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Author Notes: To make a sourdough starter, you should realize you are a farmer, not a cook! You are creating the conditions for your microscopic animals to live happily. If you keep that in mind, the process will go a little smoother. I use organic whole rye flour because it’s an especially active medium for fermentation. It has higher levels of sugar than wheat to feed wild yeasts; it also has more amylase enzymes to break down starch and create yet even more sources of sugar for these tiny organisms.
I also use raw (unpasteurized) honey, as a nod to Pliny the Elder from the 1st Century, who mentions it while writing about bakers and sourdough fermentation in the Roman Empire, and because it’s the most concentrated source of natural sugar found in nature. Plus, raw honey contains wild yeast. One word of warning: Avoid glass jars, unless you cover them loosely. If sealed, they can explode while fermenting.
Excerpted from In Search of the Perfect Loaf: A Home Baker’s Odyssey (Viking, 2014). Reprinted with permission. For more of Sam Fromartz' writing, click here. —Sam Fromartz
Makes 1 happy sourdough starter
- 8- or 16-ounce plastic or ceramic container with lid
- Organic whole rye flour
- Raw honey
- Filtered or spring water (so bacteria-killing chlorine is removed)
- Mix 3 tablespoons (30 grams) lukewarm water (about 80 to 90˚F) with 1 teaspoon raw honey. Add 3 tablespoons (20 grams) rye flour and let this sit in a covered container for 1 to 2 days. The amount of time depends on the ambient temperature. If your kitchen is cool, the organisms will be less active and you’ll need more time. Ideally keep it at around 75˚F (24˚C). An oven with the lights or pilot light on works well.
- If you can maintain an ambient temperature of 75°F (24˚C), this first phase will probably take a day, which would be the case on your kitchen counter in the summer. If you simply ferment it in a cold kitchen in winter, it will likely take two days. When you pass by the starter, give it a mix with a spoon every now and again: your animals like oxygen in the initial stages. If they are happy, you will begin to see tiny bubbles forming on the surface of the starter as the organisms belch out carbon dioxide. This should occur after one or two days.
- At this point, add 3 tablespoons of rye flour, 3 tablespoon of water around 75˚F (24˚C), and 1 teaspoon honey. Let it sit for 24 hours. Stir occasionally.
- Discard half the starter. Add 3 tablespoons of rye, 3 tablespoons of water, and 1 teaspoon honey.
- Repeat this last step every 24 hours until the starter is bubbly and begins to rise noticeably. Once that happens, usually by day 5 or 6, you can stop adding the honey. The starter may weaken at that point (you’ve removed its sugar fix, after all) but proceed anyway. It will come alive again. When the mixture doubles in volume within 12 hours, you can think about making bread.
- Here’s the test to see if the starter is ready, after it has risen: carefully remove a bit of it (a tablespoon will do) and place it in bowl of warm water. If it floats to the surface within a couple of minutes, you’ve got an active starter.
- This whole process may take a week or more, especially in the winter. With my kitchen hovering around 65˚F (18˚C), it took me two weeks to achieve a predictable starter, with feedings every one to two days. Once the starter is bubbly and active, you can switch to whole wheat flour, or a mixture of equal parts white and whole wheat flour, in place of the rye. You can also increase the volume by using, say, 20 grams of the mature starter and then feeding it with 100 grams flour and 100 grams water.
- TROUBLESHOOTING: You may start out and get bubbles, but by day two or three it just looks dead. You have a few options:
- First, keep going, and eventually the yeast and bacteria will re-appear and the starter will rise. An active, robust culture is nearly impossible to kill, even if you do leave it around on the kitchen counter for a few days. So if you forget it feed it for a couple of days, don’t throw it out—just soldier on and see what happens.
- Second, you can replace the water with pineapple or apple juice to raise the acidity level, which creates a favorable environment for wild yeast.
- Third, start over. If you do decide to start over, try to acidify the starter by using juice in place of water or a pinch of vitamin C powder with the water for the first three days.
- Fourth, use a pinch of commercial yeast (really, just a pinch between your thumb and forefinger) to jump start your sourdough. Although it may feel like “cheating,” there’s really nothing wrong with this method. Once your starter becomes sufficiently acidic over time, the wild yeast and bacteria will outcompete the store-bought yeast and your starter will be much the same as if you started out without it.
- If all else fails, here is a guaranteed method: Ask for a knob of starter from a friend or local artisan baker (it helps to mention how wonderful their breads are). You may also get a few tips along the way. Feed it once or twice daily by taking 20 grams of the starter and adding 100 grams flour and 100 grams water and leaving it, ideally, at around 75˚F (24˚C) for about 6 to 8 hours. Refrigerate it an hour or two after feeding if you’re not going to use it within the next day. If kept in the refrigerator for a week or longer, refresh it at least once before using it to rise bread. I often refresh it twice, just to ensure it’s sufficiently strong.
- VARIATIONS: I tend to reuse a very small portion of my existing starter when it’s feeding time. I use 20 grams existing starter, 100 grams flour, and 75 grams water. This makes a stiff starter which rises slowly, especially in the winter. After eight hours it can be used, and will tend to have a very mild lactic acid taste.
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