Monday, July 13, 2009

How to Make a Simple Sourdough Starter

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.

Equipment needed
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.


Anonymous said...

I made your starter exactly as you said and within three hours it overflowed on the counter out of the jar,lol.


John Newman said...

Hey Lucinda!

The same thing happened to me the first time I made it. I had to start using a bigger jar. :-)

Lucinda said...

Hi John Newman,
I didn't feed it every day because he didn't say to. I have with others in the past but didn't with this one as I thought it just might be a diiferent process than the others. Here it is my 4th day and it does get more bubbly with each day. It does smell a tad sour, but not like sourdough to me, or maybe I'm getting use to the smell and can no longer differentiate between the two, how is yours doing John?

John Newman said...

Getting the right "sourness" is tough. Some weeks it's wonderfully sour, others, not so much.

I didn't use my latest batch for a few months, and started neglecting it. I'm pretty forgetful, that way. After a while, the smell changed from "pleasantly sour" to downright "off." Not wanting to take any chances, I threw it out. I've not made any since. Unfortunately, I've just been too busy, lately, to really make much bread.

Anonymous said...

Hi John,
I bought a loaf of my favorite sourdough to compare yesterday. The smell in the store bought one is out-of-this-world good.Then I smelled my own which smells a tad like beer and sour. Why do you think they aren't the same? This does seem like rocket science to me at times. lol

John Newman said...

I don't know for sure, but I've been told the difference in the sour flavors has to do with the levels of both yeast and lactobacillus. I suspect it also has to do with the different varieties of natural yeasts in different locals. I've also heard of some bakers spiking their sourdough bread with citric or lactic acid.

Lucinda said...

Hello John,
Since I last spoke to you my started got a little tan shade on top of the foam, I threw it out. It did smell like beer and very sour. Was I right to throw it out or not?

John Newman said...

That's a good question, Lucinda. I'm not a sourdough expert, so I don't know for sure. I suspect you would have been fine. I tend to stir my starters at least once a day after the first day, and feed them once a week. Sometimes they separate, sometimes they don't.

Sourdough starter is basically fermented wheat four. Having it smell like beer doesn't surprise me.

I recently found this page by S. John Ross on sourdough starter. It's definitely worth the read.

Lucinda said...

Thanks so much John, I will read it right now.

Rachat de credit said...

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Rachat de credit said...

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