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 :).
Important new information added 5/4/14 and 1/5/15 and 2/12/15. Please read entire post for a better understanding of what’s happening with the starter.
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! Since I was diagnosed with gluten intolerance, I’ve experimented with making gluten-free sourdough every so often. But, nothing really has come even close to my beloved SF sourdough–until now.
As you may know, sourdough bread is made by using a fermented starter, which is usually made from wild 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.
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.
But, as one researches the world of sourdough, some unexpected facts turn up. As it turns out, what is called “sourdough” isn’t necessarily sour and it’s not necessarily something that takes days or weeks to create. Sourdough is simply bread (or baked items) that are made with a fermented culture or starter, also known as the “pre-ferment” or the “chef,” among other names. It is what we call bread that is not made quickly from commercial yeast. The concept of a starter was developed at some point in the distant past when bakers realized that they could harvest the yeast and bacteria from the flour and the air in order to leaven their loaves. Further, it was discovered that they could keep back a little bit of starter or some dough from each baking to feed and create more starter that would be used to make the next batch of bread. Therefore, making bread from a pre-ferment that has only proofed overnight (vs. days) has more complex flavor than that made with commercial yeast, it isn’t at all sour in the way San Francisco sourdough is. Most of the time, a sour sourdough is made from a starter that is mature (i.e., has been cultivated over a longish period of time). A young starter will create bread that one would not call “sour.”
What this means is that all bread used to be sourdough. Who knew? But, as commercial yeast came onto the market, there was less need for bakeries and for home bakers to use a starter. Commercial yeast (known in its various forms as fresh, cake, active dry, or instant yeast) allowed bakers to just add yeast to recipe without having to wait for a starter to develop. But, even though this development saved time, it creates bread that has a much more neutral and less complex flavor. Recognition of this fact has contributed led to the rise in the past several years of artisan bakeries which make bread from a starter vs. from commercial yeast.
So, how do we start a starter? There are several ways to get the yeast into the flour/water base mix to create the fermented starter. You can start with commercial yeast and mix that with flour and water. Or, you can mix flour and water and the wild yeast on the flour will be activated and will mix with the bacteria on the flour and in the air and start multiplying and create a starter. Or you can use a boosting 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.
It’s important to note that the concept that yeast is floating around in the air is a myth. You will read old sourdough books where they talk about wild yeast in the air. As it turns out, 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.
Every method of culturing and developing a (wheat) sourdough starter I have ever come across has seemed to me to be long and involved. I have followed many methods over the years. Most of them seem to require crazy amounts of 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 a while, my starter inevitably went bad, and I ended up throwing my disgusting mess into my compost bin. As it turns out, the problem with these recipes is that they most often don’t explain why we needed to do what they asked. This is important to me. I find that I always need to know “why” a thing is required in order to be convinced to 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 wild 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.
My first several starters provided a world of information for me. First they smelled a bit sour, but not that strong. And then they got very sour. But, sometimes they eventually mellowed out and started to smell like whey. Of course, after all of my past experiences, I worried that the starter would go bad. As it turns out, the reason the older recipes ask you do pour off your starter before you feed it again is that the starter needs to be fed with roughly equal amounts of flour and water. So 1 cup of starter to 1 cup of water and 1 cup of flour. This keeps the yeast and the lactic acid bacteria happy and well fed and they will 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 watered enough and stirred well, it will keep your starter free of bad things like mold.
Problems arise when you have too much starter and aren’t feeding and watering it often enough. There is a “perfect spot” at which yeast is just old enough and acidic enough that it is sour but not too sour. But, if you let it get too sour, it means that the yeast is too old and too acidic and problems like mold will develop on it. Also, starters often develop a top layer of waste liquid alcohol that the yeast produces as a result of fermentation that is called “hooch.” You can mix the hooch back into the starter to make it more more sour or you can pour it off. A moderate amount of hooch is fine, but a lot of hooch means the yeast is weak and stressed. I recommend mixing it back into the starter if it’s not a lot of hooch or if you’re going to use that starter to bake with very soon and want the sourness. A lot of hooch (a layer equal to or more than the lower layer of starter) means that you need to feed and water the starter more and more often.
Keep in mind that most of the time, a more sour the starter usually means the yeast have become weaker, which means less leavening power. So, the more sour the bread, the more dense it will probably be. Which isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
I have also found that different flours create differently-flavored starters. Which makes sense. So, you can play with the flours you give your starter and see how they affect the taste and smell of the starter.
Also, you can keep your starter going forever or you can use it all up and start a new starter. I have found that if I go weeks or months with not using a starter, it’s easier to just use it all up (or compost it) rather than keep it going. But, experiment and do what sounds interesting to you.
Sourdough Starter, Gluten-Free
-a large glass, plastic, or ceramic container–like a bowl, a jar, or a measuring cup–be sure it can hold about 6 cups of dough. Currently, I use a 2 quart/1.9 liter Cambro bucket for my starter
-something porous (the starter needs to breathe) to cover the container with like a cotton dishcloth (don’t use aluminum foil or plastic wrap)
-One or more of the following whole grain gluten-free flours: Sorghum flour, Teff flour (sorghum and teff seem to perform the best and are the ones you want to use to begin the starter) Brown Rice Flour, Amaranth flour, Quinoa flour, or Buckwheat flour. I recommend that you do not use a high starch flour like tapioca, millet, white rice, sweet rice, or potato. These will cause the yeast to go into overdrive, which means they will do everything faster and you will need to feed them much more often than every 8 hours.
-Filtered Water: We have filtered water in our house that contains no chlorine–and I think that does the best. You need to experiment to see how your house’s tap water works if you don’t want to buy filtered water. I have had reports that people have been able to make a starter with water that is chlorinated. But, be aware that there is a new type of water purification that cities are going through that uses another disinfectant–chloramine–and I’ve heard that it is less friendly to a sourdough starter. So, 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), washed but not scrubbed. The white stuff on the cabbage is the yeast that helps to start the starter.
1. Place 1 cup (5 oz/140 g) of sweet sorghum or teff flour (these seem to work the best to begin the starter) and 1 cup (240 ml) of filtered water in your container. Mix thoroughly (I’ve been using a whisk and it’s worked well).
2. Add 1 or 2 leaves of organic red cabbage. Mix those around with the flour-water slurry.
3. Cover with your porous material. I use parchment paper pierced with a bunch of tiny holes secured by a rubber band to the jar. A cotton kitchen towel is also good. If you’re using a Cambro bucket, you can cover it with the lid left ajar. 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.
(The ideal temperature for yeast to grow at is around 70 to 75 degrees F/21 to 24 degrees C. The colder the environment, the more slowly the yeast will grow. The warmer the environment, the faster the yeast will grow. You need to feed yeast that is in a hot environment more often than you need to feed a yeast at a moderate or cool environment.)
4. Stir it every so often–no stress, just when you think about it (although try to stir it at least once during the 8 to 12 hours between feedings).
5. About 8 to 12 hours later, feed your starter: add another 1 cup each of whole grain flour (teff, sorghum, brown rice, amaranth, quinoa, buckwheat, garbanzo bean) and water. Mix well.
6. Repeat this process every 8 to 12 hours (your starter will do the best if it’s fed more often–i.e., it can be fed every 12 hours but every 8 is better). 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 or emailing me. 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 now ready for use to make bread.
Once your starter is on its way, you need to maintain it in a way that keeps it healthy. For most people, this means that you need to reduce the amount of starter each time before you feed it. This is because the larger your starter becomes, the more food (flour) and water you have to give it. After a few days without pouring off any starter, the amount of starter you have will become larger than is truly manageable for a home baker. If you don’t feed a starter enough food/water for its size often enough, the more weak and acidic the yeast becomes. This means that the starter becomes much more sour, but it also means that it is prone to getting contaminated with things like mold. A starter that has mold growing on it is evidence that the starter is too weak to fight off bad things. There are techniques for combatting things like mold in a starter and making it healthy again, but for our purposes, I recommend that you throw it out and start again if mold occurs.
I have found that the following feeding/watering ratio is best for maintaining a healthy starter:
Feeding Ratio: 1 part (by volume) starter to 1/2 part flour and 1/2 part water
As you can see, the larger your starter, the more food and water it needs at each feeding. If you’re not regularly baking with the starter (and therefore reducing it by using it), the amount of starter you have will quickly become unwieldy. I have found that the way to maintain a healthy and manageable starter is to stir and then pour off (and throw away or give away) some starter each time you feed and water it so it doesn’t get too big.
For our purposes, I recommend keeping the starter to an average of 4 cups/960 ml maximum as you’re developing it.
1. Before each feeding, stir the starter and then pour off (i.e., throw away) as much as you need to get the starter down to 2 cups/480 ml.
2. Then feed it with 1 cup whole grain flour and 1 cup water and stir, which will bring the volume back up to about 4 cups/960 ml total.
When you are ready to make your bread
1. You will need 4 cups/950 ml of starter. Therefore, it’s best to time your last feeding before you use your starter to about 2 to 4 hours before baking.
2. Feeding it a few hours before use in your recipe will give you an active and happy starter. At this feeding, stir and pour off enough so that you have about 2 1/2 cups left. Then, when you feed it 1 cup of flour and 1 cup of water, you will have a little more than 4 cups–which is enough to for use in the bread and for a little extra (a 1/2 cup or so) to keep the starter going should you wish to do that.
3. Wait a couple of hours for the starter to get active after feeding and then use it for making bread.
Making and Maintaining a Sourdough Starter is an Organic and Somewhat Imprecise Process
As you can see, the feeding process isn’t that precise. There is a fair amount of wiggle room as long as you’re paying attention to the amount of starter you have and using that to gauge roughly how much flour and water to feed it according to the ratio above. (And making sure you’re also paying attention to how the starter is behaving–i.e., it’s not growing mold–which can be white–or starting to smell like a sewer). Using volume measurements helps me “eyeball” how much I need to feed my starter–using weight measurements here seems to make people feel like the process is more precise than it actually is.
You don’t have to keep a starter going forever. There is actually no need to have a starter that is years old. Most of the people who have starters that are years and years old are baking with it on a very regular basis–and many of these folks are in the baking business. Although there is some amount of pride that seems to go into keeping a starter going forever, I have found it to be more of a hassle than I’m personally willing to put up with. Thus, if I’m not planning to use the starter anytime soon, I just throw it out and wait until about a week before I’m ready to bake to get one going again.
If you’re not going to use your starter anytime soon but you want to maintain it, you can refrigerate it. This allows the yeast to go dormant and allows you to feed and stir it every 3 days or so rather than every 8 to 12 hours. Be sure to watch it so that nothing funky starts to grow in it (like mold–which can be white).
Go to Sourdough Bread boule (round loaf) for the recipe that uses this starter.
If you are having problems with your starter or have questions about it, please check my Sourdough Starter Troubleshooting FAQ before posting or emailing me with a question. Thanks!