How to Make Sourdough Bread, Part 1: The Starter
There’s nothing like the smell of fresh baking bread. Make that bread sourdough, and I’m in heaven.
The sourdough recipe that I start below produces a moist, flavorful, and chewy bread that can stand toe-to-toe with some of the best loaves out there.
Tonight, I’ll talk a little bit about sourdough starter and how to make a sponge. Tomorrow, Part 2 of this article will show you how to turn that sponge into bread.
How to Make Sourdough Bread, Part 1: It all starts with the starter
So, what gives sourdough bread its fabulous and unmistakable flavor? At the risk of oversimplifying, good sourdough bread starts with, well, a good starter. Literally.
A great sourdough starter is something to be coveted, protected, and shared with particularly deserving and baker-ly friends.
How to Make Sourdough Bread, Part 1: OK, so what exactly is a sourdough starter?
A sourdough starter is a wild yeast that’s made a comfortable home for itself in a mixture of flour and water. As it ages, it ferments and develops a rich, complex flavor.
You use a little bit of this “starter”—in place of, or in addition to, conventional yeast—as a base for your sourdough bread dough. It makes your bread rise and gives it that great flavor.
How to Make Sourdough Bread, Part 1: Wait, wild yeast?
Yep, wild yeast. You can’t see it, but yeast is all around us. In the air. On the surfaces of things we use every day.
Think about it. People have been baking leavened bread for, what? Six thousand years, maybe?
Before packaged yeast was available, folks would attract wild yeast with a mixture of flour and water, and keep it alive in that small bit of dough.
They’d use a little bit to make their loaves rise, then replace what they took with flour and water to keep their starter going.
How to Make Sourdough Bread, Part 1: Where did you get yours?
My mom gave me a little jar of her sourdough starter—which she bought from King Arthur Flour years earlier—for Christmas in 2001.
According to King Arthur, this starter is a mixture of three different starters, one of which originated in New England about 250 years ago.
I’ve managed to keep it happy and alive all this time. I keep it in a large screw-top glass jar in the back of my fridge.
How to Make Sourdough Bread, Part 1: Wait, that looks poisonous. What’s that brown stuff?
The dark layer on top is alcohol that’s a byproduct of the fermentation process. (Basically, the yeast eats the flour and gives off alcohol.)
This is just fine and gets stirred back in. In fact, it’s one of the things responsible for creating that great sour flavor.
How to Make Sourdough Bread, Part 1: Starters can be regional
Different areas of the world are home to different strains of wild yeast with their own distinct flavors. This is part of the reason why San Francisco is famous for its inimitable sourdough bread.
While my starter came from my mother’s, I’m sure that mine has developed its own flavor over the years, as I’ve added my own flour and local water to the mix.
I’d wager that, even if we used the same recipe, sourdough bread made with my starter would taste distinctly different from bread made with my mom’s.
How to Make Sourdough Bread, Part 1: OK, I’m sold. Where do I get some of this sourdough starter stuff?
Or of course, you could try to make your own.
I’m feeling brave. How do I go on a wild yeast hunt?
If you bake a fair amount—or if you’re just feeling intrepid—you can try your hand at catching and taming your very own wild yeast.
How to make your own sourdough starter
- Start with a very clean bowl. (Scald a ceramic bowl with boiling water to remove any traces of potentially harmful bacteria.)
- Add 1 cup of lukewarm water and 1 cup of flour.
- Cover the bowl with a clean dishtowel and set it aside on your counter.
- Check it in a day or two for bubbles, which are the telltale signs of life for a starter.
- If you see bubbles, it worked! Give the bowl a stir (again, with a very clean spoon), and cover it back up.
- Let it sit on the counter like this for a few days, until it develops a pleasant, sour smell.
- When it smells good, transfer it to a clean bowl or jar and stick it in the fridge til you’re ready to bake.
- To keep your starter happy, feed it periodically with equal parts flour and water (see notes on this at the end), and keep it cold and covered.
If you try this but it doesn’t work, you could give your pet a boost with a quarter teaspoon of conventional yeast.
If your starter starts to smell funky or look moldy or questionable in any way, chances are that something else found its way into your trap. Just toss the dough and try again.
How to use your starter to make sourdough bread
Now that I’ve explained a little bit about sourdough starter, here’s how I use mine to make bread. Start this the day before you want to bake.
Sponge for Sourdough Bread
1 cup of sourdough starter
1 1/2 cups lukewarm water
3 cups of flour
If your sourdough starter has been sitting in the fridge for a while, it will have a layer of liquid on top of it. This can range in color from grayish to dark brown. That’s just fine.
Dip a very clean spoon or whisk into your starter and stir it slowly. The solid dough at the bottom should be creamy, like this:
When you’ve recombined the solids with the liquid, it should be about the consistency of pancake batter, like this:
Measure out one cup of starter.
Pour it into a medium-sized clean bowl.
Add the water.
Whisk them together til well combined.
Add the flour and stir well.
Your sponge will come together as a sticky, wet dough.
Cover your sponge with plastic wrap. Set it on the counter and let it stay there overnight.
How to Make Sourdough Bread, Part 1: Don’t forget to feed your starter
Whenever you use some of your starter, you need to replace what you took. This is commonly referred to as “feeding” your starter.
For every cup of starter you use, add 1 cup of flour and 1 cup of water back to the jar.
Stir until the mixture is once again uniform.
Cover it loosely with plastic wrap and let it sit on the counter overnight, along with your sponge.
After a few hours, you’ll notice that the surface of the sponge will be pretty level, and dappled with small air holes. That’s a sure sign that your sourdough starter is hard at work.
Stay tuned for Part 2 of my sourdough series tomorrow, when I use this sponge to bake a few loaves of bread.