What did the pioneers and homesteaders do to make their bread rise before yeast was sold in little packets at the supermarket? Well a fermented sourdough starter made from flour and water, that captured the yeasts and beneficial bacteria in the environment, was used to leaven their bread. This was a valuable item on the homestead that was passed down for generations.
So why would anyone, in the days of packet yeast, want to care for a colony of beneficial yeasts and bacteria (sourdough starter) on their kitchen counter?
But if you are a bread lover, this is absolutely something you need to try! The quality and taste of the finished bread cannot compare to store bought. The simple pleasure and of baking bread that tastes this good is so worth it.
For now let’s first explain exactly what is happening in that jar on the counter and how it works.
Soughdough starter is a micro-organism community of yeasts and lactic acid bacteria. These guys work together. Both the bacteria and the yeast feed on the carbohydrates in the flour when it is wet and allowed to ferment. As you give your starter a feed each day of flour and water, each microbe gets stronger, releasing more gases as it eats. These gases are what makes the bubbles in your starter and they are what give rise to your bread.
These micro-organisms exist together in a symbiotic community within your starter, creating a lactic acid and acetic acid rich environment. This is what provides the added nutritional benefits and the tangy flavour, which sourdough gets its name from. The lactic acid in sourdough unlocks the nutrients in the flour to make it available and digestible for our guts.
When your starter gets to this point its mature enough to use and ITS ALIVE!!!!! (Dr Frankenstein voice)
Yes its ‘alive‘ so you have to feed it, like a pet. My kids think this is hilarious. It snacks on the carbohydrates in the flour, eventually all the ‘foods will be gone, it will get hungry and if not fed, the bacteria and the yeasts will start to die off, so make sure it is fed.
This tends to be the part that turns people off trying sourdough, and it did for me. I read so many tutorials on sourdough and was turned off by the complex methods and maintenance. With our busy lives, I get it, we think the maintenance will be too much to add. But guess what, it is so flipping easy to care for and you only have to feed it when you plan on using it. If you don’t plan on using it, just put it in the fridge, this will stop the fermentation and it will basically just have a rest and stop eating. When you want to use it, just get it out, feed and water it and it will start to bubble again. You can leave it in the fridge for a week no worries, actually I have left mine for 3 weeks and got it out and fed it and it was fine. So don’t stress, its very doable.
Before we get into the making of the starter I just have to tell you that if you have a friend with an already active and mature starter, you can just get some from them and skip this whole process and be at the bread making stage on day one. Just saying….I would……I’m impatient like that.
But in saying that I think everyone should make it at least once so they know how, it is an amazing skill to have, give it a go, and it does feel good when you have made something completely from scratch.
What you need
- Wide mouth glass Jar or container
- Non-chlorinated water (chlorine kills yeast)
- 1/2 cup whole meal flour
- Unbleached Plain flour for maintaining and feeding your starter
- Wooden spoon of plastic spatula (some metals can react with the fermentation and kill the yeast so its best to just not use them, plus wooden spoons look great in the kitchen)
If you have chlorinated water, just leave the water out in an uncovered container for 24hrs prior to using it in your starter. This will allow the chlorine to evaporate so it won’t kill your yeast.
How to start it
- In your jar, add your 1/2 cup of wholemeal flour and 1/4 cup of water. Mix it all together and then cover with a tea towel and let it sit out for 24hrs at room temperature. (Keeping it in a somewhat warm area of your house will get the action going quicker. Yeast is like us, it needs food, water and warmth to live)
- The First Feeding– After 24hrs, check the mixture for bubbles. If you see some, add 1/2cup of you plain flour and 1/4cup of water, mix together with wooden spoon or spatula. If you don’t see bubbles give it a stir and let it sit for 24hrs more.
- The Second Feeding– After another 24hrs, check for bubbles. If you still haven’t seen any since the first day, dump the mixture and start again. If you do see bubbles, discard half of the mixture (I know, I know, why? I’ll explain about discard later), now add 1/2cup of plain flour and 1/4cup water. Cover with the towel and let it sit for another 24hrs
- The Third Feeding– Discard half of your starter and feed with 1/2cup plain flour and 1/4cup of water, stir and let sit for another 24hrs.
- Repeat this process for another 2 days then for the next 2 days feed every 12hrs until the starter is consistently bubbling and doubling in size.
By day 7 you should have enough mature beneficial bacteria and yeast to bake a loaf of bread and make other fermented sourdough recipes such as crumpets, pancakes and crackers.
Well this is because as your starter grows the number of organisms are growing too, which means more mouths to feed. Every time you feed your starter it will about double in size, which means you feed amount doubles, you will need to feed the appropriate amount of flour and water to the amount of starter you have, this is roughly a cup for a cup. So basically if you didn’t discard you would be using a huge amount of flour to feed it all not to mention your starter would be over flowing out your bowl and everywhere, we aren’t looking for quantity at this stage of your starter, we are wanting maturity. So save your flour and at this stage, just discard half. Once you have a mature starter you can feed it up like this over a couple days and get a large amount and do a big bake off.
So now you have a starter, how do you maintain it?
Most sourdough recipes use about 1 cup of starter, this is why I like to have at least 1-2 cups of starter to maintain. The more you get used to using it and adding sourdough into your cooking routine, the easier it is and you will never need to discard starter (please dont, you can use it once its mature) as there are so many recipes that can use up your extra starter if you get to much, such as my sourdough crackers.
To maintain a starter you can simply do a cup for a cup. So one cup of starter gets fed one cup of flour and then add 3/4 cup of water. This is the basic most simple way to keep it. I used to do one cup starter, one cup flour and one cup water it still worked but I found it was a little runnier and this ratio with a little less water works better for bread. Basically I eye ball the amount in my jar and feed it accordingly to what I think is in there, sometimes I add more water if needed and sometimes I add more flour, what I am looking for is a thick pancake batter consistency.
Now there are more complicated step by steps on the internet out there, but I am a no fuss cook and those recipes with having to weigh the starter every time you feed it just made me not want to even do sourdough, it seemed so laborious. But guess what sourdough doesn’t have to be complicated, you will get familiar with the consistency, and pretty much as long as it is fed its happy, and if you don’t want to use it just put it in the fridge.
So keeping your starter in the fridge for occasional use. The fridge slows the fermentation process so feeding it only once a week or once every other week is enough to maintain it. If you want to use your starter just pull it out of the fridge at least 12 hrs prior to using it and feed it flour and water, once it is bubbly again and its ready to go. When ever I pull my starter from the fridge and feed it I add warm water in this feed, this help get it active quicker as it warms the starter up so you should see bubbles a lot faster then if you just used cold water (that’s my sneaky tip). I have left mine in the fridge and forgot about it for 3 weeks and it was still fine, so dont stress about going on holiday and worrying that your starter is going to die or that you are going to have to get someone to feed it like the dog….hahaha.
For daily use keep it on the counter. If you are going to do this your starter will need to be fed and watered daily. You will need to be baking every day to use up all that extra starter. Sometimes I will keep mine out a feed it and build it up to a large amount and then do a big day of baking.
So there you have it, you can keep it alive for years and pass it on to friends and family. I would love to know how you go, let me know in the comments or feel free to shoot me an email. If you have any trouble with it, getting started or would like suggestions of how to use it I would love to help, let me know. How about you try my Simple Sourdough Bread Recipe to get you started.