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.
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?
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 feast...at 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?
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.
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.
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.|
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.
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.|
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.