A hobby that’s both gratifying and edible, that anyone can do while we’re all spending more time at home: homemade, wild yeast sourdough bread.
I first got into sourdough baking in 2014 after reading Michael Pollan’s Cooked. A whole section of the book is dedicated to artisanal bread, and I was in a state of disbelief at his claim that bread only requires three ingredients (flour, water, salt). So I mixed up some flour and water and set it out on my counter to fact check him.
Which led to a year of being deep into sourdough baking. My bubbly starter was attentively fed and maintained, and we had a loaf of fresh, homemade sourdough at least twice a week.
Then I got pregnant and my time was so consumed by sleeping or thinking about sleeping that feeding the starter once a week seemed an insurmountable task. Down the drain it went.
Since it is feeling like the perfect time to get back into bread making, we’re starting a new series chronicling the process. Here is the progression I’m expecting:
- Make a mature starter.
- Bake bread
- Maintain the starter.
Week 1 focused on Step 1: Making a mature starter. This can take between a few days to several weeks depending on the environment, the ingredients, and the attentiveness of the person in charge.
The goal here is a starter that doubles in size, has lots of big bubbles throughout, and a noticeable dome at the top from aggressive expansion. Once these things have happened, the starter is ready for the very important job of leavening bread.
Sourdough baking really requires no special equipment: People have been baking bread in all conditions for much of human history. Here’s what I like to use in the starter phase (most of which you probably already own).
- A glass container with a loose-fitting lid. While you don’t have to use glass, it’s helpful to be able to see how the bubbles in your starter are forming. I love these Weck jars for this. I use the lid without the seal or clamps so air can still circulate.
- A small rubber spatula. You can (of course) use a spoon, or any other stirring utensil. A rubber spatula is quiet against the glass container (good for vigorous stirring), and keeps the sides of the jar from too much build up.
- A kitchen scale. Optional! If you don’t have one and don’t want to buy one, you can still make delicious sourdough. I like a kitchen scale for weighing the starter each time I feed it. (It’s hard to get an accurate volume measurement of something that’s continuously changing in volume.)
This is a really, really simple process. It’s one part caring for your starter and eight parts watching a quasi-magical transformation involving fermentation and wild yeast from the air, countertops, your fingers, etc.
To start, mix equal amounts of flour and water (by weight) in a glass container. Stir vigorously. Cover loosely, and set somewhere warm.
In about 12 hours, pour off half of the mixture, add in fresh flour and water, and stir well. Cover loosely. Repeat this process twice a day until your starter is showing signs that it’s ready to bake: bubbling vigorously, doubling in size, forming a dome at the top.
Apologies in advance because I did something very unscientific here. Since flour is a precious commodity currently, I varied how much I was using at most feeds to see how little I could get away with.
My plan is to keep a relatively small amount of starter on hand (so less is discarded each day), then beef it up before bread baking. But that means it’s hard to gage the growth from pictures.
Day 1: I mixed 1 ounce flour (1/4 cup) with 1 ounce water (1/8 cup). It’s like a thick pancake batter.
Day 2: Minuscule bubbles had formed! Progress! Half of the starter was discarded and fresh flour and water were added.
Day 3: Lots more bubbles. The top was looking frothy. Half of the starter was discarded and fresh flour and water were added.
Day 4: Bubbles continued to form, but a thin layer of hooch was sitting at the top of the starter. If this happens to you, it’s a sure sign that the starter needs to be fed more frequently. Unfortunately, I had forgotten this and continued my once/day feeding, discarding half the starter and adding fresh flour and water.
Day 5: Significantly less bubbles than earlier in the week. Not the direction a healthy starter should be moving! I continued business as usual, hoping the microbiome would improve on its own. Half the starter was discarded and fresh flour and water were added.
Day 6: Call the sourdough police! The starter was neglected on day 6. I did not realize this until checking the dates on the photos for this post, but it explains the rancidity I was met with on day 7.
Not pictured: me forgetting to feed the starter on day 6.
Day 7: A sad, deflated starter with a few tiny bubbles and hooch at the top.
Thankfully, starter is known for being resilient. Given the state of the starter at this point, I decided to up feedings to twice a day. (Which is what I would recommend everyone do when starting out – starters get hungry!)
While not the most climactic end to week 1, I think it’s a pretty realistic picture of the life of a sourdough starter.
And don’t worry! The ship has been righted. Here’s a sneak peak of how our starter is doing this week:
I think next week we might be able to try bread!
OTHER HELPFUL READING
Sourdough Starter Troubleshooting | King Arthur Flour
How To Make Sourdough Starter from Scratch | The Kitchn
Sourdough Starter | King Arthur Flour
Cooked | Michael Pollan (I also like the audiobook, which you can listen to for free with an Audible trial!)