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Here we explore one of the simplest (and most fun) ferments– sourdough. Carbohydrate-hungry microbes in the air are drawn to this simple slurry of flour and water. Each micro-climate (from which wild sourdoughs are made) is said to offer a distinct flavor which can be tasted in the finished product. And boy, what a variety of products– bread, pizza dough, pancakes, biscuits, and more!
In years past, starter was the main leavening agent in home cooking, and starter was often used multiple times a day. In today’s busy world, we may only bake with it once or twice a week.
In my experience, I started a new starter right before New Year’s eve. It took until about January 10 (14 days) to become as active as I wanted it to be before using it to make bread. Part of the reason was because room temperature is a little cooler in the wintertime.
If it’s too cool in your house (below 68F/C), you should put your starter somewhere warmer than room temp– on top of a refrigerator, for example. I love using a multi-tasking seedling mat like this one. It makes a simple incubator which increases temperatures by a few degrees.
Once your starter is established, put it to work making sourdough bread!
To Make a New Starter From Scratch
- 100 grams (3.5 ounces by weight) organic whole wheat (or rye, spelt or any other whole grain) flour
- 400 grams (14 oz.) organic all-purpose flour
- filtered water
- Add 100 grams whole wheat flour and 100 ml water to a clean quart-sized mason jar. Stir until no dry flour can be seen. Cover jar top with a cloth or paper towel and secure loosely with the metal ring or rubber band. Place somewhere where the temperature is at least 70F/21C.
- Discard all except 100 grams of the starter (you'll remove about ½ cup or 100g). I keep a separate container for discarded starter, which can be used for many other baking purposes.
- Add 100 grams all purpose flour and 100 ml water to the starter. Stir well until no dry flour can be seen. Store in its warm spot again for 24 hours.
- Discard all except 100 grams of the starter.
- Add 100 grams organic AP flour and 150 ml water to the starter. Stir well.
- Discard all except 100 grams of the starter.
- Add 100 grams all purpose flour and 100 ml water to the starter. Stir well.
- By the third day, your starter should start to be bubbly and sour smelling. Keep going with twice daily feedings until it is vigorously bubbling and smells yeasty (this might take a few more days or even a week).
- When a starter is consistently doubling in volume within six hours of each feeding, it is healthy and has a well-established culture.
- Many experts believe that it takes between 30-90 days for this ferment to reach its maturity, when fed and used daily.
Storing & Maintaining Active Starter in Refrigerator
It is practical for most of us (who don’t bake every day) to store our starter in the refrigerator. This is perfectly fine. You should feed your starter weekly when it’s “chilling” in the refrigerator.
For the weekly starter feeding:
Discard all starter except about 100 grams (a little under 4 ounces or 1/2 cup). I use a separate half-gallon or larger container to store discarded starter (which is useful for other recipes besides baking bread).
This step is important in order that there be enough food for the yeasts to multiply. If you don’t reduce the population by “culling the herd”, then there will be too many yeast cells for the amount of new food added, and the starter won’t develop properly.
Let the starter come back to room temperature for about two hours, and then feed it 100g AP flour and 100g warm water. Stir until smooth and return to refrigerator.
When a starter is consistently doubling in volume within six hours of each feeding, it is healthy and has a well-established culture.
Using Refrigerated Starter to Bake (Reactivating it)
When you want to bake bread with an active starter that’s refrigerated, you’ll need to plan ahead to feed and reactivate it so it is ready to use for baking. It’s a good idea to revive the starter at night if you will start mixing dough first thing in the morning.
- Remove starter jar from the refrigerator.
- Discard all starter except 100 grams (a little under 4 ounces or 1/2 cup).
- Feed it (100g flour and 100g warm water) and let it sit for 8 hours until it becomes active (and doubles in size).
- Then use the amount you need for your recipe, and again discard all but 100 grams. Store jar back in refrigerator.
If a clear or brownish liquid forms on the top of your starter in the refrigerator (called “hooch”, it’s mostly alcohol, a byproduct of yeast fermentation), simply pour off the excess liquid. The starter should be fine.