Making A Sourdough Starter
Alternative Fermentations: Sourdough Starter
By Jordan Reed
Bread. Warm, crusty, crackly on the outside. Tender and chewy on the inside, with a grainy-sweet, toasty aroma that makes you grin from ear to ear and causes your eyes to roll up to heaven from whence the loaf came! The flavor combinations are infinite and only limited by the baker’s imagination—from savory and nutty to sweet and tangy. Sometimes the only thing that could take the perfect bread out of this world is a pat of soft butter. Few singular foods can engage every one of the senses like a freshly baked loaf of bread, and those senses are only heightened by the ability to say, “I made this myself!”
I have been home-brewing beer for six years. Like many people, though, the shelter-in-place associated with the COVID-19 pandemic has left me with more time at home, and the occasional boredom has led to trying new hobbies—like bread making! The spark of baking inspiration came to me when a friend posted on social media about her search for yeast (Apparently, like toilet paper and hand sanitizer, yeast is one of those must-have items to hoard when facing an apocalypse!). My brewer’s mind automatically went to the funky, wild side of our craft, and the practice of harvesting yeast from the air around us. Then I remembered that bakers do this too…for sourdough!
Photo Credit - Jordan Reed
I grew up in the midwest in the 1980s, where my parents usually only bought white or whole wheat breads. My only experience with sourdough back then was via restaurant sandwiches, usually labeled “San Francisco Style.” Now that I live in the San Francisco Bay Area, sourdough is ubiquitous and just called “bread.” Sourdough gets its distinctive sour tang from lactic acid-producing bacteria (LAB) found naturally on the flour used for the starter (sometimes called “mother”). The flour in the starter also contains fungi including wild yeast that provides the lift, or leavening, as the yeast consume the starches and release carbon dioxide through that wonderful process we brewers know and love: fermentation!
Just like the list of ingredients in traditional beer brewing (water, malt, hops, and yeast), the ingredient list for sourdough bread is simple: flour, water, salt, and sourdough starter. The starter is the only source of leavening in traditional sourdough baking. Another similarity to beer brewing, yeast health is also important in sourdough baking. Growing a strong, healthy sourdough starter takes about a week. If you’re like me, to figure out the best way to do anything these days, you may read a bunch of online articles and binge watch YouTube videos. To get you started (See what I did there?), here’s a basic how-to on building up your own sourdough starter:
Photo Credit - Jordan Reed
Steps to making a Sourdough Starter:
Day 1: Record the weight of a clean, empty glass jar (with the lid off) in grams. Using a silicone spatula, mix 100g flour and 100g filtered, room-temperature water (1:1) in the jar. I used bread flour and about 10-20% whole wheat and/or rye flour. Some portion of whole grain flour, like wheat, rye, etc., will have more of those natural LAB and yeasts. The mixture will be shaggy and sticky. Put a loosely fitting lid on top. I like to use a rubber band around the jar to mark a reference level to see how the starter rises. Leave the jar in a warm part of your house (70-78°F) out of direct sunlight.
Day 2: Remove all but 70g net weight of the starter (The total weight of your starter minus the weight of the lidless jar is about 70g.). It won’t look like enough remains, but trust me, the microbial colony is growing! Add another mixture of 100g flour and 100g room-temperature filtered water. Mix well with the spatula. Use your fingers to scrape off anything that sticks to the spatula. Try not to lose much.
Days 3-5: Repeat the process from Day 2.
Day 6: Repeat the process from Days 2-5, but remove all but 50g net weight of starter this time. Again, add 100g of flour and 100g of water and complete the process. By now, your starter will have developed that sweet-and-sour, tangy aroma from the LAB working their magic!
Day 7-Infinity: Remove all but 25-30g net weight of starter. If you’re going to be baking later today or tomorrow, add enough 1:1 flour:water mixture to make the required amount of starter for your recipe. If only feeding, you may keep the starter going with a smaller amount of flour. I use 50g flour and 50g water. (At this point, using 100% all-purpose flour may be a less-expensive way to maintain your starter without depleting your stores of nice bread flour and whole grain flours.)
Tips for maintaining a Sourdough Starter:
A sourdough starter stored at room temperature needs to be fed everyday. It is now your pet or your child; you need to care for it. Optionally, you may talk to or sing to it. At least thank it! You may store your starter in the refrigerator, which will slow the fermentation process, but you should still take it out and repeat the Day 7 feeding process at least once per week. When preparing to bake with a refrigerated starter, resume the feeding process at room temperature for a day or two first.
Once you’ve got a strong, healthy sourdough starter going, you’re ready to bake! Homemade sourdough bread is amazing, but it’s not the only use for your starter. Besides bread, I’ve made sourdough waffles, sourdough pizza crust, and a tangy-sweet cinnamon sourdough babka! You may even make a quick snack with the portion of the starter you discard in the daily feed!
Photo Credits - Jordan Reed
I feel like an apprentice having just leveled up the journey to becoming a Fermentation Wizard (Beer Level: Unlocked! Sourdough Bread Level: Unlocked! Kimchi Level: ???), but I'm just getting started (Again, get it?! Never mind. Yes, I’m a dad.)! Rather than post recipes here, like Morpheus in “The Matrix,” I’ll just offer you the red pill and let you see how deep your sourdough rabbit hole goes! Brew strong and bake on!
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