Sourdough Starter


More like a lifestyle than a recipe!

dwt 28 June 2001

Minor rev: 24 July 2011

Starting the Starter

It's probably easiest and best to obtain some starter from another baker or a commercial source, but it is possible to generate your own.  The process essentially is capturing wild yeasts, found in the air or in the flour.  I happened to start out by creating a white, unbleached flour starter which I've used for a number of years.  When the urge to try some rye bread hit, I used a smidgeon of the white wheat starter to innoculate a rye flour and water mixture.  Purportedly rye is more reliable in generating a starter.  If you want to attempt your own starter, and intend to make rye breads anyway, start with rye flour.

Bear in mind the sourdough process can be quite involved.  It especially requires advance planning.  Some claim it is a lifestyle more than a recipe.  I find it fairly forgiving, but you do need to be sure to bring a starter up to high activity before attempting to make bread.  This requires feeding it several times prior to making the bread dough (or using it daily).

Containers

A starter should be kept in a glass or food grade plastic container.  It is OK to use stainless steel bowls for mixing or raising dough, but not for long-term storage.  I use a one quart cylindrical polyethylene container with a push-on lid.  Lids should be sufficiently unrestrained to relieve pressure build-up.  Heavy fermentation in a sealed glass container could become quite exciting, not to mention a mess to clean up.

Flours

It is recommended that you use unbleached wheat flour, or organic whole grain wheat or rye.  If you have treated water, it might be best to use some bottled water for this delicate first step.

Capturing the Wild Yeasties

Wash a suitable container thoroughly, I usually rinse it with boiling water.  Add equal amounts of water and flour. Real geeks measure by weight, but I find volume close enough.  In a one quart container, a half cup or so each of water and of flour is a good start.  Stir the mixture vigorously, mixing in lots of air.  The consistency should be similar to a thick pancake batter.

Leave the container out at room temperature, covered, but not sealed.  A glass mixing bowl with a dinner plate of suitable size laid over the top is a good way to do this.  Twice a day, stir the mixture vigorously.  Especially at this stage, all utensils and containers (and hands!) should be kept very clean.

Typically in about four days, bubbling will occur.  At that point, begin "feeding" the starter.   This is simply adding equal amounts of water and flour and stirring it in vigorously.  Ideally, the amount added should be about enough to double the starter.  Since it may take many feedings in the beginning to stabilize the starter, you may want to toss some of the fermenting starter before feeding it.  (The surplus is good for compost, filling cracks in plaster, pipe joint compound :-) >>wink<< -- why golly, you could even try baking something with it!)  The starter should be fed one or two times a day for three or four days before attempting to use it.

Maintenance Mode

After you are successfully baking bread with it, the starter can be kept in a maintenance mode.  I normally give it a light feeding after taking out what is needed for the dough.  The starter is then put in the refrigerator.  I find it can stay there for several weeks without attention.  However -- this is where the planning comes in!  You need to get it out and start feeding it at least 36 to 48 hours before you plan to make dough.  You want a perky, active starter to bake bread.  A starter that's effective will rise to about double its initial bulk in a sort of froth after it's fed.  That should occur in an hour or so at 70 F (21 C).  It's this lively, frothy stuff you want when the recipe calls for "starter."  The starter should be stirred down to get the bubbles out before measuring it if you are working by volume.

Other Starter Sources

Starters are available from several commercial sources and there have been some hobbiest groups who distributed starters to encourage baker wannabes (but the one once linked here appears to have disappeared into the bit bucket).

There is a group: rec.food.sourdough on the fading remains of Usenet.
Their FAQ is on the Web at: http://www.nyx.net/~dgreenw/sourdoughfaqs.html

Two commercial sources of starter are King Arthur Flour and Sourdoughs International.

Aging starter       Do I really want to use this ... ?
The appearance of a starter will vary depending on its degree of activity.  A starter that has been dormant for days or weeks in refrigeration will frequently exhibit a separation of solids and liquid.  In some cases the liquid may turn quite dark in color.  Sourdough geeks refer to this liquid as "hooch."  There is debate among some folks as to whether to stir the hooch back in or pour it off.  I've done both and see no particular difference.

The odor is something to pay a little attention to, especially when attempting a new starter.  All starters have an odor of fermentation products.  In a good starter, the odor can be strong, but should have what might be described as a "clean" smell -- typically a complex "bouquet" with strong hints of alcohol and vinegar.  If mold -- fuzzy green stuff, etc. -- appears, or if the odor becomes reminiscent of old chicken or fish wrappers or the like, give it up! Clean up, sterilize the containers and try again.  No point in fiddling with do-it-yourself antibiotics!