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?