NOTE: Please read the entire post and the Sourdough Starter Troubleshooting FAQ before posting a question about the Starter or the Bread. Making a sourdough starter and the bread is a process–you can’t rush it and you need to give it time. Also, you need to follow the directions :).
New information added 1/30/14
I miss sourdough bread! I am from Monterey, CA, which is a lovely coastal town about 100 miles south of San Francisco. And I grew up with fabulous San Francisco sourdough. When I was diagnosed as gluten-intolerant, I was no longer able to eat commercial sourdough. It’s been a source of great anguish for me–I loved my San Francisco sourdough! Over the past 10 years, I’ve experimented with making gluten-free sourdough every so often. But, nothing really has come even close to my beloved SF sourdough.
As you may know, sourdough bread is made by using a fermented starter, which is made from yeast, flour, and water. The yeast ferments the mixture by eating the sugars in the flour and turning them into alcohol and carbon dioxide gas. The starter, then, is what is used to make the bread rise. Bread made with a starter has a more complex taste and texture than one made with commercial yeast. What distinguishes sourdough starter and makes it sour is that it evolves over time. It’s created by the feeding and elimination process the yeasts and bacteria in the starter go through when you mix them with food (flour) and water. They consume the flour and water and eliminate alcohol and gas.
There are several ways to get the yeast into the flour/water base mix to create the starter. You can start with commercial yeast and mix that with flour and water. Or, you can mix flour and water and the yeast on the flour will be activated and will start multiplying and create a starter. Or you can use a medium on which wild yeast likes to grow, like grapes or red cabbage, and mix those with flour and water to get the yeast into the starter.
Note 1/30/14: I’ve been doing some extra research into sourdough starters and apparently the concept that yeast is floating around in the air is a myth. The yeast that starts a wild (aka, non-commercial yeast) sourdough starter is on the flour and on any boosting mechanism you add (e.g., red cabbage or grapes). The thing that floats around in the air and is different to different regions is the lactic acid bacteria—see next paragraph.
Also important to the process is lactic acid bacteria. This works with the yeast to create an environment that allows the yeast to grow and develop without being invaded by things like mold. It’s the wild lactic acid bacteria, Lactobacillus sanfranciscensis, floating around San Francisco that is what makes San Francisco sourdough so special.
The flavor of a sourdough is also created and affected by the flours used to feed it. Each flour has a different taste and therefore each flour will create a different tasting sourdough.
Note: To add a bit of confusion is the fact that any bread that is made with a fermented starter a sourdough–even though many of them are really not that sour.
Now, this all sounds simple, but every method of culturing and developing a (wheat) sourdough starter I have ever come across has been long and involved. I’ve adapted to gluten-free many wheat-based methods over the years. Most of them require crazy amounts of wasted flour and water and a specific time table of when to feed the starter and when to stir the starter. You’re always pouring off stuff, adding more, etc. It always drove me crazy. It was like having a persnickity pet. I always got frustrated with how complicated things seemed and gave up after awhile, my starter inevitably went bad, and I ended up throwing my disgusting mess into my compost bin.
Bette Hagman, the Gluten-Free Gourmet, does have a gluten-free sourdough recipe in her book, The Gluten-Free Gourmet Bakes Bread. For its time (1999), this recipe was awesome and trailblazing. And, the terrific thing about it is that it is easy. But, I gave up making this after awhile. It’s OK, but not really that good. And it doesn’t really taste how I wanted it to taste and never really became sour in the way I want sourdough to be sour.
Then, recently, two things happened to change my mind about the creation of a sourdough starter. First, my friend Jean, of the GF Doctor Recipes, developed a sourdough starter and process that was much easier to understand. Further, she developed a way to dry it so she can give it away and send it to people. Brilliant. Her technique was to create a gluten-free flour mix on which the yeast would grow that contained the “protein, fats, fiber and carbohydrates of organic hard winter wheat flour.” This, she reasoned, would create a sourdough bread with “a thick crust, open-holed, tangy flavor and tender-threaded bread.” And she was right! Recently she posted her bread recipe that uses her starter.
This fall, before Jean posted her finalized recipe, I started thinking about sourdough again. I wanted to know more. I vaguely understood the process from talking with Jean (we also made a video about making her sourdough, will post info on that soon!). But, I’m one of those people who don’t really learn something until I do it. Then, I ran across an old post by Michael Ruhlman about sourdough starter. In the post he discusses a method of harvesting wild yeast that was developed by a woman named Carri Thurman of Two Sisters Bakery in Homer, Alaska. She uses a leaf of red cabbage mixed with her flour and water. You know how red cabbage has a bit of a white film on the leaves? That is yeast. And, so you can use red cabbage to kick-start the yeast harvesting process. And you know what? It works well and is extremely easy.
So, I followed the directions–I mixed 1 cup (5 oz) of whole grain gluten-free flour (I started with a fairly high protein, gluten-free flour–sweet sorghum. But you can use brown rice or quinoa or teff or another whole grain flour) and 1 cup (8 oz) of water. I placed the flour and water into a large glass container with 2 leaves of organic red cabbage. I mixed these up with a whisk, covered the container with a piece of parchment paper poked all over with holes so the starter could breathe (you can also use something like cheesecloth or just leave it open if you don’t have fruit flies around). And I let it sit on the counter. I fed it about every 12 hours (morning and night) with another 1 cup of flour and 1 cup of water. In between feedings, I stirred the mixture every so often. And you know what? The mixture started bubbling after 2 days–right on schedule. My starter had begun!
At first it smelled a bit sour, but not that strong. And then it got very sour. But, then it eventually mellowed out and started to smell like whey. It had a light, pleasant tang. Of course, after all of my past experiences, I worried that the starter would go bad. I did some research and found out that if you stir it often, at least every 12 hours (or more–more stirring is best), the yeast and the lactic acid bacteria will be happy and work together and make sure nothing else grows in it. It turns out that the lactic acid bacteria create an antibiotic called cycloheximide that kills the unwanted organisms that might grow in your starter, but it doesn’t kill the yeast. So, if the lactic acid bacteria is happy and being fed and stirred well, it will keep your starter free of bad things like mold.
Over the past month, I’ve been cultivating my starter and experimenting with baking with it. For most of the time, I’ve kept it on the kitchen counter (the ambient temperature of my kitchen has been 60-75 degrees F), and have fed it with 1 cup of flour and 1 cup of water every 12-ish hours. I’ve been experimenting with flours with which to feed it. I’ve fed it alternately with sorghum, brown rice, amaranth, teff and garbanzo bean flour. So far, the yeast have done well with each of these flours and have happily bubbled away. If I don’t have time to feed it after 12 hours, I stick it in the fridge to go dormant for awhile. I’ve kept it in the fridge over the course of about 5 days without adding more flour and water–and it’s been fine. I do try to mix it every day or so to mix in the alcohol that settles on the top.
One thing that happens with sourdough starter is that the alcohol the yeast produces as a result of fermentation rises to the top of the starter and sits there until I mix it back in. In bread-baking terms, this alcohol is called, appropriately enough, “hooch.” It’s what gives the sourdough much of its sour flavor. You can mix the hooch back into the starter when you see it developing, or you can pour it off. If you feel like the starter is beginning to smell too vinegary, then pour it off. If you like the smell and the resulting sour taste, then mix it back in.
So far, I’ve been baking directly with the starter. And it’s worked well (the 1st recipe for baking sourdough bread will be in my next post–to give you time to develop your starter). The more traditional way to make sourdough bread is to take some of the starter (sometimes called the “seed culture”), and use that to create something called the “mother sponge.” What happens with this process is this: you take a bit of the seed culture (the starter) and mix it with some flour and water, leave that to ferment for 4-8 hours, and then use this dough, the mother sponge, as the leavener and flavor enhancer for the bread. I haven’t yet experimented with doing this, but will do so and post about it in the future.
Sourdough Starter, Gluten-Free
-large glass, plastic, or pottery container–like a bowl, a jar, or a measuring cup–be sure it can hold about 6 cups of dough
-something porous (the starter needs to breathe) to cover the container with like cheesecloth or parchment paper that is poked full of holes (don’t use aluminum foil or plastic wrap)
-One or more of the following whole grain gluten-free flours: Sorghum flour, Brown Rice flour, Amaranth flour, Garbanzo Bean flour (this seems to make the most sour starter), Millet flour (millet seems to create a less robust starter–I wouldn’t recommend it for newbies), Quinoa flour, Teff flour, Buckwheat flour. Do not use a high starch flour like tapioca, sweet rice, or potato.
-Filtered Water (we have filtered water in our house that contains no chorine–and I think that does the best.) Your results may vary if you use non-filtered water.
-Organic red cabbage leaves (although I heard that people have had results w/non-organic as well, but I think using organic cabbage is best)
Note (1/30/14): I’ve been playing around with creating a starter from just the flour and water. In my first experiment, I used teff flour mixed with water. It worked beautifully! After about 48 hours of feeding and watering and stirring the teff flour and water, I got a lovely starter going. So, you can also play with this method and not use the cabbage. Please note that I’ve only done this with teff flour so far, so I can’t give advice on how other flours work.
Place 1 cup (5 oz/140 g) of sweet sorghum flour (or whatever flour you use) and 1 cup (8 oz/230 g/250 ml) of filtered water in your container. Mix thoroughly (I’ve been using a whisk and it’s worked well). Add 1 or 2 leaves of red cabbage. Mix those around with the flour-water slurry.
Cover with your porous material. You can also leave it open if you don’t have fruit flies bopping around your kitchen like I do–leaving it open will encourage more lactic acid bacteria from your kitchen to land on the mixture. Leave it on your kitchen counter. Do not use aluminum foil or plastic wrap. I use parchment paper pierced all over with many pin pricks. You can also use cheesecloth.
Stir it every so often–no stress, just when you think about it (although try to stir it at least once during the 12 hours between feedings). About 12 hours later, add another 1 cup each of flour and water. Mix well. I use a whisk to mix the starter and it works quite well.
Repeat this process every 12-ish hours. After about 48 hours you should see some bubbling action in your starter. Important: The conditions in your kitchen may require a longer development process. Give it about 5 days before starting to worry. Once the bubbling action is definitely in place (wait another full day), then you can remove all of the cabbage leaves. Do not leave the cabbage leaves in there indefinitely.
Congratulations! Your starter is on its way. Now you need to feed it every 12 hours or so. Play around with the flours you feed it with–I’ve been alternating sorghum, brown rice, amaranth, millet, teff, and garbanzo bean flours. You can see and smell how each of these affects your starter. Try other ones that you have or like. From here on, it’s a living thing that you shape and develop based on what you feed it (kind of like a baby).
Edited 3/11/12 to add: If you keep your starter for more than a few days without making bread, you will probably want to mix it up and then pour off some of it to make room in your container. Please note that my recipe for Sourdough Bread uses about 4 cups of starter, so keep that in mind as you tend to your starter and pour it off. There is no real secret to pouring off starter. Just mix it up and then pour out the amount you want to get rid of. You want to leave at least 1 cup of starter in order for the yeast to not be overwhelmed by further feedings. Otherwise, just mix it well and then pour off the amount you want to get rid of. Or, you can pour it into smaller containers and give some starter to friends. You can also refrigerate your starter. This will slow down the yeast activity, requiring you to feed it only every 3 days or so instead of every day. Don’t forget to stir it every so often.
Go to Sourdough Bread boule (round loaf) for the recipe that uses this starter.
NOTE 3/22/12: Keep in mind that sourdough is a living thing. Therefore, it acts like a living thing and is not always predictable. For example, it might take your starter longer than 2 days to develop. Also, because it is living and changeable, the amount of sourness is a matter of personal taste. What I think of as “perfect” sourness may be another person’s idea of “yucky.” Also, the flour(s) you use will determine the taste. But keep in mind that since it is a living thing, you must feed and water (and stir) it in order for it to thrive. If you don’t feed and water it on a regular basis, it will eventually go bad and die.
If you are having problems with your starter or have questions about it, please check my Sourdough Starter Troubleshooting FAQ before posting a question. Thanks!