy, balanced, population of yeast and bacteria is done through maintaining proper hydration and temperature, and feeding the critters regularly. Equal parts (by weight) of water and flour makes a good consistency, and the starter does well held at a temperature in the 70’s.  Too cold and the yeast won’t do its thing, too warm and the bacteria overproduce.  The top of our water heater is perfect for my starter. Cabinets, tops of fridges, under the bed…all are great options (just check the air temperature first – I found out the hard way that the top of my fridge is not warm enough).

Now, the feeding.  Living things need food,so this is important!  When I feed my starter, I use a 1:1:1 ratio.  By weight, one part old starter, one part flour, and one part water.  A kitchen scale is a very helpful tool when it comes to feeding!  I used this site’s recommendations for consistency.  Bottled (not distilled), room temperature water is recommended, but my starter has been doing fine with tap water.   The last thing – you will notice that there is a lot of starter being thrown out every day.  You don’t have to discard, but you will end up with a ton of starter after a week, if you’re feeding but not discarding.  Also, since you will eventually have to feed the starter every 12 hours, start feeding at a time that works for you in both am and pm (so, maybe don’t start it at 3pm, since that means a 3am feeding down the line).  I started mine on morning feedings (8:00) and then added 8pm feedings when the time came.

My starter recipe worked for me, but there are lots of other ways of doing it.  Some people use pineapple juice instead of water, some use only all purpose flour, and others feed starters in different proportions than I do.  From what I gather, it’s as much an art as it is a science.  If you’re interested in trying this out for yourself, here are a couple websites that were helpful: Sourdough Home, Nourished Kitchen, and The Fresh Loaf, and Food Travel Thought.  I can’t claim to know a ton about this, but I’m posting the process in case my timeline and photos are helpful to someone else who wants to make their own starter.

Day 1:

1 oz whole wheat flour
1 oz rye flour
2 oz room temperature (or slightly warmer) water

Combine in pint/quart sized glass jar or bowl, cover loosely with a damp towel or plastic wrap, and let sit for 24 hours in a warm place.  You might want to mark the side of your container to keep track of the starter’s growth.

Day 2:

Discard 2 oz of yesterday’s starter, so that you are working with just 2 ounces today.

To the 2 ounces of remaining starter, add:
1 oz whole wheat flour
1 oz rye flour
2 oz water

Mix until well combined, cover loosely, and let sit for the next 24 hours.

Day 3:

Well, I was not expecting this! The starter went crazy over the course of day 2, and by the time I fed it this morning, it had doubled and then begun to fall.  Although this seems like a fantastic start, it is probably the result of very active bacteria in the mix, not yeast action.  From what I have read, the yeast population doesn’t mature enough to make a difference until a few days  into the process.  With enough proper feedings, though, everything should come into balance before too long.

Sourdough Starter - Day 1

Discard 4 oz. of yesterday’s starter, so that you’re working with 2 ounces.

To the 2 oz. of yesterday’s starter, add:
1 oz whole wheat flour
1 oz rye flour
2 oz water

Mix well, cover, and let sit until tomorrow.

Day 4 (28th):

Sure enough, hardly any action in the starter today.  Also, I forgot to take a picture…oops.  Yesterday’s huge rise must have been bacteria.  It has a pretty strong sour smell (like sour, over-ripe apples), and some small air bubbles, but no rise.  The tiny air pockets are reassuring, and tell me that something is still going on!

Repeat the same discarding/adding process as you did on Day 3.  Cover and let rest until tomorrow.

Day 5:

Same story as yesterday – sour smell, tiny air pockets, but barely any rise – maybe 5%.  It’s a little chilly in the apartment so I’m not surprised it’s taking a while to get active.  Today’s agenda is to feed it, which both nourishes the yeast, and further “dilutes” some of the rampant bacteria from earlier this week (which will make a better growing environment for the yeast).

Repeat the same discarding/adding process as days 3 and 4.  Cover and let rest until tomorrow.

Day 6: 

Finally, some action!  The starter grew maybe 50% since the day 5 feeding.  It has less of a sour smell, which is probably because the overactive bacteria from day 2 are coming under control and balancing with the wild yeast in the dough.  All is good!

Sourdough Starter - Day 6

For today’s feeding, I started weaning the starter onto all purpose flour.  It seems like the yeast is established enough that I don’t need to add more of the “baby yeasts” that are on the whole grain flour.  To avoid shocking the critters in this starter, I’m switching to AP flour over the course of a couple days.  Also, this is the day that twice-daily feedings might begin.  I’ll check it after 12 hours and see what the starter is telling me.

For today’s feeding: discard the starter down to 2 ounces.

Add:
1 oz whole wheat flour
1 oz unbleached all-purpose flour
2 oz water

Cover and let rest for 12 hours.  

When I came back after 12 hours, the starter had more than doubled and was nice and bubbly.

Sourdough starter - day 6

Starter needs to be fed when the yeast is peaking (if you wait until it falls, that means the yeast is starving), so I repeated the morning’s discard/feeding process.  Since it’s growing so well, I moved it to a larger container after the feeding.  As usual, the whole lot got covered and put to bed until tomorrow morning (12 hours from now).

Day 7:

Sourdough Starter - Day 7

The starter almost tripled overnight and has some nice rivers of frothy bubbles on top.  The consistency is much thinner than it was in the beginning, due to yeast and enzyme activity breaking down the gluten strands.  All these frothy bubbles mean it’s probably ready to bake with, but I’ll give it a couple more feedings so it has time to get a little stronger and develop more flavor.

Discard down to 2 ounces.

Add:
A generous pinch of whole wheat flour, and enough all-purpose flour to equal 2 ounces
2 ounces room temperature water

Stir well, cover, and let rest for 12 hours.

Sourdough starter - Day 7 pm

I waited a little too long to give the starter its second feeding today. You can see on the side of the container where it has risen (to almost the 2-cup line) and then fallen. And yep, that’s Jeth in the background :)

For the evening feeding, I added a little extra flour since I wanted my starter to be stiffer.  Web rumor has it that a stiffer, cooler starter is more conducive to acetic acid production – which gives sourdough that vinegary, sour taste (compared to a more mellow taste from a lactic-acid heavy dough).

Discard down to 2 ounces

Add:
2.5 ounces all-purpose flour
2 ounces water

Stir, cover, and rest for 12 hours.

Day 8:

Sourdough Starter - Day 8 am

The starter definitely looks different today, because of the extra flour I added in the last feeding.  It’s too thick to be frothy, but there are lots of good sized bubbles all the way through.  I’ll feed it again and then this evening, prepare for baking my first loaf of bread.  I figure this is as good a time as any to test the starter.

Discard down to 2 ounces of starter

Add:
2 ounces unbleached all-purpose flour
2 ounces water

Mix well, cover, and let rest for 12 hours.

Sourdough starter - Day 8 pm

The starter tripled again since the last feeding, and has good air pockets throughout, so I’m going to start baking with it!  I will keep and feed 2 ounces, as usual.  The other 4 ounces, which usually get tossed, will get mixed with more flour and water as a preferment for bread that I plan to bake tomorrow.  I actually pulled out the 4 ounces at 5:00pm (before the scheduled 8:00 discard/feed), since the preferment needs to sit at room temperature for 4 hours before overnight refrigeration.

I’m using King Arthur Flour’s Extra-Tangy Sourdough recipe – just a half batch, though, since I only have the 4 ounces of starter. If I wanted to bake a full batch, I could have built up the starter at the last feeding (fed 1:1:1 without discarding).  But since I’m just taking the starter for a test drive, I don’t want to make more bread than I need to.  Odds are this will not be the best loaf of bread since it’s a new starter, but I’ve got to start somewhere!

The 2 ounces that I kept and fed I let rest at cool room temperature overnight (or you could let it sit at normal room temp for about 4 hours).  This morning it got stirred down, covered, and refrigerated.  It will need feeding about once a week (following the usual process), but I think it’s stable enough that it doesn’t need daily feedings anymore.

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One thought on “Sourdough Starter (in which I say “start-” 47 times)

  1. Pingback: Sourdough Boule | Little House Bliss

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