Homemade Sourdough (Part 1/2)

Rosemary Sourdough Rolls

Naturally-leavened rosemary rolls, one of the eight billion breads you can make with the help of your friendly neighborhood (literally) microorganisms.

Bread is one of the oldest food products known to man. For many home bakers, it’s probably also one of the most frustrating. You have to make a dough of the right consistency. You have to knead it, but not under-knead it or over-knead it. You have to shape it. Then, after you’re done, you have to wait around for hours just to see if it worked. If it doesn’t work — usually meaning that it didn’t rise — you’ll get something which, when baked, will come out more like a dense, crumbly brick than the familiar hearty loaf you’re looking for. If you want to try again, that means more kneading — and more waiting. 

This last part — the waiting — is because bread gets its rise from microorganisms, which need time to do what they do. Most breads these days are risen only with yeasts, unicellular organisms which feed on sugar molecules and produce gases (carbon dioxide and ethanol) which become trapped in the dough and cause it to expand. These yeasts are generally purchased at the store, probably as Fleischmann’s Active Dry Yeast, which is made by taking blocks of yeast, granulating them, drying them, and then vacuum-sealing them, so that bakers can activate them (using warm water and sugar) when it’s time to bake. Commercial yeast is efficient, fast, and reliable. 

It’s also very boring, because all the yeast does is rapidly eat sugars and then produce a bunch of flavorless air. All the flavor needs to be manually added by the baker (i.e. sugars, fats, etc). Commercial yeasts are a relatively recent invention, so this is a relatively new way of baking. For the vast majority of bread’s long, storied history, it was made via another far more interesting, artisinal, and flavorful method: bacteria-fuled fermentation. Mmmm. Luckily for us, this method is still just as accessible to us as ever. 

This is because all the yeasts and other bacteria you’ll need are pretty much all over the place, and you can get them all for free. They’re in our air, on our clothes, and all over the food we eat. This is the miracle of beer, wine, bread, and all sorts of other fermented food products: if you just leave stuff sitting around for a while, nature will do a lot of the work for you. This is how we’re going to make naturally-leavened bread, otherwise known as sourdough, although it doesn’t have to be sour. We’re going to leave flour and water sitting around, and let a bunch of bacteria and other things get into it. Then we’re going to bake it. And it’s going to be delicious. 

What causes naturally-leavened breads to be flavored isn’t the yeast, it’s the other bacteria which get inside, usually various members of the lactobacilli family, which are also used in making things like yogurt. These bacteria also eat sugars, but as a byproduct, they make acids, so as they eat, the dough becomes more acidic. This has two important results. The first is that it kills off a bunch of the bacteria you don’t want (but not the yeasts, which love acidic environments). The other is that it gives your bread flavor, usually a sourish one. Leave the little critters to fraternize, and they’ll naturally achieve a balance, a delicious symbiosis which you can use to bake hundreds and hundreds of your own custom loaves for years to come. 

There are lots of reasons to bake naturally-leavened bread beyond just the flavor boost. It’s also a great way to connect with your food, because aside from the fact that you’re not milling your own flour or getting your water directly from a river, you can be sure that this is the same way your distance ancestry made their bread. When you make your own sourdough starter, it’s uniquely yours; nobody else in the world can make that exact same bread. It’s also wonderfully simple: all your loaves need contain are flour, water, and a little salt. They don’t need sugar or butter or any of the other things you add to commercially-yeasted bread, and they sure as hell don’t need any of the other 20 bizarre ingredients that you’ll find in supermarket loaves. Plus, no more buying commercial yeast = lower carbon footprint!

This here primer is going to be broken down into two parts. Part 1 (this article) is going to be making your starter. Part 2 is going to be storing it and baking with it. Once your starter is going, you just need to do step 2 over and over, for weeks or months or years. All told, Part 1 takes literally three minutes to do on the first day. The next day, three more minutes. And so forth. Once you store it, you can leave it untouched for weeks at a time between bakings. It’s so simple.

Let’s start, shall we? 

The method I use for starting the cultivation process is as basic as it gets, from Mike’s Sourdough Home. If you’re looking for other more complex starters, here’s one, via The Fresh Loaf, that uses juice to kickstart the acidic environment. But if you’re looking for the most basic of the basic, the ingredients are as follows:

INGREDIENTS: 

  • 1/2C water
    • Tap water is fine. In fact, it’s preferable. Your water is clean – back away from the bottles and the filters. Unless you’re sure your water contains as much chlorine as a public swimming pool, just use it.
  • 3/8C whole wheat flour
    • It should be unbleached and unbromated. The more heavily-processed your flour is, the fewer little organisms will be available to help your bread (and the more energy it took to produce, at that).

That’s seriously it. Take the two ingredients, put them in a wide-mouthed transparent container, and swirl them around with a fork until they are totally mixed (there should be no dry clumps). Smell it; as the starter activates, the smell will start to change, so it’s good to get a baseline reading.  

The next step is waiting. Just leave it to sit there. The exact amount of time depends on the characteristics of the flour and water and on the ambient temperature (you should try and put it somewhere relatively warm). After 12-24 hours, you should start to see a few bubbles in there, and notice that it’s beginning to smell differently. Congratulations! You have cultivated life. 

Starter

After deflating and feeding your starter, it will be a flat, airless batter.

If you don’t see bubbles after a day or so, stir it up and wait some more. If there’s nothing after a couple days, start over, but in most instances, there will be. Once you see definite bubble activity, it’s time to feed and strengthen the yeast. Stir the batter and remove half of it (most recipes will say “discard,” but I think it’s better to just add some salt/sugar/whatever and make a pancake or two). Then add in about 1/4c water and 1/3 c flour and stir it up vigorously — the little creatures you’re farming love oxygen. 

At this point, the consistency of the batter starts to become more important than the actual measurements of the ingredients, in my opinion. If you’re the exact type, though, go to town. The idea is to “freshen” the starter — remove old material and add back in approximately the same amount of stuff you took out. You want a stiff, wet batter, something that is plenty moist but also has some body to it. Get familiar with it. It’s almost impossible to screw this up too badly; if it seems too soupy, add more flour when you feed it. If it’s too stiff, add more water. Err on the side of it being a little more wet, especially as you’re just starting out. The flour you’re adding to the batter is serving as the yeast’s food; discarding half of it ensures that you’re both keeping the size of it manageable and continuing to winnow out the unwanted creatures. 

Sourdough Starter

Give it a few hours, and poof! The yeast is hard at work fermenting the sugars in the flour, and the gases they are producing can clearly be seen, trapped in (and elevating) the batter.

That’s pretty much the cycle: stir, feed, stir, sit and wait for it to bubble. Discard half. Repeat. As your starter ages, it will become more and more active, until it starts to look like the picture to the right. Once it’s active, many sources will tell you to switch from whole wheat flour to white, because white flour has fewer wild organisms on it. I’m not sure exactly how important that is. Experiment. This is your creation. 

You want to make sure not to feed it until it’s looking really bubbly. Let the organisms do their thing, and err on the side of letting it sit a little longer. You’re trying to encourage growth and fermentation, and if you’re too quick to pull half the batter out and replace it with fresh flour and water, you are running the risk of diluting it. 

These simple instructions should, more often than not, get you a fine little starter to store and bake with and… ahem… name, if you please. The starter pictured here is my own, Veruca. I made it (her?) with these exact instructions late last February. She’s still going strong. 

In Part II, I’ll talk about storing the starter, and give you a basic sourdough bread recipe that you can use and adapt to your heart’s desire. It’ll probably take you 4-7 days to establish your starter, but each day contains only a few minutes of actually doing anything. Give it a shot. The charm of cultivating your own wild yeast just may turn you into a lifelong breadbaker.

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4 Responses to Homemade Sourdough (Part 1/2)

  1. Tes says:

    I have to admit that making sourdough seems difficult for me. But I really love to try it. Thanks for sharing.

    • Finn says:

      It sounds a lot more difficult than it actually is. When you’re starting your starter, you’re really just leaving nature to do all the work for you. Yeast have been around for millions of years — it’s almost impossible to create an environment in which they won’t live and fluorish! Especially when that environment is just flour and water.

      Hope you give it a shot! By the time you start to see little bubbles magically forming in a bowl of nothing but flour and water, you’ll be hooked :-).

  2. Pingback: Homemade Sourdough (Part 2/2) « eyes wide stomach

  3. Charles Flannagan says:

    You can also freeze starter if you bake very infrequently, but I find it does fine in the fridge so long as you feed it at least once a month.

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