Saturday, May 21, 2011

Sourdough Starter

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Sourdough. You know the tangy flavor. You know the soft, chewy texture. But you never knew where it came from.

What makes sourdough different from other bread is that it does not contain commercial yeast. It is made of wild yeast.
Whole wheat flour naturally has wild yeast in it. This yeast only needs to be nurtured and loved to grow into a big, bubbly, yeasty culture that can be used to make that tangy, chewy bread that you dream of.
First you must activate the yeast with some water. After that, you have to feed it, just as you would feed any other poor, caged, creature in your home. Your little yeasties will live on a diet of flour and water, and unless you want it to grow so large that your whole home is consumed by it, you'll need to throw a little bit of your starter away every time you feed it. It will take about five days to a week until your culture is mature enough to bake with. It will keep forever and ever though if you continue to feed it, so once you're starter is mature, you won't have to wait a week to make your bread whenever the urge arises. When you're ready to bake with it, you'll want to let it grow first. In other words, you'll stop throwing parts of it away when you feed it. If it lives in your refrigerator you will probably have to feed it about weekly. If it's left out, you should feed it daily.
Now, here is the step by step process.
  1. Combine 1/4 cup of unbleached, whole wheat flour and 1/4 cup of warm, non-chlorinated water in a large mason jar and stir it well. Cover with plastic wrap and let sit for 12 hours. It was 80ยบ and humid when I started mine, which is the prime temperature.
    Starter after first 12 hours
  2. After 12 hours, if the starter is now a little bubbly (even a little) take about 1/4 cup of your culture and combine it with 1/4 cup of whole wheat flour and 1/4 cup of warm water and stir it well. Again, cover the mason jar and let sit for 12 more hours. If it's not bubbly, stir it up well and then wait another 12 hours.
    Starter 20 hours old, 10 hours after first feeding
    Starter after 24 hours, 12 hours after first feeding, ready for second feeding.
  3. Continue feeding your starter every 12 hours for about five days. You will notice that in the beginning it will be more stinky, but once it's ready, it should smell pleasantly sour. It should also become more lively with each feeding. If not, don't worry. It will probably work itself out. As long as it isn't getting fuzzy, black mold on it, it's good.
  4. Mature starter, ready to bake with
  5. After 5-7 days your starter will be ready. It should be bubbly and sour smelling and double it's size within 8 hours. This means that your starter is ripe and ready. Now that you have a stable flock of yeast, you can feed it with all-purpose flour instead of whole wheat.
  6. To grow your starter so that you have enough to bake with, just don't throw any of the starter away and add equal parts of starter, water, and flour. For example, if you have 1/4 cup of starter, you'll add 1/4 cup of flour and 1/4 cup of water. Then once it's doubled you'll measure your starter and again add equal parts of flour and water, say 3/4 cup of each, just for an example. You can continue doing this until you have enough starter for whatever recipe you might be using. The point at which you'll want to use it is after it's doubled in size from it's last feeding. And don't forget to leave a little bit of your culture out so you can keep it going. 
  7. Once your starter is ready, try this sourdough bread recipe. It's fabulous. 
  8. Also, if you feel bad throwing away your culture when you feed it, you can keep it to give some to your friends. There's nothing that says "I love you" like giving your friends another pet to take care of! Mom said people used to pawn off sourdough starter on her and call it "Amish Friendship Bread".
So there you are. It's all basically pretty straightforward. The thing to remember when making sourdough bread is that the waiting is the hardest part.
But it's all worth it.

 Note: If your starter is having trouble rising, it is probably either too watery or too doughy. If it's too watery, it will just foam up instead of rising so just add more flour and less water when you feed it. If it's too doughy it won't rise either so make sure it's at a nice sticky inbetween.
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