Before commercial dried yeast was invented, bread bakers just saved a bit of the finished but unbaked dough from each batch and mixed it with more flour and water to start the next batch. They didn’t know why it worked, just that saved dough seemed to jump-start the transformation of a mixture of flour and water into a flavorful, spongy mass that could be baked into a delicious bread.
We now know they were actually cultivating an active collection of wild yeasts and bacteria and that gases the microorganisms produced added air bubbles that made the dough rise. We now call the bit of saved dough “sourdough starter” and all the bread made with it “sourdough“—but it used to just be called “bread.”
Commercial dried yeast has been selected to make lots of gas fast and to thrive on refined white flour made from modern, high-gluten, hybrid wheat. It allows bakers to make bread rapidly, predictably, and whenever the fancy strikes them. But speed and convenience come at a price: not just the cost of a packet of yeast, but also a less-complex flavor and texture and a final product that’s harder to digest and less nutritious than traditional slow-rise sourdough bread.
Luckily, you can still tap into the free power of wild bacteria anytime you want, once you learn how to make sourdough starter for yourself. Here’s how to make your very own from scratch.
HOW TO MAKE SOURDOUGH STARTER
Here’s what you’ll need:
+ Flour (Whatever kind you will be baking bread with is best; I use a blend of freshly ground wheat and rye.)
+ Large glass or pottery container—one that will hold about four cups and that has a really wide opening. (A cookie jar or canister works well.)
+ The yeasts and bacteria that are floating around in the air wherever you live (not just in San Francisco, despite the city’s reputation for great sourdough bread).
Day 1: Mix ¾ cup of flour and ½ cup warm water* together in your large jar. Use a whisk, as that will help get lots of air (and the airborne yeasts and bacteria you want) into the slurry. Cover the jar loosely with some cheesecloth or an inverted sieve—something that will keep bugs and objects out but allow air to circulate. Place it in a room-temperature location, and ignore it.
*If your tap water is chlorinated, you either need to let it sit in an open container for a day to let the chlorine evaporate, run it through a filter that takes out chlorine, or use bottled water. Chlorine inhibits the yeasts and bacteria you want to encourage.
Day 2: Add another ¾ cup of flour and ½ cup warm water to the mixture and whisk it vigorously. Cover loosely and keep at room temperature.
Day 3: By now you may notice some small bubbles in your slurry; this is good! If not, just be patient. Add another ¾ cup of flour and ½ cup warm water to the mixture and whisk it vigorously. Cover it loosely and keep it at room temperature.
Day 4: Pour out about ½ of the slurry and either feed it to your compost pile or use it up. I can’t bear to waste good flour, so I use my extra slurry to make pancakes (see recipe below). Add another ¾ cup of flour and ½ cup warm water to the remaining mixture and whisk it vigorously. Cover loosely and keep at room temperature.
Repeat the Day 4 instructions daily until your slurry becomes a spongy, bubbling mass that doubles in size by the next feeding time. This usually occurs in about 5 to 7 days total. It should smell and taste a bit sour and a bit yeasty, but pleasant. If it does, congratulations! You are now the proud steward of your very own sourdough starter!
Here are a couple of harmless glitches you may encounter and what to do about them:
+ If bubbles fail to appear after a week, try pouring the slurry into a wider bowl, whisking it vigorously, and leaving it completely uncovered for a day to help collect more wild yeasts.
+ If a brown liquid accumulates on the surface, don’t worry, just pour it off.
+ If your starter smells or tastes nasty, continue the feeding cycle for a few more days and see if it mellows out. If it doesn’t—this happens once in a while—dump the whole thing and start over.
HOW TO USE YOUR SOURDOUGH STARTER
Once you have a sourdough starter, you can use it for any number of baking projects, like this recipe for Sourdough English Muffinsfrom the Rodale Whole Foods Cookbook, or the drool-worthy pancake recipe below.
Regardless, you’ll need to maintain your starter. If you bake bread every couple of days, just keep your starter jar at room temperature and continue feeding it every day as you did during its creation. You’ll use most of the starter when you bake, but keep about a ½ cup of it in your jar and continue to feed it to keep the process going.
If you bake once a week, put the jar in the refrigerator. It will only need to be fed once a week.
If you need a break from your starter but don’t want to lose it, just freeze ½ cup of it. At least three days before you want to bake with it again, let it thaw and feed it every day, and you’ll be back in business.
Pancakes are a great way to use extra starter that you need to pour off during the “feeding” process. These cakes have a pleasant sour tang that pairs well with marmalade.
Makes about 6 thick or 8 thin pancakes
2 cups sourdough starter
1 organic egg, beaten
1 teaspoon baking soda (optional; use it if you like your pancakes really fluffy)
Milk (the amount will depend on how thick you like your pancake batter)
1. Combine starter and egg (and baking soda, if using). If the batter is too thick, slowly add milk, about a tablespoon at a time, until it reaches your desired consistency. I grew up on thin, almost crepelike pancakes, so I make my batter with a consistency about like heavy cream. If you like your pancakes fluffy, you will want to leave it thicker (you can even add a tablespoon or two of flour if it is too thin to start with).
2. Heat a cast-iron skillet or griddle on medium heat, put a little butter or olive oil in the pan, and pour in the batter to make a 6″ pancake. Cook on one side until the bottom is golden, flip, and cook until that side is golden, too.
3. Repeat. Enjoy!