Sunday, April 10, 2011

Building a Sourdough Starter

You may have read my sourdough series on Serious Eats, or you might have seen the recap here earlier, but this is the short version, pared down for use in my column in the Boulder Daily Camera - this version has a little less of the extras, with all the same how-to. Maybe a little easier to print out as a reference.

To make a sourdough bread – or any other sourdough creation, you need a starter. There are online sources for buying starters, but it’s pretty simple to build your own. All you need is flour, water, and a place to store your starter. A clean empty jar is perfect.

There are a few recipes that call for pineapple juice or potato water or raisins, but none of that is necessary. Flour, water, and time are all you need.

If your sourdough doesn't progress at the pace outlined in these instructions, don't fret. Some develop faster than others. It doesn’t mean there’s a problem; they’re all different, and that’s one of the great things about sourdough. Your starter is unique.

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. That combination, when healthy and happy, creates an environment that's unfriendly to unwanted organisms.

One important thing to consider: it's a tradition among people who keep sourdough starters to name their starters. Yes, I’m serious.

Day 1
A lot of starter instructions leave you with excess starter you’d discard. These instructions start with a very small amount of flour and water, so you don’t end up with too much before you’re ready to bake.

It's best to measure with a scale, but if you don't have one, you can assume that you can get 1/2 ounce of flour by dipping a one-tablespoon measuring spoon into your flour and pressing it against the side of the container to compact it. That will be close enough for this starter recipe.

On the first day, add 1/2 ounce of flour to ounce of water in your clean jar, and stir it up.

Cover the jar with plastic wrap and store it on the kitchen counter – this is how you will store it for the duration of the process.

Day 2
Stir your starter on day 2 whenever you think about it. Once or twice is fine, or a dozen times during the day is fine. Leave it covered when you aren’t stirring. There’s no feeding today, but beginning on Day 3, you will feed every day.

Day 3
Feed the starter with one ounce each of water and flour and stir it whenever you think about it. The more you stir, the faster you starter will develop, but you don’t need to be obsessive. Morning, evening, and bedtime is fine.

Day 4
Feed your starter with one ounce of flour and half an ounce of water. Stir it, cover it, and leave it on the counter. Again, stir whenever you think about it. At this point, the mixture is half water and half flour, by weight. This is the ratio it will stay for the rest of the process.

At this point, you should see at least some bubbles in the mixture, and the scent may be changing. It’s not unusual for it to smell like buttermilk or sour milk.

Days 5 - 9
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. If you don’t have the patience to measure precisely, don’t worry too much about it. Try to keep the mixture the same thickness, and it will be fine.

Some time between Day 8 and Day 10, the mixture will be ready for the first harvest, where you’ll take some starter out of the jar and use it to bake your first loaf of bread.

One thing to check out is whether the bubbles are just on top, or whether there are bubbles throughout the jar. After feeding and stirring, the mixture should rise in the jar within an hour after feeding. When the starter is very active it might double in size, so if you've got a small jar and a lot of starter, you might find starter crawling all over your counter top an hour or so after a feeding.

When the starter is that lively, it's ready to use in your baking.


Jenny N said...

so what have you named your starter?

Donna Currie said...

Jenny, all of my starters are name Mongo. I've got Colorado Mongo, Oregon Mongo, French Mongo, Rye Mongo,and Mongo Grape.

France said...

Donna. I'm on day 9 of my starter, and it has an abundance of 'activity' (bubbles throughout, pleasant sour smell, good creamy color, pleasant sour taste), but it never rises more than a quarter inch. it never doubles in size or swells. I do all the right stuff (though I never stir it, as you suggest, this is the first I've heard of stirring throughout the day and I will certainly try it). Why is my starter not rising more than a paltry quarter inch after feeding? Thanks for your reply!

Donna Currie said...

How thick is it? It should be about like cake batter. If it's thinner than that, add enough flour to get it that thick. It needs structure to be able to rise.

If it is that thick, then you can probably jump-start it by removing about half of the starter (you can use it in my sourdough english muffin recipe) and then increase your feedings to twice a day or even three times. I should be rising in a day in a day or two.

Chris Brown said...

Wow! This actually seems doable. I tried to sour rye flour once for Polish "zur" or sour rye soup and all I got was mould! I am going to give your instructions a go and keep my fingers crossed.
BTW, do you think you could provide a link to your sourdough bread recipe from the starter instructions?

Donna Currie said...

Here's the link:

If your starter doesn't get lively fast enough and you need to get rid of some, I've got an English Muffin recipe that uses starter for flavor but baking powder for the rise.

Sheila Ann said...

Hi Donna, just catching up on posts....

My original starter is named Audrey, after the "Little Shop of Horrors".
"Feed me, Seymour!"

My "pay it forward" starter is from Nancy Silverton of La Brea Bakery fame and given to me by a dear friend named Nancy. Ergo, Nancy is this starter's name. Nancy makes an exceptional pizza crust!

Chris Brown said...

Me again! So, I'm on day number 8 of my starter. I think it's almost there. It has a nice appearance of bubbles on the surface but I think I want to wait a couple more days. When I think it is ready (say in a day or two), I measure out the 4oz (as per your recipe) and then I put the rest of the starter in the fridge? Do I continue to feed the starter in the fridge? If so, how much, and how frequently?
Thanks again.
P.S. My mom is trying to tell me she made an overnight sourdough bread recipe from the NY Times (i.e. no 8-10 day starter). I told her it can't be a real sourdough. have you heard of this recipe???

Donna Currie said...

After you take out the 4 ounces to use, feed the starter you're going to store because it'll still be a little active in the fridge. After you store it, you don't need to feed it unless it's there for a long time - months - without using. If that's the case, you can take it out, let it warm up, feed it a few times, then store again.

I haven't seen the NYT overnight sourdough, but if it's overnight, it's probably using regular yeast. No one can get a starter going in a day.

monica said...

hi! thank you SO much for posting this. while i am not new to making starters, using smaller proportions is new to me. i love it though.

my question to you is that you seem to contradict yourself on day four, saying to use an oz of flour and a half oz of water (and that it will continue on at this rate for the duration). later on, on days 5-9, you indicate to use an oz each of both items. my guess is that the earlier comment is wrong, and that you meant to say an oz each. but then, i would be grateful if you would clarify.

also, one more thing. i am using a pint mason jar w/ lid and was just going to swirl the mix around (especially while the amount is so low. in that case, i am not removing the lid. what do you think? is there something beneficial with removing the lid and stirring that i am missing out on?

thanks again. i can really relate to your comment about baking by touch/sight. i am much the same way--though i appreciate your efforts to quantify so that we can all benefit from yoru recipes. thanks!

Donna Currie said...

It's worded a little oddly, but by adding the different amount on Day 4, your starter is now exactly half water and half flour. Then for the rest of the feeding, you keep that ratio of 50/50. Honestly it doesn't matter, because it's only 1/2 ounce different. Between spilling and evaporation, it's and insignificant difference. Swirling in the jar is fine, although some sources say that adding air through vigorous mixing will benefit the starter. I don't know if that's true or not.

Anonymous said...

I have a lovely starter that has given me many beautiful loaves of bread. When the weather changed, it sort of went dormant (my house must be chilly?) so I moved it to the top of the fridge. When I try to make either the sourdough, or the starter along recipes, after the first step (my happy bubbling starter mixed with a little flour and water), there is no more activity. it will not bubble or rise up during this stage. even in a warm spot. My house isn't that cold, and the starter seems so happy, rising and bubbling.... I haven't been able to make an edible loaf of sourdough in months.
what can I do? What is my problem? I am desperate for another beautiful loaf of sourdough bread!

Donna Currie said...

Dump out all but a tablespoon of the starter, then start feeding it aggressively, doubling the amount at each feeding. Feed 2-3 times a day. By the second or third day, you should have it feeling better again.

Anonymous said...

I love you!...ur blog. Thank you, I've envied and dreamed of sourdough starters, but the amount of flour wasted always repulsed me. I'd considered making a tiny amount of starter, as you do here, but I lacked confidence and thought it would take too long and be likely to fail.

Anonymous said...

How often should the jar be swapped for a clean one? I find the residue on the sides tends to get pretty smelly and I had one starter that started to grow mould on the sides. I'm starting fresh again today and hoping the warm weather will get things going that much faster.

Donna Currie said...

As long as the starter is lively, I've never had anything bad grow in there, so I just leave it in the same jar. If it's getting moldy, for sure you want to swap for a clean jar.

Unknown 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! : )

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