The Sourdough Experience Pt. 1 – Starter

Thus begins the documentation of my journey with sourdough. I am what you’d maybe call an addict if I’m being honest? I’m no Oprah, but I do love me some bread. We currently live a few blocks from an amazing artisan bakery, and the only reason I haven’t completely blown through our food budget just on baguettes is because 1) it takes too much work to load two kids up in the car for just one errand and 2) it’s been too freakin cold to walk. So I decided to practice my bread-making skills, and here are some things that I’ve learned that you can hopefully find useful.

I decided to break it up into two different blog posts for ease of reading, so stay tuned for the actual bread recipe!

On the whole, sourdough is not difficult but it is time consuming. I’ve tried starters before while working a 9-5 job outside the home, but I just kept feeding the darn thing and never used it. A good bread process can be up to 36 hours from start to finish, but with only maybe 20 minutes of actual hands-on work; so it’s helpful to either be at home that whole time, or able to swing home to complete the next step when need be.

The starter I used is one based off a recipe from King Arthur Flour, and with some loving tender care and a lot of attention, it has developed into a lively little fella. You can buy one ounce of starter directly from their site for $8.95 plus shipping, but even with as much flour and water as you end up throwing away, it’s probably still cheaper to make it yourself if you have the time and effort!

First off, a couple things regarding getting the starter going: 
1. You will feel like you are wasting stuff since you have to feed it twice a day for the first week. This may be true, but unless you want gallons and gallons of starter, it’s kind of necessary. And in the grand scheme of things, half of that is water; so you’re actually not throwing away as much as you think.
2. The actual process doesn’t take a ton of time, but it does take a little bit of effort; setting reminders on your phone or whatnot helps to make sure that you don’t forget about it in its early stages.
3. I’ve gotten the best results by using a kitchen scale to weigh the measurements by ounces rather than measuring by volume. It’s not impossible without one, but I would definitely recommend it.
4. This is a very specific science with a MILLION variables, which pretty much makes each persons experience a different one. Feel free to tweak it as you see fit; the end goal is to have a fermented portion of dough that you feed on a regular basis, as the sugars in the freshly added flour are literally eaten up by little microorganisms and active cultures. If you leave it too long, they run out of “food” that’s in the form of sugar in the flour; if you feed it too often, you’ll overwhelm it with food and it’ll take longer for them to eat through to complete the fermentation and it won’t be very active. Finding that perfect balance is the goal, and different flour/temperatures/humidity levels will all affect that. So don’t be discouraged if it doesn’t work like someone else’s!

So here we go. I’ll start with a condensed version for reference, then include some notes below:

Starter Recipe  [condensed version]

– Mix: 4 oz whole wheat or rye flour + 4 oz water. 
– Let sit 24 hours. 
– Feed: [Mix 4 oz starter + 4 oz all purpose flour + 4 oz water]
– Let sit 24 hours. 
– Feed. 
– Let sit 12 hours. 
– Feed every 12 hours for 4-6 days till bubbly and active. 
– Feed, then place in fridge and feed once a week. 

I know that sounds simple, and it is, but here are some further notes and tips!

The easiest thing to remember if you are using a scale is the magic number FOUR. Whether you are starting it fresh or feeding it, the proportions of each element are going to be 4 ounces. So just keep that in mind.
[If you don’t have a scale, 4 ounces of water is about a scant half a cup, 4 ounces of flour is about 1 cup, and 4 ounces of starter is about an overflowing half a cup.]

Day 1:
– Mix 4 ounces whole wheat or rye flour and 4 ounces of filtered water together completely, until no dry flour remains. Let sit at room temp for 24 hours.
Use a glass/ceramic/stainless steel/food grade plastic container that is big enough to be only half-full with the above ingredients. I use a quart-sized mason jar with the lid LOOSELY tightened, so the gases can escape. I also definitely recommend using whole wheat or rye flour to get started, though regular flour would still work. The wild yeasts that you need to develop the leaven are more likely to be in those whole grain flours than in a more refined one.

Day 2:
– Weigh out 4 ounces of the starter into a bowl
– Mix in 4 ounces of All-Purpose flour and 4 ounces of filtered water (12 ounces total).
– Discard the rest of the starter from your original container, then place the newly fed starter back into your jar for another 24 hours at room temp.
You may or may not see much activity in the starter by day 2; that’s okay. And the reason you will end up discarding what seems like a lot of starter is that when you feed the starter, you need equal parts starter/flour/water. So if you keep adding equal parts to a full portion, you’ll TRIPLE the volume of your starter at every feeding. And it’ll take over your kitchen.

Day 3:
– You should see some bubbly activity by now, and there should be an acidic or kind of weirdly fruity scent.
– Repeat the feeding as described in day two: [4 ounces starter + 4 ounces water + 4 ounces all purpose flour]. Discard extra starter.
– Let sit for just TWELVE hours this time before feeding again.
If you are doing this in the afternoon, it’s totally okay to wait till the next morning. It’s not a baby, even though it needs TLC; it won’t die and it won’t cry if you don’t get up in the wee hours to feed (thank goodness).

Days 4, 5 and 6:
– Feed your starter as described above every 12 hours for the next three days [4+4+4 ounces of starter/flour/water].
I usually did it once in the morning when I got up, then once in the evening before I went to bed. Being exactly on the dot hour-wise is not as important as generally feeding it twice a day.

After 6 or 7 days, it should be getting pretty bubbly and fragrant between feedings; sometimes it’ll double in size or get foamy, other times it’ll just have bubbles all the way through which you can see if you are using a clear glass container. If it doesn’t seem active, keep feeding twice a day until it picks up. This could possibly take up to two weeks; the outside temperature, humidity, and flour varieties seems to affect it quite a bit, so everyone most likely will have a little bit of a different experience each time. It’s a science, though an imprecise one that seems to vary with each experience; you may find something or a proportion that works better for you that may not work for anyone else.

The key to perfecting this: Be patient. One of the hardest things in life is craving sourdough bread, and then having to wait a week or longer to get your starter going; but it’s totally worth it!

Final Day: Once you are satisfied that your starter is active, feed one last time, let it sit at room temp for 6-8 hours to give it a chance to get a bit bubbly, then place in the fridge. Feed periodically, ideally once a week. I usually leave it out a couple hours after each feeding, before replacing back in the fridge, to give it a chance to get bubbly again before chilling it down. 

 

Once you get your starter going, the part you’ll use in actual baking is the extra 8 ounces or so of “discard” mix that you would typically toss when you are just feeding your starter. You can use it as often as you like; if you are going to use it every day, then you can keep it out on your counter. If it’s more like once a week or every couple days, then it’s best to leave it refrigerated. There are SO many different things you can do with it. Pancakes, waffles, breads, muffins… the opportunities are endless! Post a comment with your favorite recipe as you discover them!  Also, comment with any questions and I’m happy to help you troubleshoot.

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