Before commercial yeast became available, bakers used sourdough, or natural levain, to make bread. This skill has declined afterwards due to the convenience of using instant yeast, and flavor was sacrificed. However, these past few months, sourdough has become the latest rage in the amateur bread makers’ world, and I was definitely not the exception. Sourdough rises naturally by airborne yeast. It’s the oldest style of leavened bread and dates from 5000 years ago. It can result in a crusty flavorful loaf of bread and it is truly the perfect combination of art and science. I am by no means an expert but this is how I made my starter, after weeks of research and several books read. Once you have an active starter, usually takes AT LEAST 7-14 days, you can easily start using it to make the most delicious and sour breads. Use this guide is a stepping stone, and I highly recommend you read the book Tartine Bread and check out renowned bakers YouTube channels to learn more about about sourdough starters and sourdough breads. I hope this helps!
Ingredients and Instruments:
- A non-reactive jar with a lid (glass, stainless steel, food-grade plastic)
- A 4:1 blend of organic wholemeal bread flour and dark rye flour or 100% strong bread flour.
- Filtered water
- Small spatula or chopstick
- A digital thermometer
- A digital scale
- Make sure you use unbleached organic bread flour as it’s richer in natural yeast. The wild yeast is more likely found in flora-fauna rich environment of whole grain flour. However, you can use all-purpose flour too, even if unbleached, though it will take longer for the starter to become strong and active.
- Make sure you keep feeding your starter with the same type of flour you starter with.
- Use filtered water that is at 28 C (~80-85 F) but you can use regular tap water if it is chlorine-free.
- Make sure the container is large enough to hold your starter as it grows
- Don’t close the lid too tightly to allow the release of carbon dioxide due to fermentation.
- Keep your starter in a warm place until your next feeding. Don’t subject it to extreme temperature or forget to feed it regularly, otherwise you will kill your starter.
- If your house is cold, try to store your starter jar in the warmest place in your house, usually the top of the fridge or inside a turned off oven with the light on.
- When you pick a time to start, make sure it’s a time where you can feed your sourdough exactly every 12/24 hours for at least subsequent14 days. The key to a strong predictable starter is a cycle of regular feedings.
- I highly recommend you start a Sourdough journal to take note of your sourdough’s feeding time, feeding pattern, activity etc.
- After you have a strong starter within 2 weeks of starting the process, move it to a new jar every week if you are keeping it a room temperature or every month if you’re keeping it in the fridge.
- If you decide to store your active and strong starter in the fridge, take it out at least 3 days in advance of using it for a bread recipe and feed it twice a day until it is ready.
DAY 1: 7 AM – Making a Culture
Generating a starter begins with making a culture, which is basically a 50/50 combination of flour and water. Once the flour is mixed with water, microorganisms (wild yeasts and bacteria present in the flour and in the air) are activated and begin to ferment spontaneously. After the fermentation starts, you will need to feed the culture regularly until it is consistently active and has predictable rising times. First, get a clean glass jar and weigh it while it is empty. Record the weight of the jar and save it. Add 40 g of organic wholemeal bread flour and 10 g of organic dark rye flour (you could also use unbleached all-purpose flour or unbleached bread flour or other types of flours). Add 50ml tepid water that is around 28C (~80F). Use your spatula or chopstick to vigorously mix together until no pockets of flour remain and your flour is hydrated. Vigorous mixing will also allow to incorporate airborne yeast. Mark the level of the starter on the jar so you are able to measure the rise. Cover loosely with the lid and place the starter in a warm environment for 24 hours.
PICK A NAME FOR YOUR STARTER
It’s a tradition to name your starter! You could call it anything you like or go towards a fun and catchy name: e.g Clint Yeastwood, Bread Pitt, John Dough, Carrie Breadshaw, or even Dough Exotic. Unleash your creativity, it’s the most fun part of the process.
DAY 2: 7 AM
Remove all but 25g of your starter (That’s the weight of your empty jar + 25 g) and discard it or compost it. Add 50ml water that is at 28C (~80F). Use your spatula or chopstick to mix together starter and water. Add 40 g of organic wholemeal bread flour and 10 g dark rye flour. Use your spatula or chopstick to vigorously mix everything until no pockets of flour remain and your flour is hydrated. Mark the level of the starter on the jar and place the starter in a warm environment for 24 hours.
Note: This is a 1:2:2 feeding, where you are adding 1 quantity of starter + 2 quantities of flour + 2 quantities of water at a 100% hydration (equal flour and water content). While we are discarding the discard in the initial stages as the starter is not strong enough, you could eventually start using it for multiple easy recipes.
DAY 3: 7 AM
Same as Day 2.
Note: you might see some growth and scattered carbon dioxide bubbles at this point but it usually ceases by day 4 as the initial growth is due to some other bacteria build up. Don’t think that you killed your starter if you see some growth in the first couple days which ceases later on. Trust in the process.
DAY 4: 7 AM
From now on, you are going to feed your starter with a 1:3:3 feeding, once in the morning and once at night. Discard all but 25g of the starter and feed it with 75 g of your flour mix and 75 ml water. Add the water first and mix to make sure all your remaining starter is well dissolved then add the flour. Mark the level of the starter on the jar and place the starter in a warm environment for 24 hours.
Note: you will probably start seeing more pronounced fermentation bubbles and the starter growing beyond the marked level at this stage but even if you don’t, keep going. It could just mean that your starter isn’t strong enough yet and requires a few more feedings to get there.
Day 5 – Day 14: 7 AM – 7 PM
Now you will just repeat the same process as in day 4, feeding once a day. You might need to feed it twice a day if you see it doubling in size within 12 hours and leveling back down (it means it’s hungry!) but make sure you reduce your feeding to 1:2:2 if you’re doing it twice a day. Don’t forget to mark the level of the starter on the jar.
What it should look and smile like in the end
By day 14 (it might take less, it might 21 days or more), the starter should be strong, full of fermentation bubbles, consistently dramatically doubling in size within 4-8 hours and collapsing as the cycle winds down. It should have a tangy aroma which is pleasantly acidic, but not overpowering. When the starter ferments, rises and falls predictably, you are ready to prepare a levain and use it for your first bread dough. Levain is basically the starter you will use to help a bread dough rise. Take some starter into a new jar, as specified by the Sourdough bread recipe you are following and make a levain by feeding your starter 1:2:2. You will be able to use your levain at its peak activity which usually happens 4-8 hours after feeding. You will need to figure the exact time for your own starter.
When it comes to the aroma, once the balance of yeast and bacteria is established after multiple consistent feedings, the starter will smell sweet and milky a couple hours after the feeding and turn acidic and sour afterwards as it exhausts the food.
How to tell your starter is strong enough and/ or your levain is ready to be incorporated into the rest of the ingredients?
One way to tell is that the starter would have doubled in size, reached its peak, formed a dome on surface, and is now starting to collapse again as it has used up all the available food. Another way to confirm is through using the Float Test which consists of carefully taking a spoonful of levain and dropping it slowly into a glass full of water. If it floats, the levain is ready to be added to your bread ingredients. Don’t forget to keep feeding your maintenance starter too!
What do we do with the discard?
Also, while your discard wasn’t usable during the first 14 days until your starter became strong, you can actually now use it to add sourness to many easy recipes like crumpets, sourdough pancakes, sourdough waffles, sourdough pizza crusts etc. I am trying several of these recipes and will be adding them to the blog as I go! Early discards can be just thrown away or composted as they don’t have enough built-in sourness to add to your dough/ batter at this stage.
Why waste so much flour?
If you don’t discard some of your starter at every feeding, you’ll end up with a very large container of starter. To reduce wasting too much flour, specially if you are not planning on baking sourdough bread daily, you can feed your strong and active sourdough, leave it at room temperature for a couple of hours then store it in the fridge, feeding it once bi-weekly; and/or you could save 10 g starter amount with every 1:3:3 maintenance feeding instead of 50g . You could, of course, bake with the discard, give it to a friend or even dry it! A cycle of regular feedings will restore the activity of your stater.
Finally, yeast is very difficult to kill. So even if you leave it in the fridge without attending it to it for several weeks, you can still revive your starter with few feedings. Sometimes, you will see a thin layer of liquid on top, this is called the hooch and it’s basically alcohol. You just need to pour it out and resume your feedings.
The only time I would discard a starter is if I see fungal growth or subject it to extreme temperature. But I haven’t yet, crossing fingers!
And now that you have an active starter you are ready to tackle your sourdough bread recipes! Here’s an easy no-knead sourdough bread to get you started.