Full Disclosure: I am no sourdough expert. Yet. I’m workin’ on it! I am, in fact, only writing this post so that when I write posts about recipes that use sourdough starter, I can point you back here so you can find out how to make sourdough starter yourself. It doesn’t seem quite fair to just say “Use your sourdough starter in this recipe” and then not give you any help about how to go about getting a sourdough starter. So. This is my beginner’s guide to sourdough.
What Is Sourdough Starter, Anyway?
Essentially, sourdough starter is a combination of some type of flour and water that has fermented and “soured”. This fermentation process helps develop naturally occurring yeasts and bacteria that become leavening agents, making the sourdough starter an excellent alternative to commercial yeast.
What Do I Need to Make a Sourdough Starter?
The short answer is: flour and water.
The long answer is…. well, a little longer.
- Flour – The best flour is a freshly ground flour, at least from a nutritional standpoint. I would imagine that a fresher flour also produces a higher-quality sourdough starter. The good news is that you can start a starter (heh) from any kind of flour! I personally have used both wheat and spelt with good success. Gluten-free flours will require a little more care, but they’re definitely possible.
- Water – The water should be de-chlorinated. If you use water from the tap, it’s definitely got chlorine in it, so you will need to remove the chlorine. The easiest way to do that is to leave a jar of water sitting out for about 24 hours. I’ve also had good success boiling water and then cooling it to room temperature. I don’t know if that effectively removes all the chlorine, but my sourdough is always happy and bubbly, so it works for me!
- Glass Bowl or Jar – Use a glass jar or bowl to contain your sourdough, or maybe ceramic. Plastic and metal are no-nos. You can use stainless steel utensils for stirring, though.
- Scale – Now don’t get scared. You can make a sourdough starter using typical American measuring cups and spoons. But here’s the thing: sourdough is based on equal weights of flour and water. You can approximate that to the best of your ability using liquid and dry measuring cups… but it’s so much easier to just measure them by weight on a scale. Then you can know for certain you have 150 grams each (or whatever measurement you’re going for) of both flour and water. A small investment of $25 will get you this nice little scale that tucks away into a corner of your kitchen when you don’t need it, and works perfectly every time. That’s the scale I have and I highly recommend it.
Can You Tell Me How To Start a Sourdough Starter?
I thought you’d never ask! And also, I don’t really have a good answer. And by that, I mean, I don’t have any pictures and I don’t feel like starting a new starter just so I can take pictures, so I cannot make a sourdough tutorial for you right this moment.
However, I can give you some basic information and also direct you to some great resources for crafting your own starter.
- Wheat Starter I (with measuring cups, if you don’t have a scale and don’t want to use one) – I initially used this guide to starting sourdough from Creating Naturally by Mindy. It’s fantastic! The instructions are detailed but simple and easy to follow. After two previous failed attempts at sourdough, I was thrilled with the success I achieved by following Mindy’s instructions.
- Wheat Starter II (by weight) – King Arthur Flour has great instructions for creating and maintaining your starter by weight.
- Spelt Starter – I admit it. I cheated. When starting my spelt sourdough starter, I took advantage of Cultures for Health’s spelt sourdough starter culture. It comes dehydrated in a little packet, and really seems to make the process easier. I miscalculated the amount of spelt flour I had available to me when I started the sourdough, and so I had to “pause” the process while I waited for my order of spelt grain to arrive. I kept the barely-started culture in the fridge, and when I took it back out and restarted it, it was like nothing had ever happened. I didn’t have to start from scratch again as I had feared, and I was quite pleased! However, you can start a spelt sourdough culture using spelt flour and water in the same way you would wheat.
- Gluten-Free Starter – Cultures for Health also has a rice flour starter you can use, which I imagine would be easier than making your own from scratch. But if you’re adventuresome, Simply Sugar and Gluten-Free has a tutorial for starting your own gluten-free sourdough culture that seems easy to follow (note that it does begin with a pinch of commercial yeast, but that’s only to get it going). Note that while gluten-free sourdough starter begins in much the same way as regular sourdough starter, it is maintained and used in a much different way, so I highly recommend you get some guidance if you’re new to the whole idea. Sharon Kane is an expert in the process and has written a book called The Art of Gluten-Free Sourdough Baking. Although I have not personally read it, it comes highly recommended by people in the know, so I feel confident recommending it to you in turn. She also has a website with other available resources.
How Do I Maintain My Starter?
Each of the links above contains instructions for maintaining your particular starter, but basically, you just need to keep feeding the little pet flour and water on a regular basis. You can do that at room temperature or in the refrigerator, depending on what works best for you.
- At Room Temperature: This is ideal in the sense that your starter will always be ready for you to use. So if you bake bread every day or even every other day, you’ll probably want to keep your sourdough starter on the counter. This means you will need to feed it (remove at least half the starter, and replace it with equal parts flour and water) every 24 hours. Personally, I find that to be kind of a pain, not to mention it involves an awful lot of flour, so I choose to keep my starter in the fridge.
- Refrigerated: If you bake bread only once a week or less (like me), this will probably be the ideal situation for you. You can keep your starter in the fridge, and you don’t have to worry about feeding it every day. You can forget about it for up to 7 days at a time. But you do need to think ahead: the day before you want to bake bread (or perhaps the morning before you start the process, depending on your starter and the conditions in your kitchen and a lot of other factors), pull the starter out of the fridge and bring it to room temperature. Then you’ll want to feed it at least once, and possibly up to 3 times, over a period of another 12-24 hours, before it’s ready to be used for baking. In an ideal world, I pull my starter out Saturday morning, feed it by noon time, and then again in the evening. On Sunday morning, I mix up my sourdough bread and let it rise until Sunday afternoon, when I shape it in loaves and let it rise some more. By Sunday evening, it’s ready to bake, and then we have fresh bread for the week. (We don’t eat a lot of bread.) Sometimes this routine gets truncated, and it still works out OK.
How Do I Use My Starter?
Now that, my friend, is a loaded question. There is a reason people have written entire books on the subject.
But you know me – I like to keep things simple. So I’m going to point you to the easiest ever recipe for using your sourdough starter, and the only one I use. (Occasionally, I have experimented with enriched sourdough breads that add eggs and other ingredients, but for the most part I stick to this recipe.) It’s actually more of a formula that I discovered while surfing the internet about sourdough one day, and I found it on The Fresh Loaf forums. It’s simple:
- 1 part sourdough (any weight)
- 2 parts liquid (de-chlorinated water, milk, etc.)
- 3 parts flour (I’ve used mostly wheat or spelt, other flours you may need to experiment with the amounts)
- salt, the equivalent of about 2% of the weight of your flour (I just dump salt until I think I have enough. When the dough doesn’t taste bland, I know I have enough salt.)
The recipe author’s blog (originally in French, translate into English with the help of Google) has more detailed instructions on the rising and baking of this bread.
Any Other Ways to Use Sourdough Besides Bread?
You know me: “Waste not, want not” is my motto. I can only count on one hand the times I’ve dumped half my starter down the drain when feeding it, and it hurt my heart every single time. Instead, I usually try to turn that excess starter into something like pancakes, waffles, biscuits… and even sugar cookies! Basically, any batter that is based on flour can benefit from the use of sourdough, so you can just get creative. So far, I’ve only used recipes that have actually already been worked out for me, but once I’m more confident in the whole process, I’ll be able to adapt regular recipes to the inclusion of a little sourdough starter so as not to waste a single drop.
And there it is, my friend. Your guide to sourdough. Get thee henceforth and sour some dough!