Bake

A 5-Minute Ritual for Incredible Homemade Bread

February 16, 2018

What can you do with just five minutes? Actually, way more than you think! Introducing Food52 in 5: your cheat sheet for speedy, delicious recipes, fun mini projects, and more.


I love baking bread, but I avoided keeping a starter for years because it seemed like too much commitment. The recipes in my bread books looked long and daunting: There was a lot of talk about things like temperature and hydration and ash content, and I imagined a strict feeding schedule that would require me to get up at a reasonable hour on the weekends. I was certain that even if I could keep a fledgling starter alive for longer than a week, I wouldn’t be able to make good bread with it because I could never be devoted enough.

Photo by Rocky Luten

The truth is, while you certainly can dive very deep into the world of sourdough if you want to, you can also put in minimal effort and still reap the rewards: a tasty, made-with-your-own-two-hands loaf of crusty bread. It doesn’t need to have a perfect crumb or the exact right balance of lactic to acetic acid to be better—and cheaper, and fresher, and more satisfying—than anything you can buy in a store.

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And, as I’ve discovered, keeping a starter alive is much less burdensome than many people would have you believe. Take five minutes to feed it once a day and you’ll have a little pet that you can use to make bread whenever you want (mine’s named Sir Mixalot). But you can also stick it in the fridge and feed it only once a week (or even less—I’ve forgotten about mine for weeks at a time) and it will be fine.

To get yours going:

  • Start with 1 cup whole wheat or whole rye flour, which have more microorganisms and nutrients to contribute than the all-purpose stuff.
  • Mix with ½ cup non-chlorinated water (filtered or bottled is ideal—chlorine kills things, and we don’t want that) in a food-safe container (bigger is better, so it has room to expand).
  • Loosely cover it, and set it in a warmish spot (if your home is on the cool side, try the top of the fridge).
  • Roughly 24 hours later, it’s time for the first feeding: Discard about half your starter and add 1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour and ½ cup water, then mix.

Discarding half the starter might seem wasteful, but it’ll help keep the mix healthy and provide fresh food for all those little yeasties—and keep the thing from taking over your whole kitchen. (What to do with the discard? Compost it, or use it in pancakes, waffles, or pizza dough—try searching for recipes that use leftover starter.)

Continue this five-minute ritual of discarding and feeding every morning (or every evening, if you prefer), and by the third or fourth day, you’ll probably see some bubbles and growth. If nothing is happening, try a warmer spot for a day or two. If it’s still not showing any activity after five days, try starting over with different flour. Think of it as a plant—you may need to experiment a bit to find the environment it’s happiest in.

Once your starter is bubbling and rising after feedings, if you’re ready to bake some bread with it, up your feedings to twice a day for a couple days. Or, if you want to store it for future usage, transfer it to the fridge and drop the feedings to once a week. A couple days before you want to use it for baking, take it out and go back to daily or twice-daily feedings.

With a healthy starter going, the world is your bread basket. Use it to make dinner rolls, cherry hazelnut bread, cardamom buns, and even croissants. Or just stick with a simple loaf of bread—it’s up to you.

Have you tried making a sourdough starter from scratch? Share your experience—and maybe some of your favorite starter recipes!—in the comments.

16 Comments

ruhi G. May 25, 2018
Hi people! I was wondering if the process and ingredients remains the same for hot and humid regions. I'm from Bombay, India so if someone who has tried this recipe in a similar environment (40 degree C temps and 70% of humidity and above) please do comment.
 
Smaug February 28, 2018
I don't quite see how a starter that lacks lactose is going to develop the lactobacilli that make sourdough sour- is there that much lactose in the flour?
 
Windischgirl February 28, 2018
Lactobacillus is everywhere...including in our own bodies. It's the same microbe that ferments kimchi and sauerkraut, yogurt and beer. You don't need a dairy source. <br />Heard a fascinating episode of GastroPod where they discussed starters and found there was great variety in people's starters. The difference depended on the bacteria living on the baker's (freshly scrubbed) hands.
 
Smaug March 1, 2018
That's not really the issue- you need to feed the bacillus enough to develop a strong colony in order to make an effective starter. Presumably there is lactose in the flour or sourdough wouldn't work, but I'm curious about the concentrations, and also whether there are alternative foods for lactobacillus that might be present. Yeast is in the air everywhere too, but you need to work at it some to develop a working colony. For the matter of that, MRSA is in the air everywhere
 
Windischgirl March 1, 2018
I'm confused. Lactose is the sugar found in milk. It is not present in wheat or rye. However, there are starches in the flour that provide sugars to support the growth of the yeast and lactobacillus colonies. Most likely the sugar they consume is maltose.
 
Smaug March 1, 2018
I think I'm confused- I read an article at one point, apparently oversimplified, that attributed the sourness to lactose being converted to lactic acid, but looking it up it's considerably more complicated, with various lactobacilli consuming various combinations of maltose, fructose and to some extent sucrose to produce both lactic and acetic acids (maybe more- it got more technical than I was ready to delve into). The fact remains that you are going to have to feed these beasties rather well to get a good starter. In my occasional experiments over the years, the starters that have worked well have included milk.
 
Windischgirl March 2, 2018
It does take about two weeks to get a nicely active starter, if it's given daily feedings. My own starter is now 10 years old (!) and although it may go dormant between bakes, as long as I feed it per recipe and keep it in a warm place, it makes for an active dough and nicely risen bread. A sourdough may take longer to rise (3 hours versus 1 hour for commercial yeast) but that is well-compensated for by the improved flavor and the improved shelf-life of the bread.<br />No two starters are alike, so you may notice that your starter likes the benefits of milk, whereas mine gets plenty of lactobacillus and yeast from my 100-year old house!
 
Smaug March 3, 2018
Probably so, though once again, my concern would be with feeding the microbes, not with initial access. At any rate, today's experiment- I made a poolish for pizza dough (1/4c rye flour, 1/2c AP, 1/2c water, a few grains of yeast) a week ago and never made the dough- the poolish is still alive, and I'm going to use it and see how that comes out. I never really went into sourdough much because I grew up on San Francisco sourdough, and since Larraburu closed I've never had a remotely satisfactory sourdough, but hope springs eternal...
 
Windischgirl March 3, 2018
Your poolish should be fine! It may need a feeding to be at its best, though. If you used commercial yeast, it's a different species compared to sourdough (S. cerevisiae vs. S. exiguus or a Candida species). And you may not have a lot of sourness in your poolish as it hasn't had much time to develop the lactobacillus population.<br />Because yeast is a fungus, once it's established in a starter, it's pretty hard to kill (ask anyone who's had athlete's foot!). There's a symbiotic relationship between the yeast species and the lactobacillus species in a sourdough and depending on the feeding schedule (and the species, I would imagine) one gets varying levels of sour. And since they play nicely together, I imagine it's pretty hard to kill the established lactobacillus population in a starter as well. Magnus Nilsson of Faviken writes about a wooden kneading bowl belonging to his grandmother which was never cleaned; before baking he fills it with warm water and in a day the starter imbedded in the wood comes to life.<br />There are benefits to using a poolish apart from hoping for sourness; prefermenting part of the dough does add to the flavor and starts 'processing' the wheat (the understanding of which is beyond my college chem level comprehension!) making the dough easier to work with and improving its keeping qualities.<br />Being someone who is thrift-oriented, I would probably do the same if I had poolish waiting for me. Mangia bene!
 
Smaug March 3, 2018
Actually I use a poolish for pizza dough mostly because the timing works well for me- I can start the process Saturday without actually having to do much, finish the dough Sunday in 5 min. or so, and, with some sauce from the freezer, I pretty well have Monday dinner defeated. I wouldn't say that this one smells particularly sour after a week, but one way or another the pizza will be fine.
 
Windischgirl February 24, 2018
AJ, thanks for your comment. For those who are concerned about the cost of a kitchen scale, my hubby got me a digital one at a hardware store for under $20; USPS also sells a digital postal scale for about the same cost. Unless you are baking commercial quantities of bread, a scale that goes up to 80 oz (5 lbs) should be just fine.<br />Related note: my 5 minute task is doing the mise en place for my sourdough: measuring out the flours, water, and other ingredients, as well as refreshing the needed amount of starter. Next morning, it’s a quick process to put everything in the Ankarsrum and make bread!
 
AntoniaJames February 28, 2018
Windishgirl, yes, I often do the same thing . . . when I refresh my starter the night before baking, I weigh the dry ingredients, weigh the water, get out my favorite flexible spatula for stirring, etc. It takes so little time, but makes all the difference in the world. ;o)
 
AntoniaJames February 20, 2018
I'm puzzled -- and disappointed -- that the author of this piece did not include metric mass measures, and that the editors of Food52 allowed it to be printed in the state shown. Especially when making bread, it is not just more precise (essential, one might argue) but it's also much, much easier to weigh rather than to scoop and scrape. Think about it. Why on earth would anyone, if they had the choice, try to measure a stretchy, goopy starter in a measuring cup (?!) and then have to clean it, unnecessarily? <br /><br />That 5-minute process was just doubled, at least, by the use of volume rather than mass measures. (When I first saw the heading of the article, I asked myself, how on earth can feeding a starter take 5 minutes? It's not a high level skill nor does it require any practice. When weighing, you can do this in under a minute, and the only thing that must be washed is the spoon you used for stirring.)<br /><br />For the benefit of readers looking to do this most efficiently, may I respectfully suggest the following metric measures (convert to ounces if you must):<br /><br />230 grams of starter (NB: A cup may weigh more of less, + or - 10 grams, or so, than this depending on how active the yeast in it has been during the day or so before measuring)<br /><br />354 grams filtered water<br /><br />600 grams flour<br /><br />Salt - the recipe doesn't specify whether to use regular or kosher. For the quantities of other ingredients in this recipe, I recommend 12 grams. Of course, it doesn't matter whether you use table or kosher when weighing.<br /><br />I hope you find this helpful. I offer it in the spirit of making a positive contribution. ;o) <br /><br />P.S. Yes, I know that some of the bread recipes I posted on this site 7 or more years ago provide volume measures (none of those use a starter). I'm working on re-testing to update all of them. The bread recipes that were tested and photographed by the Food52 test kitchen are locked, so I'm putting links in the comments to the revised versions of those.<br /><br /><br />
 
Audrey W. February 19, 2018
If I want to make multiple loaves, usually I try to make 3-4, do I need to have a bigger starter? Or is 1 cup enough for multiple?
 
AntoniaJames February 20, 2018
Yes, increase the amount of starter by the multiple you're using for the rest of the dough. ;o)
 
Rona February 18, 2018
I made my own starter a few months ago and keep it in the refrigerator. It is really very little work. Once a week, but not every week, I take it out to make bread. I am usually pretty compulsive about measuring, e.g. using a scale when baking, but my bread making is not. I scoop out about 1 cup starter, add about 1 cup water, salt, and enough flour to make good looking dough. I mix up the flour (white, whole wheat, white whole wheat, rye), and sometimes add honey, oatmeal, or potato flour. I let it rise overnight, shape and left it rise again on parchment in a pie plate, then drop it in to a heated Dutch oven and cover.<br />The rest of the starter sits out overnight after getting fed about 1 cup flour, 1/2 c water. In the morning, it goes back in to the refrigerator. The rising times are unpredictable compared to using commercial yeast, so I make bread this way when I am not on a tight schedule.