I am amazed at the magic that something I am growing out of mere flour and water transforms into a bubbly mass with the capacity to prompt a dough, and then a bread, to rise. Without even applying an external source of heat, the natural yeast of a sourdough culture - a starter - produces a completely different entity than the ingredients that contribute to it and, when mixed with the dough ingredients, one practically screams out "voila" when peeking at a dough that has expanded to fill the bowl. A fantastic chemical reaction of air, water and flour first create the sourdough culture and then, with the additions of time, flour, water and salt (and other stuff, occasionally), and some oven heat, a bread is produced.
Yes, there is a scientific
explanation. Yes, this task has been performed for thousands of years, and by
illiterate people. Still, the combination of simple ingredients, adding only
air and time, to mix with flour, water, and salt - to amount to this sweet
smelling, delicious concoction that is a bread. Well, it is easy to understand
why ancient people created gods to which they attributed the force that natural
yeast produces. A pretty decent and everyday sort of miracle.
No lack of starter advice
No two people will give the
same advice about how to create a starter. My advice, for what it's worth, is:
Start two starters. If both thrive, wonderful, but probably one will. I would
go with (1) a rye and (2) a white all-purpose flour. Some people use spelt starters. There is general starter advice from the Sourdough Companion forum. Many books and websites have sourdough starter suggestions. I especially like this all-about-starters post from the now-defunct Tartine Bread Experiment. Here is my advice. [Admire the lovely bubbles of fermentation in the photograph. Oohs and ahhs are appropriate.]
How to start a starter
Use a clean glass jar.
Use spring water - not tap
water. Whatever chlorine or other additives are in tap water do not make for
happy starters, particularly new ones. Go somewhere else for a scientific
explanation, but that advice is universal.
the flour and water: Add
equal weights, but amounting to a quarter cup or more each of the flour
and water. It does not matter whether you add a cup or half a cup of
you do not have a scale, then add a third of a cup of flour for every
cup of water. Mix well.
Cover the flour
and water mix
loosely with one of the following: a top of a jar, a paper towel or a
loose piece of plastic wrap.
The starter will need some air to get going and stay healthy. Keep the
jar unrefrigerated and, preferably, in a warm kitchen. Don't sweat this;
I started mine in a cool kitchen in the winter and it thrived.
Mix well a few times a day.
Watch for bubbles. They might take a few hours or a couple of days to appear.
When bubbles appear, throw away about half of the mix and feed the starter with about equal weights of whatever
flour you are using and water. At this point, the objective is to get the
starter going and not to produce a huge amount. Feed twice a day after bubbles
Mental health warning
Do not be alarmed - you will be obsessed about this and constantly checking to examine bubble activity.
critical. A starter should be more of a muffin batter consistency than a
pancake batter. A wet mass, but not runny. It should not pour easily.
Think thick and viscous. I typically add about double the weight of
flour to water. Many people go for a 1:1 ratio. There is no wrong
answer; whatever works is fine.
After about a week, if there
is a bubbly, happy mass, congratulations! The first time or two using the
starter, feel free to mix in a tiny amount (a quarter to a half of a teaspoon)
of commercial yeast. Once the starter is healthy for a couple of weeks, it can
go it alone to produce some fine breads. [Photograph of my pretty starter right before use and feeding. Notice the bubbles and the small amount.]
Sustaining a starter
Let go. Forget amounts.
Forget fractions, as in use or throw away half of the starter before feeding
it. Forget everything but the look and smell of a good starter. Add to the
starter, use some, and/or cast away some.
Determine whether you
are maintaining the starter amount or growing it. That will determine whether
to keep or get rid of some when feeding it.
Adjusting with different flours
making breads with different types of flours - whether spelt, whole
wheat, rye or whatever - one can feed the starter with a different type
of flour once or twice in preparation for making a bread with a
particular type of flour. Or, switch the flour type occasionally just to
play or inject a little different taste in one of your usual breads.
In the refrigerator - feed
twice a week. Many experts recommend once a week, and that can be done, but
mine looks weary by then, greyish water on top. Twice a week and it will never
Out on the kitchen counter -
feed twice a day. Once a day will do, sometimes; sometimes that's a bit of a
stretch. Twice a day guarantees consistent health of the starter - especially in the summer.
Change the jar about once a month. No one wants to see dirt or unwelcome mold. Sorry to mention that.
Some say starters are ready
to use right out of the fridge; others say they need to be tended for up to three
days. I take the middle ground. I usually take out the starter 24 hours, but
sometimes 12 hours, before using it. I like to feed it twice, ideally, before
putting it to work. On the counter, with some warmth, the sourdough culture
thrives, becomes happy (as we all do with some warm air) and it is ready for
How much starter
to use? Recipe instructions are not mandatory. More starter = less time
needed for bulk fermentation of dough. Higher temperature in the
kitchen has the same effect. Futzing with starter amount and room
temperature can speed up or slow down the process. Personally, I like a
nice long fermentation period so that those good bacteria can grow and
produce a nice tangy taste in the bread.
Adjusting yeast or starter amounts
recipes call for commercial yeast. First, the amount given is typically
geared toward quick rising - the more yeast, the quicker the rise.
Generally, such recipes will include a tablespoon (or equivalent) per
loaf of bread. Even without starters, one can improve the bread by using
much less yeast - even as little as 1/4 teaspoon - while adding a great
deal of time - generally going from a two-hour first rise to an
overnight or longer first rise. I like the additional time because it
enables overnight and all-day (go to the office) rises.
rule is the same for starters: The more starter, the quicker the rise.
Many recipes that include starters also call for dough made in stages
with a preferment of biga, sponge, levain, poolish, or whatever
variation. Again, I am learning to put in less starter for a longer time
to rise, whether or not that includes a preferment or just an
all-the-ingredients-together first rise.
variable in the starter or yeast equation is the temperature of the
room in which the dough is rising. Rising times vary considerably from a
55-degree kitchen on a winter night and a mid-day summer kitchen of 90
degrees (for people like me who hardly turn on the air conditioning). In
summer, I am learning to use a quarter of the yeast or starter I would
add in the winter so that I can keep the rising time the same throughout
Substituting starter for yeast
common question is how to substitute starter for commercial yeast. Some
use a rough general rule of a quarter to half cup of starter. That's
me. Some meticulously account for the amount of flour and water in the
starter as substitutes for amounts in the recipe, also adjusting for a
preliminary build/preferment stage. I've done this as well. I really
cannot say that the more mathematically-correct method works better. The
loosey-goosey method ends up just as well.
There is good information on some freshloafonline forum discussions. I'm sure there are more and the forum is searchable.
Amounts of starter to use.
Substituting starter for yeast.
Going away on vacation? No need for a kennel
Leaving for more than a long
weekend and there's no friend able, willing and knowledgable to feed the
starter? No need to worry.
The clear winner for vacation storage of starter is a 65 percent hydration starter. It pops back to active starter status practically the minute it is taken out of the fridge. Maybe not that quickly, but within a day.
And the runners up, in order, are
After the 65 percent hydration starter comes the rye starter, which has small bubbles and that brown, almost speckled appearance, that combine to make it more difficult to tell when the starter is active.
Next up is the regular starter. Last, but not least, dried flakes of starter.
Better than frozen
All contenders became active within two and a half days, way ahead of the five-to-seven days needed to resuscitate a starter after it has been frozen.
(I checked my source for the freezing advice so I know I did not just dream up that method of storing starter. However, if my third-grade-worthy science experiment has any validity, and I would argue that it does (though far from perfect laboratory conditions), then the freezing option will not be used again at my house. For the next duration of more than one week of non-feeding, I will be using the 65 percentage method and, for a long enough absence, the flakes, most likely with a back-up option.)
For a brief historty, here's the tale of the starter experiment at the onset.
Trouble with a starter?
I found this all-about-starters post
from the now-defunct Tartine Bread Experiment to be the most detailed
and helpful information about troubleshooting starter issues and,
indeed, about beginning one's own starter. Basically, in my opinion one
should feed frequently enough, keep things clean, use filtered water,
and stick to a starter consistency (whether like pancake batter, cookies
or runny) that works for you.