Bread Maker Series: Cultivating your own Sourdough Starter

A month into quarantine, it seems like everyone is making their own bread, right? I’m loving seeing everyone hone their baking skills, it’s something that I’ve loved for a few years now because of the therapeutic nature of kneading and baking something on your own.

I only *just* started experimenting with sourdough in 2020, but I’ve been honing my skills very slowly over the last three years with the assistance of a bread machine. I’ll write another post soon about using a bread machine (which is a wonderful way to start!) but today I’m focusing on sourdough and the creation of your own starter. This will be part of a blog series on bread making that I’ll be publishing while we are all home in quarantine!

One of my prettiest loaves of bread – there have been plenty of ugly ones, too!

What is sourdough? Sourdough is a type of bread or dough (you can make things other than bread with it – like pancakes, waffles, crackers) that is fermented and has a distinctive sour (or tangy) taste from the lactobacilli. Lactobacilli is the bacterial strain that encourages the fermentation process. Naturally leavened sourdough bread does not use yeast – the bacterial reaction creates a natural rise.

Is sourdough better than traditional bread? Taste-wise, its a matter of preference. I like the tang of sourdough bread. Preparation-wise, I think it is less frustrating to make than yeast-leavened bread because I find it to be a bit more forgiving. Health-wise, it is somewhat higher in protein than traditional bread, provides the probiotic benefits of eating fermented foods (good for your gut health!) and while it is not gluten free, it can be easier to digest if you have gluten sensitivity.

Why should I try making sourdough bread? It’s a fun challenge that takes a lot of practice (and builds patience), it also has a longer shelf life because it contains so few ingredients. It’s a fun new skill to work on, and when we’re spending so much time at home, it’s a fun way to pass the time. I will also add, I am terrible at making yeast breads. I’ve never excelled at working with yeast and have worked around my weakness with a bread machine. Sourdough has actually produced better success for me (although my results are not yet perfect).

What you need to make your own sourdough starter: If you’re interested in making your own sourdough starter, you’ll need a few tools and ingredients to get started. (If you don’t want to make your own – it takes a few weeks – you can buy one that is already active online).

I bought a jar like this for $5 at Target
  • A glass jar with a lid (You can use metal, but I prefer glass for reasons noted below)
I bought this model used on Ebay for about $8
  • A kitchen scale
  • Flour (start with white bread flour and then consider transitioning to whole wheat, rye or alternative flours)
  • Still water (distilled is fine, otherwise – use tap water that you let rest for 24+ hours before using

The following process is for making a 100% hydration starter – where equal weights of water and flour are added each time. I leaned heavily on the resources from King Arthur Flour for making my starter. I can’t recommend their website any more highly! It has tons of plain English (non-technical) posts, photos and videos to get you started.

The timeframe for creating an active starter depends a lot on the warmth of your kitchen. I created mine on February 12th and it took about three weeks to be active enough to use. We keep our home in the mid 60s and that was during winter in Wisconsin, so it was far from warm outside.

In the first week of my starter’s life – it doesn’t look like much is happening!

Add equal weights – then you wait. Sourdough starters have two steps – add equal weights of water and flour – and then you wait. The recipe I’ve used (linked in the paragraph above) calls for the following steps:

  1. Combine equal weights (hence the need for the kitchen scale) of 4 oz. of flour and 4 oz. of water in your glass jar. Stir and cover.
  2. Wait for 24 hours.
  3. Stir your starter and weigh out 4 oz. of the starter. Discard everything but the 4 oz.
  4. Add 4 oz. of flour and 4 oz. of water to the starter, stir and cover. Repeat steps 2-4.

I discarded and added flour and water every 24 hours for the first two weeks – then I started discarding and adding every 12-18 hours in the third week. It won’t look like much is happening in the first week, but continue on with the discarding and adding of new flour and water. While you may not see it, by adding the new flour and water, you are feeding the bacteria and increasing its activity. It’s critical to continue to discard all but 4 oz. of your starter so that you are maximizing the feeding. Think of it this way, you are providing a meal to only 4 people instead of 8 people – the food you have will go farther with a smaller crowd.

A note about discard – once your starter is active and bubbly (enough so to leaven bread), then you can try sourdough discard recipes. I wouldn’t advise eating sourdough discard before it is fully active as it causes indigestion / stomach pain for some people.

As time goes on, you’ll see bubbles indicating life in your starter!

As time goes on, the starter will get more active and visibly ‘come to life’. You will see bubbles appearing on the side of the jar and from the top. This is why I like using a glass jar – you can see the activity and the growth most clearly! The volume of the starter will also increase. I like marking my starter jar with a dry erase marker on the side of the jar so I can see how much it grows in the 12-24 hour period.

The pink line marks where the starter was at the time of feeding, several hours later it has increased in volume.
This starter has gone just a bit too long since its last feeding to use for baking – the bubbles are too uniform.
The lumpy surface with uneven sized bubbles after the starter has doubled in volume is the proper ripeness.

You will know your starter is ready to try baking with when it has a mix of small and large bubbles and has an uneven surface. It will have doubled in size within 5-6 hours from its last feeding. If your starter appears flat on the surface and has all even sized small bubbles, it has been too long since its last feeding and will need to be fed again to use. Some people use the “float test”, but I prefer to just go by appearance and texture.

A cautionary tale – this time I did not discard all but 4 oz. of starter and when the volume grew, it outgrew the container!

Storing your sourdough starter: Some of you reading this are probably thinking, oh my god, I don’t want to have to feed my sourdough starter everyday for my entire life! Relax, you don’t have to! Once your starter is fully active and ready for baking, you maintain 4 oz. of your starter and can keep it in the fridge. Make sure that you always feed before you make a recipe so that you maintain a small amount of your starter. You don’t want to use your entire starter and end up needing to start from square one! I keep my starter in the fridge and feed it once a week. There are other ways to dry out and put your starter “on hold” if you aren’t able to feed once weekly. There are some great tips on how to revive a starter or store your starter here.

One other note – some people have said that sourdough starter smells really bad. I did not experience that at all with a regular feeding schedule and not letting my refrigerated starter go more than 8-9 days without feeding. It smells pleasantly fresh and acidic, but not smelly or rank. If you find that your starter smells, I’d suggest Googling it and seeing if you can troubleshoot the problem.

This is my fermented foods shelf of the fridge – can you tell we are a family that like probiotic foods? The growler is full of kombucha!

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