Sourdough is having a (another) moment. More people than ever are baking with a starter, yet commercial yeast is scarce. I hear lots of folks saying that they can’t find yeast anywhere when the truth is, yeast is EVERYWHERE - and it’s really easy to make this abundant resource work for you if you just follow a few simple steps.I made a starter years ago using the King Arthur method and I’ve baked with it several times a week ever since. Here is the super simple method for creating and maintaining your own sourdough starter:
Step 1: Combine about 1 cup of whole grain flour and with ½ cup of warm (not hot) water. Let it sit, covered with a kitchen towel for 24 hours.
Make sure you start with some ground, whole grain flour. This can be rye or whole wheat. There is much more natural yeast on whole, unprocessed grains.
Step 2: Mix ½ cup of the mixture with 1 cup of all purpose or bread flour and ½ cup of warm (not hot) water. Let it sit at room temperature, covered with a kitchen towel for 24 hours.
Only using ½ a cup of the mixture during the initial feedings create a lot of “discard”. I don’t believe in discarding ingredients so I’ll include some ideas for using the discard at the end of this post.
Step 3: Mix ½ cup of the mixture with a cup of flour and ½ cup warm (not hot) water. Let it sit at room temperature, covered with a kitchen towel for 12 hours.
Every 12 hours is a target but you don’t have to be exact. I’ve had lots of people tell me that they let their starters keep them up at night wondering if they remembered to feed them. Don’t stress. These things are difficult to kill.
Step 4: Repeat step 3 every 12 hours until the starter bubbles and doubles in volume during the 12 hour resting period.
This could take anywhere from 1 day to over a week. There are plenty of variables involved - from the temperature of your kitchen to the amount of yeast and bacteria in your grain and in the air. Don’t stress. Almost everyone thinks they’ve done something wrong at this point. Nope, you’re fine - even if you don’t see any activity at all. Keep feeding, it will happen.
Step 5: Use and maintain your starter. I keep mine in the fridge and feed it whenever I bake, or at least once a week. I use a scale to add 50 grams of flour and 50 grams of water per feeding and I never discard any starter.
That’s it! Like I said, it’s super easy. This is ONE way to make a starter and there are tons of other methods. Some people use different kinds of fruit, grains, and so on. I keep mine strictly grain and water and it works really well for me. Experiment and have fun! I’ve included a few tips below.
In my opinion, sourdough starter is superior to commercial yeast for at least three reasons:
Create no waste, value the marginal, obtain a yield! You can do so many things with the “discard.” You can add it to quickbread recipes, make sourdough pancakes, dumplings, crackers and more! These recipes are easily found online. It’s been a long time since I created any discard so I don’t have recipes that I use per se. You can save it up, keeping it in the fridge to use all at once or spread it out into different recipes as you create your starter. Remember, you really don’t need to throw anything away once you have a starter created. Just keep your starter in the fridge, bake once a week at least, and replace what you take by feeding the starter.
Pre Fermenting starter before using
Before I add starter to a recipe I pre ferment some. This is sometimes referred to as “fed” starter. I simply add 1 part starter, 1 part flour, and 1 part water together and let it sit at room temperature until it starts to bubble. About 1 hour.
Converting recipes to use sourdough
My go to formula for converting a yeast based recipe to a sourdough recipe is as follows:
Add about 20%, by weight, starter to flour weight. So if you use 500 grams of flour in your recipe, use 100 grams of fed starter (see above under “pre fermenting.” I also subtract liquid and flour from the recipe in relation to the amount of starter. So if I use 100 grams of starter, I reduce the flour and the liquid in the original recipe by 50 grams each. Which is why I keep my starter at 100% hydration. Make sure to ferment your doughs longer than the commercial yeast recipe calls for - typically at least 4 hours.
Why 100% hydration
I feed my starter to maintain 100% hydration, meaning it has an equal ratio of flour to water, by weight. This way it is easy to know how much of each flour and water I am adding to any given recipe and the starter itself has no effect on the hydration level of my sourdough bread formulas, no matter how much I choose to use.
Why Change the Amount of Starter in a recipe?
Counterintuitively, the less starter used in a recipe, the more sour the bread will be. This is because it takes longer to rise, and therefore it ferments longer, creating a more sour taste.
Don’t Fear the Hooch
That water that comes to the surface of your starter, it’s no problem at all. It just means that your starter is hungry. Feed it. You can either pour it off or stir it right in while you’re feeding your starter.
As an insurance policy, you can spread some starter as thin as you can onto some parchment or a silicone baking mat and let it air dry for a day or so, until it’s brittle. Then just break it into pieces and store it in an airtight container in a cool dry place for up to a year. You can rehydrate it with a tiny amount of water and then feed it as normal. This can be used to “take a break” from baking or in case something happens to your starter. Several years ago I kept my starter in a glass container and it was somehow broken. I couldn’t salvage any of it for fear of having glass shards mix in. I WISH I’d had some dehydrated starter to rehydrate, but I didn’t. Once bitten, twice shy.
Daniel Firth Griffith