Sourdough starters offer an alternative method of preparing yeast for mixing in bread dough. It's also a way to keep yeast cultures alive, when refrigeration isn't an option.
Yes, I've seen sourdough starter available in some specialty markets, but why pay for it? In it's most basic form, it's a mixture of bread flour and water. Fresh bread flour naturally contain a variety of yeasts and bacteria, including the important lactobacillus sanfranciscensis bacteria.
I'm not making this up. Lactobacillus sanfranciscensis was first discovered as one of the main bacteria in sourdough bread, and then named after the city it was discovered in: San Francisco.
Yeast and lactobacillus grow symbiotically within the mixture, breaking down the gluten and acting as both a leavening and flavoring agent. The mixture is left to ferment anywhere from a few hours, to a few days.
Rye flour was a common ingredient in norther Europe during the middle ages. Bread's made with 100% Rye flour, it turns out, doesn't respond well to traditional bakers yeast, being too low in gluten. This makes sourdough starters the preferred method to leaven rye bread.
Breads made with starter require a bit more planning, if you don't have any starter already on hand. The two most common ways to make a sourdough starter today start with bakers yeast: a simple sour-dough starter, and the “old dough” method. Here's the more common, simple starter.
Simple Sourdough Starter
This liquid starter can be used to make a French poolish starter, fermenting only two hours before using, or an Italian biga starter, fermenting at least 36 hours. A poolish starter gives less of a yeasty or “sour flavor”, but still retains some of the “chewiness” associated with sourdough.
wooden spoon (plastic is fine)
wide mouth 1 quart glass jar
2 teaspoons dry yeast
1 1/4 cup water
1 3/4 cup unbleached flour
pinch of sugar (optional)
Do not use metal utensils with this. I'm not sure why, but somehow the metal interferes with the bacteria and yeast.
Place the water in a large glass jar. Sprinkle in the yeast, and let it sit for 5 minutes to activate. Stir to dissolve. Stir in the flour and sugar, if your using it, with a wooden or plastic spoon. Cover the jar with a dish towel (do not seal!) and leave it in a safe place on the counter, away from direct sunlight, for up to five days before refrigerating. You can put a lid on the starter, but never seal it tightly. The culture needs air to live.
Stir the mixture twice a day. It will become bubbly and smell pleasantly sour.
Maintaining the Starter
After removing the amount of starter required by recipe, replenish with an equal amount of flour and water. For example, if you used 1 cup of starter, replace it with 1/2 cup of water and 3/4 cup of flour (this makes about 1 cup when mixed). This lets you keep the cultures alive and lets the mixture continue to ferment for the next time you make sourdough bread. Let the jar ferment on the counter for at least 12 hours, or overnight, before returning to the refrigerator.
If you aren't going to use your starter at least once every other week, you need to feed it. Remove half the starter and replace with and equal amount of flour and water, just like replenishing your starter.
Sometimes the starter will separate, and the liquid portion turn various colors. This is called a “hooch” and is perfectly normal. You can stir it back in, or drain it off if the starter is looking a bit too watery.
Many sourdough aficionados don't refrigerate the dough. They also make sourdough bread at least once a week. I don't make it as often so, I've learned to refrigerate mine. I had some starter that I believe “went bad” on me after two weeks on the counter. It quit smelling pleasantly sour, and just smelled ... off. I decided not to take chances and threw it out. Now I refrigerate.
Sourdough starter can also be made with whole wheat flour for 100% whole wheat sourdough bread.
Next time, I'll show you how to make sourdough starter using the “old dough” method.
Do you know of any great sourdough resources on the web? Feel free to share them in the comments.