Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Growing a Sourdough Starter, Day by Day

This entire day-by-day series, along with recipes for sourdough bread and sourdough pizza ran on Serious Eats as the "Starter-Along," with one post each day until we got to the recipes. The participation in the event was amazing, as readers asked questions and posted photos of their developing starters.

This is the complete series in one post, from Day Zero where we discuss the equipment needed, all the way through the last day of the series which shows the aftermath of a neglected starter.

If your sourdough doesn't progress at this pace, don't fret. Plenty of people who came along on this journey had starters that lagged behind and caught up later. Some were slow overall, and some sped to the finish line ahead of everyone else. Some folks neglected a feeding or two, but were successful in the end. This isn't meant to be a rigid formula, but more of a guideline. If I can predict anything at all about your starter, it is that it will somehow be different than this one. Because they all are unique.

A sourdough bread recipe is here, and a pizza recipe is here, when you're done with your starter. There are more here as well. those are just to get you started. hehe.

Day Zero

A sourdough starter is a simple concept—let some flour and water hang around for a while, and almost magically, the correct combination of yeast and bacteria will take up residence. And that same combination, when healthy and happy, create an environment that's unfriendly to unwanted organisms.

But now that every grocery store stocks dry yeast, why bother with sourdough? The simple answer is flavor. You'll never get the same results from dry yeast that you will from sourdough. Another reason is uniqueness. Sourdoughs cultivated in different areas will result in different breads. Not only will the flavor be different, but the crust, crumb, and rise will be different. It's as far as you can get from the concept of nationwide mass-produced industrial bread.

There are so many questions about how to grow a sourdough starter, and so many different methods. To me, some of which seem awfully complicated and technical considering sourdough is as old as the pyramids. I forgo the chemical soups and stick with basic flour and water.

Right here, we've got a day-by-day chronicle of a the life of a starter. Print it out or come back every day for a new dose, whatever you like. But either way, this should help you grow a sourdough starter of your own, even if you've never tried before. Just imagine that I'm here with you, each day, building my starter at the same time. And of course, if you leave comments or questions, I'll answer as soon as I can. I hope you'll join me!

Here on Day Zero, in the quest for your own bubbly new pet, there's not a lot of pre-planning required. All you really need is some sort of reasonable containment vessel, like a canning jar with a lid (you won't use the lid while you're growing the starter, but you'll use it when you store it), some flour, some water, and something to stir your mixture. Oh, and a measuring device. A scale is nice if you want to be precise, or you can use volume measures, or just eyeball it as best you can.

I use plain tap water for starters, fresh from the faucet. If your water is highly chlorinated, you might want to leave the water sit overnight so the chlorine dissipates. If your water is otherwise nasty tasting, it doesn't necessarily mean it will be bad for sourdough, although it might be. If you're worried, buy a bottle of water. Tomorrow, when you've got your jar ready, we'll get started.

Oh - and one last thing to consider. It's a tradition among people who keep sourdough starters to name their starters. Mine are all in the Mongo family, and they include Colorado Mongo, French Mongo, and my newest pet, Mongo Grape.

Now might be a good time to start thinking about a name for your new gooey little pet. Yes, it seems silly, but it's a fun little tradition. So, what are you going to name yours?

Day 1 

My goal with this project was to come up with a method for getting a sourdough starter going that would be easy for anyone. I also didn't want to end up with an excess of starter that would have to be thrown away. So I started with a very small amount. I find that starters seem to work better if they're very wet at the beginning, so I started with 1/2 ounce of flour and 1 ounce of water. That's all.

It's best to measure with a scale, but if you don't have one, don't worry. 1/2 ounce of flour is pretty easy to measure consistently (even though we're breaking all the rules of measuring properly here). Here's how to do it: Use your handy tablespoon measure and dip it into the flour, then press it against the side of the container so that you're compacting it in the process. Move it back and forth a bit to level it, and you'll be close enough to 1/2 ounce for this starter recipe. Add one ounce of water and stir it up.

Cover the jar with plastic wrap and store on the kitchen counter. Do not refrigerate Now, forget about it until tomorrow.

While your just-started starter sits, the enzymes in the flour get to work, and some of the starch in the flour starts converting to sugar. And then the hoards arrive. Bacteria, yeast, and all sorts of critters join the least for a little while, until all the little beasts battle it out to see who survives. I'm betting on the bread beasties. How about you?

Day 2

When I first checked my starter today, the yeast had just started coming to the party in my jar—there were already a few tiny bubbles.

Many sourdough starter recipes require a lot of feeding, but if you think about it, yeast isn't running around the jar like PacMan, it's sort of floating around and eating what's nearby. Stirring is just as important as feeding. Maybe more so.

On Day 2, I didn't feed at all, I just stirred the mixture whenever I thought about it. That's actually a good thing to do throughout the process. You don't need to stir on schedule, but whenever it's convenient, give it a little stir, whether it's a couple times a day or a dozen because you happen to be in the kitchen.

By the end of Day 2, there were more obvious bubbles in the mixture.

I gave it one more stir at the end of the day, and let it rest on the counter until morning. How's your starter doing? Of you're following along, just stip it throughout the day or when you can. No need to stick to a rigid schedule. Leave starter out on counter, covered with plastic wrap, overnight. See you tomorrow!
By the end of Day 2, there were more obvious bubbles in the mixture.

I gave it one more stir and let it sit overnight.

Day 3

Since things were bubbling nicely today, it's time to start changing the water/flour ratio. I fed the starter with one ounce each of water and flour. I stirred the mixture a few times during the day when I thought about it, and left it on the counter as before. Bubble activity is increasing!

So, what's going on in there? You don't need to know the science to nurture a sourdough, but it is interesting. While most people think of a sourdough starter as a natural yeast, it's more than that. It's actually bacteria and yeast working together. If you were counting, the bacteria in a starter would outnumber the yeast by 100 to 1. Don't worry about the bacteria though—they're the nice kind.

Day 4

Today I wanted to tweak the water-to-flour ratio in my starter, so I fed it one ounce of flour and half an ounce of water. Stir it up and leave it on the counter.

Now I've got a 50/50 ratio of water and flour, or if you're used to thinking in baker's percentages, that's 100 percent hydration. This is the final adjustment—I'll keep it at this thickness from now on.

At this point the bubbles are looking good and the scent has changed—the starter smells a little bit like buttermilk. Considering the bacteria is the related to the bacteria that ferments milk into yogurt and cheese and, yes, buttermilk, this makes a fair amount of sense.

Bubbles look good and the scent has changed - like buttermilk.

Day 5

From now on, it's all about feeding once a day and stirring whenever you think about it. Unlike some recipes that require each feeding to double the existing amount of starter, I feed the same amount each day. Just add one ounce each of flour and water. We won't try to double it until we're getting ready to bake with the starter.

To be brutally honest, when I'm feeding a starter, I usually just eyeball the quantities. But I measured this time just so you can follow along precisely, if that's what you want to do. Don't sweat it too much, though.

Why are we stirring the starter? It does more than just move the yeast around to available food. Stirring making it easier for the yeast to get oxygen. The yeast needs oxygen to reproduce, so while you're growing your starter, you'll get more yeast if you stir it more often. Stir vigorously, or whisk it, if you prefer, and leave it on the counter as before.

Ah, pretty bubbles.

Day 6

You've got the hang of this. Today, do it again: feed your starter 1 ounce each of flour and water, and give it a stir when you think of it. Bubbles are looking good!

Not all starters are the same, so if you aren't seeing the same bubbling I am, don't worry too much about it. I've seen starters that have a slow start, but suddenly burst into action rapidly and vigorously. That's part of the charm of sourdoughs—they're quirky.

Part of what happens in a sourdough is that the bacteria converts the sugars into lactic and acetic acid, which lowers the pH level to a point where a lot of the nasty microbes won't be happy. However, the yeast in sourdough likes the acidic environment just fine.

The good yeast can live in the acid environment and the bad critters pack their bags and go away. And unlike regular yeasts, sourdough yeasts don't eat maltose (a type of sugar) so they leave that for the bacteria to munch on. The bacteria add to our starter's flavor, and the yeast add the bubbles. Meanwhile, everyone else gets out of the swimming pool.

Bubbles are looking good.

Day 7

Just like the previous few days, today we're going to add another ounce each of flour and water. Bubble activity is definitely increasing. One thing to look for is how fast the bubbles come back after stirring. It's one thing to see bubbles first thing in the morning, but it's not ready to bake until it's a little more lively.

One flavor tip: unlike the yeast in a sourdough that needs oxygen to reproduce, the bacteria carries on whether there's available oxygen or not. And the bacteria only produces lactic acid when the oxygen has been depleted. So, if you like a sour sourdough, let it sit undisturbed for a while. The yeast will take a little nap, but the bacteria will be busy creating that sour flavor that's sought after in sourdoughs.

In other words, you don't have to be too nice to your starter. A little neglect at the right time can be a good thing.

It's getting close, but it's not quite ready yet.

Day 8

How are your starters? Mine is really getting active. Lots of bubbles, close together, and they come back quickly when I stir the mixture down. It also is starting to feel different when I stir. Before, it felt like stirring a cake batter, but now it feels frothy. Today, we'll add the usual ounce of flour and ounce of water and stir it occasionally.

When a starter is new, there are all sorts of yeasts and bacteria that come into it from the air, the flour, the baker's hands, and the water. In the beginning, they're all competing for survival, but the particular strains of yeast and bacteria that create a sourdough work together so well they're almost a sure bet to out-compete anything else in the mixture. Now that the bacteria and yeast are so active, there's not much chance that anything else will invade.

While not every sourdough culture will be wildly successful in terms of flavor, texture, rise, or any other criteria, the yeast and bacteria do a pretty good job of keeping out the types of things that could make you ill. Which is pretty amazing, if you think about it.

Day 9

It's looking good.

Give your starter a good long look. This might be the day of your first harvest.

One thing to check out is whether the bubbles are just on top, or whether there are bubbles throughout the jar. The frothy feeling yesterday was a good sign, and now when I look at the side of the jar, my starter is showing bubbles throughout.

Pay careful attention to what happens after feeding and stirring. The mixture should rise in the jar when you're done. If you've got a small jar and a lot of starter, you might find starter crawling all over your countertop in the morning.

I've seen this more than once when a starter has decided to become very active during the night. This is why you don't want to seal the jar tightly. It's better that starter oozes out gently rather than causing a small explosion.

Since my starter is looking quite active on Day 9, I went ahead and removed 4 ounces of the starter and put it in a bowl. I added 2 ounces of flour and 1 ounce of water, stirred it, and covered the bowl. Leave this mixture on the counter overnight, and you can actually bake with it tomorrow! (Make sure you have bread flour, kosher salt, and olive oil on hand for tomorrow and you'll be ready to bake your first sourdough bread!)

Meanwhile, the starter in the jar gets a meal of its usual one ounce each of water and flour.

If your starter isn't quite active enough, and you don't see bubbles up and down the side of the jar, don't despair. You can keep feeding it until it's ready. If the jar's too full to keep feeding, you can take a little over a cup out and use this proto-starter in a not-quite-sourdough bread.

Day 10

Yesterday, since my starter was bubbling along the sides of the jar, I set aside four ounces of the starter and mixed it with some flour and water in a bowl.

Today, that proto-dough in the bowl has risen and bubbled nicely. Time to make bread!

But what about the rest of the starter in the jar?

And here's a side view.

It's bubbling away, even more than it was on Day 9. Congratulations, you're ready to start making some pizza dough!  Follow the link to the recipe at the top of the page. You will start by harvesting 4 ounces of your sourdough starter and mixing it with 2 ounces bread flour and 1 ounce water in a bowl. This will rest overnight at room temperature.

And the rest of your starter? Feed it again today, one ounce of water and one ounce of flour. If you don't have time to bake over the next few days, don't fret. As long as there's room in the jar, there's no need to discard any starter.

Day 11

Hey Starter-Alongers! How are your starters? Mine was bubbling and happy on Day 11, and I fed it again with one ounce of water and one ounce of flour.

At this point, you can continue feeding regularly and harvesting starter when you want to make bread, pizza crust, waffles, and other sourdough products. As long as you feed it regularly, it can keep you company on the kitchen counter for as long as you like. Of course, if you don't harvest regularly, that jar will start getting full and your starter will start crawling out of its containment an making a mess on the counter.

To slow down the starter's need for feed, all you have to do is refrigerate it. I always feed right before refrigerating so it has enough food to last in cold storage, and then I check on it the next day. If there was a lot of activity over night, I give it another feed and stir, just to make sure everyone's tucked in and full, and then I forget about it.

The mixture in the bowl looked like this:

And this one became a pizza dough.

Day 11 + a week

People often worry if they've killed their starter by leaving it in the refrigerator for a long time without feeding it. The thing is that when it's refrigerated, the yeasts slow down and become practically dormant. A yellowish liquid usually forms on top, referred to as "hootch" by sourdough folks. Hootch isn't a big deal. Sometimes the hootch starts looking like it's got black sediment in it. This also isn't a big deal. It's yeast cells that have died off, but chances are that there are plenty more still alive.

Just for the fun of it, I left some starter unfed and at room temperature for a week. At that point it smelled strongly of acetone. Not something you'd want to eat. I stirred in some flour and water, and it sprang back to life even better than before. So it wasn't dead or dying, it was just napping and waiting for a little food and a little stirring.

I've never had a refrigerated sourdough go bad on me completely, but it's possible that you can get mold or really nasty stuff growing in an unrefrigerated one if you leave it undisturbed for long enough. I know, because I left some starters for even longer than that week. Some simply fell into a deeper sleep while others developed truly nasty odors and some grew fur. I didn't try reviving any of those - the acetone-smelling one was about my limit. I figure that it's easy enough to grow a new starter if I have to. I might have gone to greater measures to revive one of my foreign starters, though. Maybe.


So there you have it - sourdough starter from start to finish to bake to neglect and resurrection. Of course, at any stage, your sourdough might fall behind or leap ahead of mine, but that's okay. Different sourdoughs develop differently, so there's no need to panic if you don't have bubbles on the third day or if your starter smells like beer instead of buttermilk.

And if it fails completely, you can always try again. We've wasted very little in product, and not a lot of time. Next time, try bottle water or a different brand of flour, and see if your results are different.

And of course, this isn't the only set of directions for building a sourdough starter. People swear by a lot of different methods, so if this doesn't work, try another method. All that matters is that in the end you've got an active culture that you can bake with.


Richard said...

Thanks for the instructions. I was thrilled yesterday when my happy critters finally started blowing bubbles! I do have some questions:

1) I've been using a mason jar with some plastic wrap over it, but it doesn't cling to the jar at all anymore. Does that matter? Should I use a rubber band or something?

2) Is it okay to just leave the fork I'm stirring with in the starter? It seems like it should be as the fork isn't introducing anything new and evil to the dance.

3) Once the starter is officially ready, should I use a lid or keep using plastic wrap to cover it?

4) I will be leaving town for 10 days shortly after the starter is done. Some sources suggest a big feeding before putting the starter in refrigeration. Is that necessary and, if so, how much is needed?

5) When I get back, what do I need to do to "unstore" my starter before using it (aside from taking it out of the fridge)?

Donna Currie said...

1) The plastic is just there to keep unwanted things from falling into the jar. This time of year, it's not so bad, but in summer, it can attract fruit flies.

2) Some people say metal is bad for sourdough. I really don't know. If it's working for you, then it's fine. The metal issue might have been more of a problem when people were using silver or tinned metal instead of stainless.

3) When you store it, a "real" lid is a better idea, but as long as it's active and at room temperature, the plastic is a better bet.

4) I usually feed my starter right before it goes in the fridge, and if it's bubbling a lot while it's in there the first day, I feed again. Same amount you've been feeding all along is fine. Once it gets chilled, it slows down a lot, so it doesn't need a huge food reserve.

5) Just take it out and feed. It will have used up a bit more food reserves, so you might want to double the feeding or feed twice a day until it's madly bubbling again.

Thanks for participating!

bloknayrb said...

My starter was doing great, even had a foamy texture by day 3 but at around day 4 it went flat and looks more like the photo you have on Serious Eats for a neglected starter. I stir it occasionally and feed every day, should i be feeding it more?

Donna Currie said...

bloknayrb, it sounds like your starter is using up resources fast, so I'd suggest feeding twice or even three times a day for a day or two and see if it springs back to life.

bloknayrb said...

That's what I was thinking. I'll try feeding it both in the morning and at night and see how it goes. Something about my apartment makes things ready faster, I don't get it...

beth bainbridge said...

What does it mean if the starter separates between stirrings? There is a layer of water that forms at the top of my starter. Is it dead? Should I stir more frequently? I am at day 10. :-/

Donna Currie said...

If it's separating, it might be that it's a little too wet, or it might be that it's exhausting itself. You can try feeding it twice a day and see if it perks up.

If you've accumulating too much, dump out about half of it, and continue feeings.

dan said...

I hope a Mongo Santamaria will eventually join your family.
Thanks for this, I've just started my own and will soon name it.

Anonymous said...

Today I am on my 16th day of feeding & stirring:
1. Although I have very tiny bubbles, they are very closely together & do bounce back quickly after my stirring.
2. I don't have up & down bubbles at all and they don't rise up after my feeding & stirring.
3. My room temperature are 68F during the days and 61F during the nights. Is this temperature too cold for the starter?
4. It oooks like I am still on day 7 according to your picture(with less bubbles though). What is wrong with my starter?
Pls help to diagnose those symptoms. tks

Donna Currie said...

Yeasts are happier in a warmer environment than you've got. I'd suggest moving the starter to a slightly warmer location. Top of the fridge is usually a bit warmer. It will still grow in the colder temp, but as you've seen, it takes a lot longer.

limonene said...

Is it possible for a starter to become contaminated with commercial yeast? I know I have too many variables changing, but after baking bread with instant yeast, and moving my starter from 64F to 80F, it smells much more like S. cerevisiae than it did previously.

Donna Currie said...

Anything is possible, but it's pretty unlikely. Once the sourdough gets established, the environment it creates is pretty hostile to other critters. It's usually too acidic for commercial yeast to flourish.

CGambee said...

Not the sexiest thing, but I can't wait to make my own starter! Sourdough everything please.

Samruddhi said...

Me...on my 6th day of growing starter...till 4th day everything was fine..but since 5th day i feel something is feeding them once in a day..stirring it whenever possible..but since yesterday it looks like they are not there..i mean they are all gone..nothing much happening in there..not many bubbles as 4 th day..and at the end of the day theres little water floating above it...i just want to know if everything is fine..r they still i need to feed them more....???

please help me..i dont want to loose them..

Donna Currie said...

If you're not seeing any bubble activity within about an hour of feeding, then they might have died off, but you can give it another day or two and see what happens. If it is bubbling furiously after an hour, but then activity dies off, then you should feed more often and/or feed larger amounts.

Garvey said...

After successfully following this method with AP flour and baking many, many things with it, I have now started this same process with rye flour.

However, at only 60-hrs in (i.e., only 12 hrs after the second feeding ever) the starter tripled in the jar and had giant holes throughout, like a proto-dough. Does that mean it's ready to use already??? Am I supposed to just keep this baby in maintenance mode from here on out, like I'm skipping ahead to Day 11 after only 2 1/2 days?

Or should I keep feeding and stirring for many days, to ensure that it is yeast and lactobacteria who have colonized this give them time to crowd out any other microorganisms?

I'm very much looking forward to baking with such a lively starter.


Donna Currie said...

Wow, you've got some active yeast there! If it's that active, it might be ready, or it might just b an initial burst of everything gone wild. What I've found with my rye starters is that at first they smell sort of like old dirty socks and then a little later they get nice and sour. I've never baked at the dirty socks stage, but if yours is already smelling pleasantly sour, then it should be good to go.

Garvey said...

Thanks! Yes, it smells mildly sour and pleasant. I guess I need to build it up a little more, only because there is so little in the jar and I'd have to remove everything just to get enough for a sponge. It is very thick after feeding. Should I keep it at a higher hydration than 100%? (It's Hodgson Mill Coarse Rye, if that makes a difference.) My AP starter feels like pancake batter when feeding and crepe batter when hungry, but this young rye guy is like very thick muffin batter when feeding. Won't even drip off the spoon but stick there, like dough.

Donna Currie said...

Rye absorbs more water, so you need to adjust. I've stopped measuring precisely and just adjust to the thickness I'm looking for.

Garvey said...

Perfect--thanks. That's what I suspected.

Susan said...

I started my starter with AP flour then ran out and switched to bread flour since it was all I had. Ever since switching I haven't seen much activity and it seemed to separate. There is water on top of the started and no bubbles. Did the bread flour kill it?

Donna Currie said...

If you've got the liquid on top, it means the yeast has overeaten, sort of.

Toss out most of it, leaving about an inch of starter in the jar, then feed twice a day, doubling the amount each time. In 2-3 days it should be bubbling like mad.

Susan said...

This seems to be working. Thanks!

Jacob G. Littler said...

Good stuff.

Kimberly said...

I have that same scale. It's settled, I'm trying your method. That was easy! haha

Anonymous said...

dose it matter what kind of flour you start with i'm starting with a bleached all-purpose enriched flour

Anonymous said...

i'm on my 5th day of the starter it bubbles when i feed it for about an hour or so then it stops bubbling if i feed it again it starts bubbling again for a while then stops over night it stops compleatly bubbling till i feed it again what is going on i tried putting it out side during the day because i keep my house around 70 degrees but it still stops bubbling after awhile what am i doing wrong

Rachael Fowler said...

This blog is great!!! Totally got me in the mood to bake up a delicious loaf of bread! I am going to bake it with my new starter from my order just came in the mail today! : )

Natasha said...

Hi. You mention 1oz feedings of water and flour. What about the weight of the starter, does it also need to be 1oz? I am asking if it needs to be a 1:1:1 ratio or does the weight of the starter not matter when it comes to feedings? Do I just make sure that the weight of the water and flour is the same? Thank you

Donna Currie said...

This is for getting a starter going from just flour and water. If you've got a freeze-dried starter or a live one, your best bet is to follow the instructions that came with it. Generally you just double the amount each time until you have an active starter, and that usually takes 2-3 days.

To be honest, I just eyeball the amounts, too, particularly once I have an active starter.

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