(Adapted from Blog titled, Sourdough Bread, Simpler by the author)
A Simple Recipe for Wild Yeast Starter:
Put 1/2 cup white flour and 1/3 cup water in a glass jar (at least quart sized) and mix it. Some bakers recommend a Dutch whisk, but I prefer a butter knife to mix the starter because it’s so easy to clean (scrape) off with another butter knife. Easy to clean up and almost no wasted starter. Win-win!
Repeat, adding the same amount and mixing again in 12 hours, then in another 12 hours, and do this for about a week, maybe two. Be patient. As the days pass, adjust the amounts of water and flour if necessary so that the combination is about the consistency of thick pancake batter. Over that period of time you‘ll notice the starter begins to bubble and smell yeasty. After a couple of weeks, you can feed the starter once a day instead of twice. Keep the starter covered with the lid slightly cracked open between feedings.
That’s it! Simple. You have made your own, home grown, wild yeast starter. Congratulations! You’re now ready to make some delicious, truly homemade, sourdough bread and other sourdough goodness.
Keep reading for more detailed explanations below (the primer).
For those interested in talking about or learning about natural, wild-yeast starter (like me), I’ll post this separately from the above mentioned blog, which goes into the actual bread making (and add in here some starter-specific details). My hope is that the following explanations will lead to more success in making natural starter. I’ve tried to keep the process of making your own starter simple, and also to keep the maintenance of the starter simple as well. There’s nothing like unnecessary complexity to discourage a baker.
That said, I don’t consider myself the ultimate authority on starter (or on anything else)! So, please chip in, give your two cents, refute what I’m saying, correct me, and I’ll learn, too. All I have to offer is what I’ve read, tried, experimented with, failed on, and succeeded at.
Sourdough is said to be the holy grail of bread baking--harder to make then normal baker’s bread (or bread that uses yeast and sugar). It’s really not that hard, though, if you follow the method I’ve developed (see blog titled Sourdough Bread, Simpler).
You can do it (to include making your own starter). And…it’s so fun to successfully create something literally historic, rustic looking, full of that tangy flavor, chewy texture, and amazing aroma. You’ll only get that result by using what sourdough bread makers have used for eons—a good strong wild yeast starter. There’s simply no satisfactory substitute.
Learn this simple process, and you’ll impress friends and relish your very own sourdough. But, you’ll also feel a bit like you’re doing something that hearkens way, way back—a mystical, tangy, almost magical connection to those early bread makers.
From what I understand, sourdough was invented thousands of years ago (probably by accident) when flour and water were mixed and sat in the heat, fermenting. Yeast and bacteria began to grow, and the mixture consequently bubbled slowly (this batter-like stuff is what bakers today call “starter” when making sourdough bread).
Where do the microorganisms in the brew come from? I’m not sure this has ever been proven, but it must be from the air, water, or flour. I’m guessing the yeast comes mostly from the flour and air (naturally, which is why it’s often called wild yeast starter).
When starter is exposed to the cold (like overnight in ancient homes without much heat), yeast grows more slowly at those low temperatures. However, the bacteria grow via fermentation when it’s cold, which produces as byproducts both sugar and lactic acid. The lactic acid is what makes the sourdough sour.
When the next day dawns and warmth returns, the sugar is metabolized (eaten) by the warming (and therefore more active) yeast, which creates carbon dioxide as another byproduct (a gas). This causes leavening (rising of the dough, hence the little air spaces in bread). So, as you can guess, when some of the starter is mixed with additional water, flour, and salt, the resulting dough has the potential to rise because of the sugar and yeast which are present naturally, without being added separately by the baker. Back in the day, keeping a starter that had this culture of bacteria and yeast was essential to bake leavened bread.
You can buy starter online if you want. I think you’ll enjoy making your own, though. It’s easy and more satisfying.
The glass jar should have a very wide mouth and a way to cover it, but leave a small crack for air. I use an Anchor brand ½ gallon jar like this:
You can buy one at Wal-Mart or Amazon for about $10.
Here are a few more thoughts and important explanations:
When you have a good strong starter, you can keep it in the fridge and feed it less often (more on that below).
When you read about making sourdough bread, crackers, biscuits, and so forth, the recipe will often call for “fed starter.” This simply means the starter has recently (within an a few hours) had its daily dose of water and flour (hence, it’s been fed, or in other words, it’s had its food, and can stay alive--bubbling away). The starter is not fed (called “unfed” starter in recipes) if it’s been sitting for maybe 12 or more hours without the addition of new flour and water.
Let’s address the question, “Which flour and water to use when making starter?” Answer: Use white flour only. I don’t think it matters much if it’s all purpose or bread flour. Don’t use self-rising flour. You can use whole-grain wheat, or oat or other grain flours, but the odor of the starter will begin to be less than pleasant, euphemistically speaking. Some call the odor produced by whole grain starter, “skunky.”
Avoid water that has chlorine or metal. Some city water will be chlorinated, and the chlorine can reportedly interfere with the growth of the bacteria and yeast. I do know several people use city tap water, however, and have plenty of success with their starter, so don’t be overly afraid of tap water. Just a point of info if your starter isn’t bubbling and healthy and you don’t know why.
The caution about metal in the water is mostly aimed at those who use well water, like me. Metals can also inhibit the growth of bacteria and yeast. Some bakers will recommend filtered water or distilled water. Although we have lots of iron in our well water here in Colorado, we have some kind of a system set up in the basement that supposedly takes the iron out, but I know it’s not perfect. Even still, I’ve never had any problem with my water inhibiting the growth of the starter. I do get my water from the dispenser on the refrigerator because that water goes through one additional carbon filter.
Because it’s convenient, if you can use your own tap water, you are much more likely to find success making sourdough, especially over time. This is simply because few will want the inconvenience of buying gallons of distilled water to keep their starter going. Of course, for others, getting water that works is a small price to pay to be able to make this wonderful goodness.
Here is one way I depart with some bakers. I’ve never seen this advocated, but I keep my starter in the fridge, not on the counter. The reasons are several.
First, it works--at least it’s worked for me. I can see some advocating the idea that starter needs to be at room temperature to keep the yeast going. In my experience, the fridge works just fine. The dough rises well, and the starter keeps on bubbling along. Second, no fruit flies. One summer I had a fruit fly problem, and the little guys seemed to like the starter. Third, the starter is always ready, always sour. Most sourdough recipes have you keep the starter on the counter, make dough from it, and then refrigerate the dough to make it sour. No need for this step if you keep the starter in the fridge. Fourth, it’s easier to maintain. With the slower rate of growth cold temperatures require, there is less tendency toward undesirable mold growth on the starter. In fact, since I’ve been keeping the starter in the fridge, I haven’t seen any mold growth at all, unlike when the starter was kept at room temp.
If you don’t keep the starter in the fridge, you can keep it on the counter. You should feed it every day or two, same ½ cup of flour and 1/3 cup of water, mixed in well to the consistency of pancake batter.
A word of warning: making sourdough bread is a small commitment…and addictive. To the commitment point, refrigerated starter needs to be fed a ½ cup of flour and a 1/3 cup of water about once a week. It’s easy--it only takes a few minutes--and you can even take a break (more on that below). Still, it’s like having fish to feed or some other little mundane task that adds to your weekly duties.
But, don’t worry, when you go on vacation, you can put your starter in the refrigerator and when you get home it will be fine. You can do this for weeks at a time if you decide you’re tired of making sourdough for a while. I know of someone who put his starter in the fridge for the entire winter and it was still usable in the spring.
I have found that starter is very forgiving. The fridge helps discourage growth of mold. And, if some mold grows on the top, scrape it off, discard, and use what’s below. I’ve done this and have had no ill effects.
All the best in baking, and best of luck!