A few months ago, my sourdough starter met a tragic end. It was accidentally thrown away. I had cultivated that starter from scratch and had been using it for years. I almost cried. When I lamented on Facebook, a friend responded that she was glad it had bit the dust, so that I would write a post about how to make a sourdough starter from scratch. So, perhaps, it was for the best.
What is Sourdough?
Sourdough is wonderful! It is also a misnomer. Not all sourdough is sour. (But I love sour sourdough!) Sourdough should more correctly be called wild-yeasted bread.
Wild yeast? Sounds very exotic, yes? Yeast lives everywhere. It is flying through the air and it lives on many organic surfaces. Some time ago, somebody who wanted to make bread making more predictable began processing commercial yeast. The kind you buy in a little jar, aka “tame yeast”. It makes a very predictable bread. It is easy to schedule, you know exactly how long it will rise. But it’s predictability makes it well, predictable and boring. Don’t get me wrong, I like regular ole’ bread. But sourdough is magical.
There is emerging research that that suggests breads leavened with wild yeast is better for you. It doesn’t spike the glycemic response like regular bread for some reason. Plus it is full of beneficial bacteria. The kind our guts need to function properly. Our bodies are a constant balance between yeast and bacteria. If you throw off the balance, problems happen.
How is Making Sourdough Different than Regular Bread?
To make sourdough bread, you need a starter. The starter contains the captured wild yeast. You add this to your other bread ingredients instead of a packet of commercial yeast. You can buy starters from mail-order catalogs, or you can just catch your own wild yeast and make your own. (It doesn’t even involve a fishing pole or net.)
I will warn you. Sourdough bread is much fussier. It takes much longer and take a certain amount of adaptability. But it’s worth it for me.
How can I make my own starter?
Making a starter is a several day process. But you should not get too tied to a schedule. For instance, this process was supposed to take 5-6 days. It ended up taking 8, probably because of the colder weather. Don’t give up! Keep on keepin on and it will probably work out!
Mix 1 cup (4.25 oz) whole rye flour with 1/2 cup (4 ounces) unsweetened pineapple juice.
Place it in a 4 cup (or bigger) mixing vessel. It’s nice if it has markings on the outside, if it doesn’t use a piece of tape to mark where it is, then you can see if it is growing.
Why rye? It is supposed to be a great jump starter and have great flavor. You can try this with regular flour if you don’t have access to rye flour.
Cover loosely with plastic wrap and leave on the counter top.
Here is what it looks like before I did anything to it.
Add 1/2 cup (2.25 ounces) all purpose, unbleached white flour or bread flour and 1/4 cup (2 ounces) unsweetened pineapple juice.
Mix it all around until there aren’t big streaks of white in the darker brown.
Why pineapple juice? There is a certain strain of bacteria that commonly gets into sourdough starts and derails them. That bacteria doesn’t like pineapple juice.
Cover it loosely again and set on the counter. This is hard work right?
Here is what it looks like before I did anything.
Now remove half of the starter and toss it. Or give it to a friend.
To your remaining half, add 1 cup (4.5 ounces) unbleached flour and 1/2 cup (4 ounces) water, at room temperature.
Mix it all together.
You guessed it! Cover loosely with plastic wrap and leave on the counter.
Repeat what you did on day 3. Discard half of the start. Then add 1 cup flour and 1/2 cup water. Mix it up and cover loosely with plastic wrap.
I was supposed to be done on this day. But my starter still looked fairly dead.
So I repeated day 3.
This picture is for reference. Notice how there is under 2 cups of the mixture? Oops, no you can’t because I had the measuring cup turned around. So just believe me, it was just under two cups.
I started seeing some signs of life today.
This is before I mixed it.
Notice how it has grown a bit? And you can start to see some bubbles.
Today I just stirred it well. The yeast and bacteria like oxygen. So if your starter seems sluggish to get going, stir it a few times during the day. Remember to keep it loosely covered. Just so it doesn’t dry out.
Even more life today, but still not vigorous and vibrant like it should be. I repeated day 3. Discard half, then add 1 cup flour 1/2 cup water.
I also stirred it a few times during the day.
You can clearly see this is alive now. Lots of bubbles. It smells tangy and divine (that might just be my own opinion of its smell, but you should smell something if it’s where it should be.)
And look at this! See how much it has grown? We did it! We captured those wild yeasties.
At this point it will be soupy and stringy because the enzymes have broken down the gluten completely.
There it is. Your own wild yeast or sourdough starter. Transfer it to a jar or container (make sure it is much bigger than the actual starter because it tends to grow and you don’t want a mess.) Put it in the refrigerator. It will hang out there for months at a time.
Again, don’t worry if your starter doesn’t stick to this exact schedule. It might come to life sooner. It might take a day or two longer. Remember if you haven’t seen life by day 5, then stirring becomes your best friend. Stir it several times a day. Follow days 1-4 pretty closely. But don’t worry if you go a bit over 24 hours between steps. For the rest of the days follow the discard and feed steps every 1-2 days, otherwise stir it a lot and be patient and have faith.
Turning the starter into bread will come later. For now be proud of your wild yeast catch!