by Shannon Stonger
Health Impact News
Creating and keeping a sourdough starter can seem like an intimidating task to the uninitiated. It is quite amazing how this slurry of flour and water leavens and ferments bread. Despite its mysterious abilities, this age-old souring and leavening agent is surprisingly simple to make.
There are many ways to create a sourdough starter. Indeed, you can find starter recipes that include fruit juice, potatoes and their cooking water, and commercial yeast online. All of these are viable options for leavening your bread with a homemade sourdough starter. For simplicity’s sake, however, this article will focus on a sourdough starter created simply with flour and water.
The basic premise in creating a sourdough starter is to combine flour with water and place it in a warm environment to allow naturally occurring yeasts, bacteria, and acids to come together to form a symbiotic culture that will ferment and leaven bread. All of the microorganisms involved rely on or produce one of the other elements in the starter. This culture can then be maintained indefinitely, through regular feedings of flour and water, to continue to leaven and ferment loaves of bread without the use of commercial yeasts.
One term often used in sourdough recipes is “active starter”. This term can have many meanings, depending on the recipe author, but generally speaking it means a starter that is healthy, vigorous, and visibly doubling in volume within 4-8 hours. There should be bubbling, a pleasant sour aroma, and a vigorous nature. All of these attributes tell you that your starter is alive, well, and able to leaven bread.
The basic process of creating a sourdough starter from scratch is fairly simple, if you know what to look for. The following is a simple timeline for creating an active sourdough starter in three stages.
Equipment and Ingredients
Non-reactive vessel that will hold at least one quart. A quart jar works well for this, at least until the starter is active enough to start baking with. A vessel with a wider surface area, like a large glass bowl, also works well.
Tea towel, napkin, coffee filter, or paper towel. A breathable cover is necessary to allow the yeast in the starter access to oxygen. These are all good choices. A canning ring, rubberband, or string can all be used to fasten them to the jar or bowl.
Glyphosate-tested Flour. It’s very important to minimize the introduction of chemical pesticides and herbicides into your starter. Doing so not only reduces the toxins in your final bread, it also creates a healthier environment for the microorganisms that make up a good starter to exist.
Filtered Water. Just as chemical-free flour is important, so is pollutant-free water. Chlorine is the enemy to proper fermentation, be it a sourdough starter or a sauerkraut brine. It competes with bacteria. It creates an imbalance in the microorganisms of the starter. Water free of chlorine, fluoride, and other toxins is very helpful in creating a balanced starter.
This period of time is when you are simply creating an environment conducive to yeast and bacteria. If done correctly, these will be the type of microorganisms necessary and beneficial to good bread.
To begin, in the morning or evening combine ¼ cup water and a scant ¼ cup flour in your vessel. Stir it briskly with a non-reactive (wooden or plastic) utensil. Be sure to stir briskly enough that you are incorporating air. Yeast needs oxygen to thrive and this is the best way to ensure it is getting enough.
After 12 hours you will most likely not see any changes in the slurry. Repeat the feeding and stirring as per the first step. Repeat every 12 hours, morning and evening, for approximately three days. In this time you might start to notice a tiny bit of bubbling on the surface or in the sides of the starter. It might begin to smell slightly sour or even have faint hints of alcohol. This is all normal. Just be sure to feed it every 12 hours and incorporate plenty of air.
By three days in you may start to notice more activity in your starter. It might increase in volume or show larger bubbles. What you are looking for is signs of life. If by this stage that hasn’t happened and your starter smells or looks putrid then you may have harnessed a microorganism less desirable from the environment or utensils. This isn’t terribly uncommon nor does it spell complete failure. The best course of action is to simply start over being sure that your vessel and utensils are clean.
Days 4 -14
The time period required to create a truly active starter is quite variant. It is dependent on many factors including the temperature, the health of your flour and water, and the microorganisms present in and around the starter.
During the first phase, days 1-3, you have brought life to your starter by capturing and multiplying the microorganisms present on the surface on the grain and in the environment. From here on out you will be encouraging your starter to make great bread by encouraging the yeast population in your starter.
Once alive, the starter contains bacteria, acids, and yeasts. Too much bacteria and your starter can start to smell or taste off. Too many acids and your starter can be overly sour. Tipping the balance in favor of the yeast population is now your goal.
You will now be discarding a portion of the starter before every feeding. This may seem like a waste but it is through this process that you will be creating a starter that will rise a loaf of bread just as well as commercial yeast. Besides, the discarded portion of starter does not need to go to the trash. It can be used in pancakes, muffins, and other quick breads that do not rely on yeast as its leavening.
To proceed with this phase, discard all but ½ cup of the starter you have been bringing to life in days 1-3. Now feed it ½ cup flour and a scant ½ cup water. Stir vigorously as before, and cover and keep at room temperature for 12 hours once again.
Repeat the process of discarding, feeding, stirring, and fermenting every 12 hours until a vigorous starter is formed. Your starter is vigorous enough to be used to leaven bread if…
- It doubles in volume within 4-8 hours.
- It smells pleasantly sour as opposed to stinky or with heavy notes of alcohol.
- It continues the above two characteristics for several days straight.
This is all worked out in this second phase of feedings – balancing the yeasts, acids, bacteria, and alcohol content of the starter. This can take just a couple of extra days beyond the first 3… or it can take 1-2 weeks. Be patient and look for the above signs of a healthy starter before relying on it as a leavening agent.
Once vigorous and active, feed your starter as much flour and water is needed for the amount called for in your recipe. Just be sure that you leave enough – even just a couple of tablespoons – so that you may proliferate the culture for the next baking.
About the Author
Shannon Stonger grew up in a small town in northern Minnesota. She studied chemistry in college, graduated, and married her husband one month later. They were then blessed with two baby boys within the first four years of marriage. Having babies gave their family a desire to return to the old paths – to nourish their family with traditional, homegrown foods; rid their home of toxic chemicals and petroleum products; and give their boys a chance to know a simple, sustainable way of life. They are currently building a homestead from scratch on two little acres in central Texas. There’s a lot to be done to become somewhat self-sufficient, but they are debt-free and get to spend their days living this simple, good life together with their four young children.