Long before I started baking my own bread, I craved sourdough. But I had a lot of misconceptions about the process. So for years, I baked yeast breads. I learned along the way that a dough hook on a standup mixer might prevent sore arms but at the cost of dense, inconsistent loaves. I also discovered yeast can be quite unforgiving to overproofing: leave the house during the rise time, and you’re sure to come home to a collapsed, flat mess. But I imagined that sourdough would require daily care—and consumption.
Then I was gifted a starter and took a shot at becoming a sourdough baker. I’d also been reading about no-knead breads and was intrigued by the idea of making loaves by hand without sore fingers. A bit of research, a bit of practice, and my delusions about sourdough evaporated like the liquid in a baking loaf.
I quickly learned that sourdough is—well, easy. All it takes is flour, water, and time. It’s a great way to start learning about fermentation. You don’t need to be a slave to a starter: a healthy starter can live in the back of your fridge for months between feedings. When you do wake up a starter, you don’t need to throw out batches to keep it flourishing: the weak starter you pull from the jar works beautifully in pancakes and flatbreads. And the classic tangy loaf is only the beginning of what you can create with sourdough: waffles, pita chips, pizza, English muffins, pretzels—the list goes on.
Finding Sourdough Starter
The challenge is simply getting started. The first step is to get your hands on some sourdough starter. It is possible to make a starter from scratch, but the mix can be temperamental and will likely involve several failed attempts. I’ve tried it and could never pull it off. Fortunately, starter is the gift that keeps on giving. That’s why I recommend the following:
- Talk to me. I offer sourdough workshops that teach you how to care for and use sourdough starter. At the end of the workshop, you’ll leave with your own jar of starter to keep you moving forward in your sourdough adventures. In January, when I post new sourdough recipes all month, I give away dehydrated sourdough starter for free, sending it anywhere in the world.
- Find a friend. If you know someone who has a starter, hit that person up for a batch. The more a starter is used, the more powerful and more flavorful it becomes. So really, you’re doing your friend a favor by taking some off of his or her hands.
- Buy a batch. Starters can be purchased online for under $15 from sources such as Cultures for Health. The purchase price may be worth it just to grab a specific flavor or style of starter—including gluten free. Shipped starters are generally dehydrated but come with instructions for activation.
Sourdough Starter Care
Caring for a healthy sourdough starter is relatively simple. Follow these steps every time you take starter from the jar, and then stash the jar in your fridge until the next use. If it sits untouched for more than a month, repeat steps 2–4 a couple of times to bring it back to full strength; use this weaker excess for pancakes or waffles or to start a new batch of starter to pass on to a friend.
Sourdough Starter Care
100 grams flour
100 grams water
- Bring refrigerated starter to room temperature, letting it sit a few hours or even overnight.
- Stir the starter down with a knife, mixing in any separation on top as long as it doesn’t smell spoiled. Take out the amount needed for the recipe.
- Feed the remaining starter with equal parts flour and water. To keep things simple, I stir in as much flour and water by weight as I removed from the starter jar. For example, if you removed 200 grams of starter, feed the jar with 100 grams each of flour and water.
- Let the starter sit 2 hours to overnight at room temperature; it will expand close to double.
- Cover the jar with a paper coffee filter or paper towel, screw on a canning ring, and return the jar to the fridge.
Tips & Tricks
- If your breads are too dry or too wet, you can use less flour or less water, respectively, when you feed the starter to change the hydration level. If you want to get geeky about it, you can build different starters with different hydration levels for various uses. I prefer to keep my starter consistent at 100% hydration.
- Treated water can sometimes cause problems when working with sourdough, particularly if chlorine, chloramines, and fluoride have been added. If you’re struggling with your starter or baked goods and can smell or taste the chlorine in your municipal water, try using distilled water instead.
- Feeding with all-purpose flour, which has 8%–11% gluten, keeps a starter most active. But occasionally subbing in some wheat or rye flour, both of which are lower in gluten, improves the flavor. I usually swap out the flour after I’ve used the starter 10–12 times, adding half wheat or rye and half all-purpose flour for these feedings.
- I consider a kitchen scale key to baking with sourdough. Flour varies widely when measured by volume, and the starter itself can fill different cup sizes depending on temperature and how well you’ve stirred it down. If you haven’t already acquired a digital scale for canning, now’s the time to shop postholiday sales and add one to your kitchen.
Twice as Tasty
All this month, I’ll be supplying recipes that use a sourdough starter. I’ll walk you through how to wake up a weak or old starter and use the excess in Sourdough Pancakes and Waffles. You’ll also learn how to bake up flatbreads; Sourdough Pita Bread is the focus of this winter’s workshops, but Sourdough Pizza Dough is just as easy. And of course, I’ll explain how to bake the perfect Sourdough Cabin Bread through a combination of sourdough, stretching (instead of kneading), and steaming. Get ready—your house is going to smell so good.