Do you crave that unmistakable flavor that only a well-developed sourdough loaf can provide? Love how that tang melds together with the creamy sweetness of fresh butter? Did you know that you can make it all at home, no trips to fancy bakeries required? All you need is a good sourdough starter.
Starter? Where do you get that?
While a select few of us may be fortunate enough to have had an Old-World Europe sourdough starter passed down to us through the generations, most of us have to start from scratch. But I’m happy to tell you, it really isn’t that hard.
Ready for the long list of ingredients and complicated instructions?
Flour and water. Oh, and a container to put it all in (quart jars work great).
The first day, add about 1/2 cup flour and 1/2 cup water to your container. Mix well. (Consistency isn’t really that important, unless it’s either a brick or water.) Cover with cheesecloth or a kitchen towel (not a tight lid – you want insects out, but the floaty yeasts from the air in). Let it sit for a day.
At this point, depending on your climate, you may already start to see a few bubbles in the mix. If not, don’t despair! Sometimes (especially if it’s cooler out) it may take an extra day or two. If, by the end of the first week, there’s still nothing… you must live in a perfectly sterile environment.
The next day, add some more flour, and some more water (I usually do a few tablespoons). Mix again. Cover again. Let it sit again.
Repeat this for the next 4-6 days.
By the end of the week, you should have a perfectly usable sourdough starter. It’ll be bubbly, sticky, and smell… sour.
If you test a little bit, it’ll taste like a strong loaf of sourdough bread. That’s caused by the same natural yeasts and bacteria that make your pickles and ‘kraut sour too. And in the same way that the same variety of grape, grown in different regions, will yield different flavored wines (look up terroir), your batch of sourdough starter may begin with the exact same flour and water, but will taste different from mine. San Francisco sourdough can’t be replicated in Ohio (okay, not counting kits you can buy), because the two areas are just too different (sometimes I wouldn’t mind if Ohio had a bit more south Pacific coast weather), and so the little yeasties are different too.
Okay, so you had to wait a week for it, but now you have your very own sourdough starter. In theory, it can keep indefinitely, as long as you keep it fed (some flour every couple days). If you’re going out-of-town, toss it in the fridge, where the cold will help it keep longer. I think I’ve heard you can even freeze it with no ill effects, but don’t hold me to that. (Update 3/2016: Our original starter is still going strong – I try to refresh it with some fresh flour and water every couple weeks, and leave it in the fridge most of the time when I’m not baking. It’ll look like a gloppy mess, but it perks right back up when it warms up again!)
Now that you have it, what do you do with it? Well, since this is officially Sourdough Week, stay tuned over the next few days as we look at some simple ways to utilize all that awesome sourdough goodness; try bread, pancakes, and especially English muffins!
And it really is good. While the flavor is certainly the reason that many people eat it, it’s also better for you than a typical loaf of wheat bread. The lactic acid produced during the fermentation process helps to break down the phytic acid, starches, and gluten, making it easier to digest once you eat it. It also acts as a preservative, and sourdough doesn’t spike your blood sugar levels like most bread.
So with that, how ’bout you go get started?
Susan White says
if you store it in the fridge do you still feed it every few days or just once a week? I have saw recipes before that you feed it once a week that’s why I am asking.
Once a week should be plenty – that’s all I do (if that; sometimes it’s even less often), and it keeps it alive just fine!
Barbara Berry Cain says
so how do you make the bread?
The bread recipe can be found here: http://lifefromthegroundup.us/2013/12/sourdough-bread/
Chrissy Keith says
Will this work with sprouted whole wheat flour? I think I read somewhere that it is more difficult.
I haven’t tried it with sprouted flour so I can’t say for certain, but we’ve used various grain flours with no ill effects. As long as there’s something there for the bacteria to feed on (convert to sugars), it should work fine.
Martha parson says
So you dont put any yeast in it at all?
Nope. The action of the natural yeasts and bacteria create all the rise through their off-gassing. Granted, it’s not as quick as a, well, quick-rise yeast, but it works in just the same way.
Linda Joy Lindberg says
I thought yeast was added to the starter.
No yeast necessary – the natural yeasts and bacteria create all the rise that’s required through their off-gassing. It’s not as fast as using a commercial yeast, but it works the same way.
Perry R. Thoen says
If your starter isn’t starting try to avoid water softeners and tap water that contains chlorine and fluoride all of which inhibit fungal and bacterial growth.
Agreed – that’s one note I failed to make since I have well water and don’t need to worry about it.
If you use a public water supply, you will most likely have chlorine in the water. Either use distilled water OR let your water sit in a bowl overnight before using – this allows most of the chlorine to evaporate off.
Donna Williams says
Ahhhh! That’s my problem. I used town water. I will try again tomorrow with filtered water from my fridge. Glad I came back to see why I mine is not bubbly. Thanks Perry!
Have you tried this with gluten free flour by any chance?
I have not personally, but I’ve seen recipes using gluten-free flours. The premise should be the same – as long as there are complex carbohydrates in the flour that can be broken down into food for the bacteria, the process will work.
On a related note, one of the benefits of sourdough is that the fermentation process will break down most of the gluten found in a normal wheat flour. If you have a strong gluten sensitivity, I probably still wouldn’t try it, but I’ve read multiple cases of people with a low to moderate sensitivity being able to tolerate sourdough bread just fine!
I’m gluten sensitive and I can eat Sourdough….just love it!
Dennis Russel says
you didn’t say anything about the yeast, I can mix flour and water nothing ever happens doesn’t it require yeast?
No yeast required. Of course, if you just mix flour and water and expect something to happen an hour later, you’ll probably end up fairly disappointed. The starter needs time to develop into a living, breathing thing (a few days at the very least, usually about a week). THEN, you can mix up that flour and water and add a bit of the starter. Give it a little time and you’ll start to see it rise, no yeast necessary. Patience is the key to sourdough – if you’re expecting it to react like an instant yeast, it’ll break your heart every time 🙂
Maria Elena Parascan says
So no yeast is added?
Maria Elena Parascan says
I just read the last reply which answered my question. Also, I made mine and its very tough not liquidy at all…is that ok?
It’ll work best if it’s more on the soupy side than the dry side. It should be like a good pancake batter, not like a biscuit dough. It’s all very forgiving though – if it looks a little dry, add a splash of water to get it to where you want!
What is your favorite flour to use to make the starter?
I’ve used rye flour and just a regular all-purpose (wheat). Both are fine – the rye imparts more of a pumpernickel flavor into the final product, so if you don’t like that, use whatever you’d normally bake bread (or anything else) with!
Ok, thank you!
So happy to have found this! I haven’t made sourdough bread in years. The recipe I had required feeding with a little sugar, in addition to the flour and water. Why is the sugar not necessary here?
The sugar might kick-start the process a little, but in the end, it doesn’t really matter. The natural yeasts and bacteria actually convert the carbs from the flour into sugar anyway (complex carbs break down into simple sugars), which is what they survive on.
Thank you for this..I’m keen to give this a go with gluten free flour…When you say the gluten breaks down does that mean all of it or much of it? I’m reading more and more about sourdough and gluten intolerance that maybe it will be okay to use regular flour. Thanks again so much for this…I’m going to do it now! Have a wonderful day!
Depends on how long you let it sour. I suppose there will probably always be a trace left (which is why I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it if you have a severe gluten intolerance), but if you let the dough sit for a good day or so before baking, it should break much of it down. If you only let it sit for a few hours, it’ll develop some of that signature sour flavor, but more of the gluten will remain.
Thanks Gabe…starter is on the go….I used the gluten free flour and see what happens!
can you tell me what gluten free flour you used?
Hi Denise…..I usd one of 2 gluten free flours available here but unfortunately my brew went mouldy after a couple of days and I haven’t tried it since. It was summer time and perhaps the humidity was high and it didn’t like it? Not sure on that! Also reading comments above I didn’t use filtered water but I have it now so will try again.
Also reading above the comments about fermentation I purchasd some sourdough that was proven for 13 hours and I can have a couple of slices with no ill affects! I am gluten intolerant!
Good luck and keep me posted on how you go!
Mary (Hyacinth Bouquet) says
I think I’ll try it with einkorn flour. Many with gluten intolerance (not celiac) can handle einkorn wheat.
How did you go? I’m eating Sourdough now that has been proven for at least 12 hours with no ill effects! Used Organic Spelt Flour!
Hi there, I live in Central Mexico and make artisan yeast “crackers” for specialty stores here. I am just dying to try a “sourdough” flavor. We’ll see what happens…………….OLE
Jeannie Marie Thomas says
What kind of a consistency am I going for here? I have been trying to keep it at about a thicker pancake batter thickness. Also, once mine started fermenting it was getting going really well and I kept feeding it, and it would separate about 1/2 inch from the bottom and there would be liquid there and I could see it fizzing before I stirred it. Now on day 5, the liquid begins forming about 1/2 inch from the top and I don’t see much fizzing any more. Is this what I’m waiting for, or is it dead now?? I feel like there was a lot of activity and then now not so much…
Jeannie Marie Thomas says
I take that back! I just went to look at it and the liquid is on top only now, not a 1/2 inch down anymore. And it has a sour odor, as I would expect, but strong and wheat-y smelling… Also, I am on Day 6, lol.
I started with the 1/2 cup water and 1/2 cup white whole wheat flour, waited about 48 hours and added 3 tbs of water and the same flour, same the next day, then on days 4 and 5 I used regular white flour, and today I went back to the white whole wheat because I am out of the regular white (I was just using it up since I only had a teeny bit left). Did I do something wrong? I added water by eye most days, just pretty much to keep it at a thick pancake batter consistency.
Nope, doesn’t sound like you did anything wrong!
I vary between different kinds of flour, different consistencies, and don’t have any problems. I never measure the flour or water – just add a bit of each and try to keep it in that batter consistency range. I’d say you can go ahead and start baking with it anytime (if you haven’t already)!
Mine’s about that batter thickness, but it varies, and there’s no reason to get concerned if it’s one way or another.
By your fifth day, it should be fine. If I leave mine alone for too long, it’ll get some liquid on top, but not too badly – I wouldn’t worry that it’s dead. If it has died, it’ll probably start to smell pretty nasty and get moldy (if the good bacteria that you’re feeding die, it’ll make way for bad bacteria, which generally stink). If you can keep adding flour and water and still have that sour smell, it’s fine. It’s pretty hardy stuff – sometimes I’ll feed mine daily, sometimes I’ll keep it in the fridge and only feed it once a week or so, and I haven’t had any problems with it.
Carl H. says
My dad was the sourdough baker in our family. When he needed to start a new batch for any reason, he’d add a handful of grapes to the flour-water combo and let them remain in the ‘slurry’ for a few days. He always said they contain a lot of wild yeasts on the grape skin, and would help give a good, strong ‘innoculant’ to the fresh sourdough. He’d pull them out after a few days and throw them into the compost pile.
Should I wait until the first mix of flour and water begins to show signs of life before beginning to add more daily?
Nope, just go ahead and stick with a daily schedule – it might take a few days for it to show anything.
Silly question. Do I use all purpose flour or self rising? Could I use wheat flour?
I’d stick with all purpose, but you could try self-rising. I’m not sure if the additives that make it rise would inhibit the bacteria or not. I would guess you’d be fine, but I’ve never tried, so I don’t really know! And yes, wheat would be fine.
Yanic A. says
On the counter now! Very excited…
I was told rye flour was good to start. Have you heard about that? I’m thinking I’ll do a mix of unbleached white and rye through the process. Thoughts.
We started with rye too (heard the same thing), but only for a few days, because I’m not a huge fan of the rye flavor. I do exclusively a regular unbleached flour now, and it works perfectly fine.
How do you know if it’s gone bad or died?
It’ll take quite a bit to kill it, like sitting out for weeks without being fed. I thought mine was toast once – it was sitting out and the lid must not have been on all the way… it was molding, there were fruit flies laying eggs in it, and it really smelled rotten… nasty stuff. I dumped it all in the compost, then scraped a little bit from the bottom (that had been untouched by all the nastiness) into a new jar, put a little flour and water in it, and the next day, it was all nice and bubbly again.
So the stuff is pretty resilient. It can smell gross and get kinda watery if you leave it out for too long, but even then, I’d grab a scoop from the bottom and feed it in a new jar to see if it can be revived!