Demystifying Sourdough Starter
Due to the Covid years, I think by now we have all tried our hand at making a loaf of sourdough bread, whether it was a successful attempt or not. I was a little later to the game. My Mom was the first to join this worldwide elite club of bread artisans, and I was dually impressed that she had ventured to make her own starter as well.
I remember speaking to my Mom in one of our long-winded phone conversations where she regaled me with details on her latest loaf of this crunchy, pillowy variety of bread.
She informed me of the nuances of working the dough, allowing it to rise, kneading it with proper form, baking techniques and the tools needed to properly form a loaf worthy of a boulangerie window or San Francisco soup shop.
I like to think that perhaps it is in our DNA somehow to craft bread. Poilâne Bakery in Paris, France is a third generation boulangerie renowned for creating the best sourdough in the world by hand, since 1932.
Aside from being at the top of my destination wish list, the foodie nerd in me likes to dream and wish that our strikingly similar last names means that the owner, Apollonia, and I are somehow cousins removed somewhere back in the recesses of our lineage. I have no proof or facts to justify any connection whatsoever, but hey…a girl is allowed to dream, right?
But, I digress. Back to the breadmaking process. The one factor that I couldn’t wrap my head around that my Mom kept referencing when we spoke was “feeding the starter” every couple of weeks to “keep it strong.”
What did this mean?! Was this a living entity that resided in her refrigerator, and why was it so hungry?! I was intrigued, to say the least. I kept picturing that plant from Little Shop of Horrors and wondering if her starter would shout “feed me” in Steve Martin’s voice from the back of the refrigerator every time she opened it to grab the butter or pour a glass of iced tea. While that sounds pretty cool, it is not that dramatic. So, let me explain the science behind it.
What is Sourdough Starter?
It is actually quite simple. Sourdough starter is essentially an organic form of the yeast much like what you might find in the active yeast packets at the grocery store, only this is a live fermented culture comprised of fresh flour and water. It is totally organic. Once these two ingredients are combined, the culture will begin to ferment and cultivate natural yeasts found in the environment. It is one of those natural and fascinating wonders of the world.
This mixture is maintained with regular refreshments of it’s ingredients (about every two weeks) to leaven and flavor the dough, hence, the longer you nurture and feed it, the stronger the flavor becomes and the ratio of good bacteria content also improves.
A small portion of the starter, known as the levain (originating from the French word “to rise”), is removed and mixed with bread flour to make a sourdough loaf. You have gotta love science!
Making Your Own Starter
If you don’t have a friend nearby who can share their starter with you, it is quite simple to make your own with just a little patience and nurturing. This process takes about 5-7 days to complete, and all that is needed is whole wheat flour, which will kickstart the fermentation and water.
Once established, the starter needs to be fed with run of the mill, all-purpose flour, which will cultivate friendly bacteria and encourage the natural or “wild” yeast to grow.
You will know that it is ready once it begins to bubble and has doubled in size. If it takes much longer than a week, you may have a dud batch and will need to start over. If there is one thing I have learned to appreciate from making bread is that is requires patience, so don’t be discouraged if there is a learning curve. The work will make the end result all the more rewarding.
For this step, I suggest investing in a good, small kitchen scale, if you don’t already have one. It is a lifesaver for the process, and truly a necessary tool. I have found that, since purchasing my kitchen scale, I have become a much more proficient cook and baker in many ways and use it constantly. It is a good investment for a small cost.Jump to Recipe
Of all the breads, sourdough is hands down THE bread to consume if you are going to indulge in the carb overload. This isn’t an issue for me, as I don’t subscribe to the “bread is bad” bandwagon, but it truly does have incredible health benefits.
As I mentioned before, the starter is fed by all-purpose flour, which cultivates “friendly bacteria.” I believe at this stage in the game, we are all aware of the importance of a healthy and happy gut and the benefits of good bacteria in keeping our gut clean.
Sourdough has health benefits in spades. It is lauded as a superfood and it does wonders in moderate doses for maintaining a healthy and balanced gut microbiome. Not to mention, it is easier to digest and it may help with managing blood sugars, due to its fermentation process and high fiber content.
So in short, if you are going to eat bread…this is the one to pick. Not to mention, it tastes good with just about anything and everything from breakfast foods on up through dinner. Once a bit stale, it would even be great in a dessert bread pudding or crisped up as croutons. The sky is the limit!
It’s a Family Tradition
I have since learned the ways of making my Mom’s bread, thanks to an amazing hands on tutorial that I will forever cherish and hold dear to my heart. There is nothing better than creating food with your hands alongside loved ones. It makes for lasting memories that are irreplaceable. I was lucky enough that I remembered to film her showing me the steps for this process, which is an even greater treasure.
I will say that starter seems to be the most intimidating and prohibitive part of the process for most, but it shouldn’t be. There are far more intricate steps. Since I have begun making my own bread, I have had at least a dozen folks ask to be taught after tasting how delicious homemade bread fresh from the oven truly is, but learning about the regular maintenance of the starter, their desires usually dwindle and fade because it sounds like a lot of upkeep for a hobby.
What is it about feeding a starter that is so intimidating? I like to think of it like a pet or a child of sorts. It is a responsibility requires a bit of care and nourishment for good health and longevity, like any living thing might.
I also find it fascinating that a good starter matures with age and adds increasingly more sour flavor to the bread. It truly is a craft with a long game. Some families pass starters down like heirlooms from generation to generation, a tradition I find intriguing and exceptional.
We need to get back to more of these old world traditions, in my opinion. It is a healthy practice to slow down and get your hands dirty making a meal and enjoying a meditative task. No phones or technology, just you and the dough working in unison. There is something so primal and fulfilling about the process.
My Mom also informed me that the key to success is in naming your starter. It is our own tradition, and also helps in caring for it like a being that you want to keep alive. Hers is named Aretha after the great Aretha Franklin, as it is strong and sings with flavor. I followed suit with naming mine as well.
I have offered to break a bit of my own starter off for friends. I have yet to have anyone take me up on this offer, but it stands for anyone who has been in my kitchen and wants to learn the art of bread making. Stay tuned for more on breads and working with live and active yeast. From tools and design to technique, there is so much more to explore about this beautiful, centuries old tradition.
Build Your First Sourdough Bread Starter
- Large Mason Jar
- Measuring Cups/Spoons
- Small Digital Kitchen Scale
- Small Rubber Spatula
To Create the Starter
- 60 grams whole wheat flour (½ cup)
- 60 grams water (¼ cup)
To Feed the Starter (Days 3-7)
- 60 grams all-purpose or bread flour (½ cup) NOT organic-the enzymes are different
- 60 grams water (¼ cup)
Day 1: Making the Starter
- Combine 60 g (1⁄2 cup) of whole wheat flour and 60 g (1⁄4 cup) of warm water in a large jar.Mix with a fork until smooth; the consistency will be thick and pasty. If measuring by volume, add more water to thin out the texture if needed. Cover with plastic wrap or a lid, and let it rest in a warm spot, about 75-80 F for 24 hours. I like to nestle mine in the microwave.
Day 2: Check for Bubbles
- If you are seeing bubbles start to form, this is an indication of the start of the fermentation process. If you don’t see anything right away; the bubbles might have appeared and dissolved overnight, which is not uncommon.Sit tight and be patient. Your starter does not need any flour or water. Just allow it to rest in its warm spot for another 24 hours.You may also notice a dark liquid starting appear on the surface of the starter.This liquid is called “hooch” and is an indication that your starter needs to be fed. It is normal for it to have a strong or pungent smell. Any time you see this liquid form, it’s best to pour it off, along with any discolored starter present. Since it is only day two, you can leave be and get rid of on day three when you start the feedings.
Day 3: Feed the Starter
- It’s time to start the feeding process. Even if you are not seeing bubbles just yet, you still want to go ahead and feed your starter.Using a spoon, remove excess starter until only 60g of your starter remains. (The texture will be very stretchy.) Add 60 g of all-purpose flour and 60 g of warm water (always equal parts of each ingredient to the starter in the small bowl. Mix until smooth. Your starter has now been fed! Place lid on top loosely, so it can breathe. The texture should resemble thick pancake batter. Cover and let rest in your warm spot for another 24 hours. The starter should begin to bubble and rise.
Days 4-6: Continue Feeding
- Repeat the step outlined above each day, until you reach day 7 to strengthen the starter. You will know it is ready to be fed once it has doubled in size from the previous feeding and then begins to fall back down and compress.
Day 7: Your Starter is Born!
- By Day 7, your starter should have doubled in size and should be light, airy and full of bubbles. You are officially ready to join the bread making world. You will want to transfer your starter to a nice fresh clean jar and continue to feed it at least every two weeks. I can usually tell it is more than ready when I start to see it fall completely and a bit of liquid form on the top. If ever you feel you waited to long and it is falling a bit flat, keep feeding it until you see the bubbles return. Keep it in the fridge up front and center so you don't forget about it and keep the lid on loosely so it isn't suffocated. You now have your very own starter!