When I first started making sourdough starter, I was very intimidated. Almost all of the ferments, from kombucha to pickling, can seem daunting at first. But sourdough starter is one of the easiest to get started but hardest to use. Learn more about how to make and use sourdough starter.
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One of the oldest but most complicated ways to make bread is with wild captured yeast. In this case, the yeast is cultivated from water and flour. Different flours will support different yeasts which makes difference breads. One of my favorite resources for beginners is Wild Bread by MaryJane Butters.
Starting a starter
One of the first mistakes I made was not finding the appropriate flour to water ratio and not using wheat flour. The most important part of making a sourdough starter is to use weight instead of amount. At first, I tried using different recipes referencing using cups and tablespoons rather than grams or ounces. This was disastrous as almost always the starter was too dry.
Selecting a flour
It is important which flour you decide to go with to make your sourdough starter. Different wheats will act differently during fermentation. The key is that it has to be grain based flour. Coconut flour, almond flour and others will not work the same. I’ve worked most commonly with light weight pastry hard wheat flour. However, many kinds will work including einkorn, rye, sprouted wheat, barley and rice flours.
Time and temperature
Like any ferment, including kombucha and pickling, you need the right environment for the fermentation to work properly. The room where your ferments live cannot be too cold, too hot, too humid, too dry or too droughty. In general, if you are comfortable in the room, the ferment will be too.
Watch for mold
More than once, I’ve ruined my sourdough starter by neglecting it and finding a black or grey layer of mold on it. Think of sourdough starter as a little pet. You have to feed it, water and flour, stir it and check on it almost daily, at least at first. The regular stirring and feedings will prevent the growth of mold. However, definitely toss any sourdough starter that has mold on it and start over.
Sourdough starter will take several days to get going to the point where you might be able to use it in baking. Usually a minimum of 5 days, depending on the conditions. However, the longer, the more established, the better the starter will be. If you bake only about once a week or so, you will want to refrigerate your starter between bakes and always replace what you used in baking.
Being able to tell that your sourdough is ready is important to the integrity of the yeast you will need to bake. There are several ways to tell if your starter is ready. First, it should smell sour and a little bitter. Second, you should see some bubbling. Finally, it should pass the float test. Take a small bit, maybe a teaspoon, and a cup of cold water, the teaspoon of starter should float on the top. Its ready!
Using sourdough starter
After many starts and stops with sourdough starter, I finally made a good batch. The beauty of sourdough starter is once established, you can keep going indefinitely as long as you feed it regularly. However, finding recipes that use this exclusively, instead of commercial yeast in addition to sourdough starter, turned out to be a little more complicated.
Prior to modern commercial available yeast, all leavened bread was made with “wild” yeast and bacteria combinations. As well as many a flat bread recipe which is common across all cultures. Examples of unleavened bread include chapati, naan, tortilla, matza and bannock.
My favorite recipe, hands down, is a YouTube video by ILoveCooking which walks you through making a sourdough starter, maintaining a starter and then different techniques in making rustic sourdough bread without commercial yeast. The trick is kneading. One of the hardest parts about making bread without the extra help of commercial yeast is the length of time and strength needed to make risen bread. But it is definitely worth it!
King Arthur Flour also has an excellent tangy sourdough bread recipe you should check out. When I started baking my own bread I had no idea that it required so few ingredients. In fact, most early bread is simply grain flour and water, fermented, kneaded and cooked. And that is it! This recipe just requires sourdough starter, water, flour and salt.
The Kitchn also has a good artisan sourdough bread recipe. One tip I’ve taken seriously is to make sure your sourdough starter is both active and passes the float test. Otherwise, the journey to naturally yeasted sourdough bread is much more complicated.
Also it is worth noting that because wild captured sourdough starter yeast is not produced commercially it varies greatly by region, chef, temperature and environment. In fact, if you have other ferments in the kitchen, they can impact the types of yeast you catch and how well your sourdough starter does. Some people recommend not keeping them close together for this reason as it can impact the taste of the bread.
I am partial to the thick, crunchy, delicious crusts of artisan bread and have since stopped making regular sandwich bread. However, if you are interested in making this family staple, Flip Flop Barnyard has a good sourdough bread recipe that you should check out.
Just be sure to feed and water your sourdough starter regularly with regular removal of some periodically to keep the yeast and bacteria active. Make sure you build it up at first and give it time to become mature. Remember the more mature your sourdough starter, the more sour it will taste. Finally, be sure to consider rise and kneading time when dealing with the less traditional use of wild yeast in sourdough compared to commercial yeast.
Hope you enjoyed the article, let me know if you have any insights into making and using natural sourdough starter. Good luck!
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