Sourdough Starter, Gluten-Free

by Jeanne on October 9, 2010


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.  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, 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. She posted her bread recipe that uses her starter.

Also, 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.

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 a dishcloth). And I let it sit on the counter. I fed it about every 8 to 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!

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.  I recommend mixing it back into the starter only if you’re going to use that starter to bake with immediately and want the sourness.  If you’re just feeding and watering the starter without plans to bake with it that day or the next day, then pour it off instead of mixing it in.

Also, since a more sour starter usually means weaker yeast, which means less leavening power.  So, the more sour the bread, the more dense it will probably be.  Which isn’t 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

Equipment Needed
-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.  Currently, I use a 2 quart/1.9 l 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)

Ingredients
-One or more of the following whole grain gluten-free flours: Sorghum flour, Brown Rice flour, Amaranth flour, Teff flour, Garbanzo Bean flour (this seems to make the most sour starter), Quinoa flour, or Buckwheat flour.  Do not use a high starch flour like tapioca, millet, white rice, sweet rice, or potato.

-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)

Method
Place 1 cup (5 oz/140 g) of sweet sorghum flour (or whatever flour you use) and 1 cup (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.  A good cover is a cotton dish towel.  The ideal temperature for yeast to grow at is around 70-75 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.

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). About 8 to 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 8 to 12 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.

Added 5/4/14: Once your starter is happily bubbling, you need to adjust what you’re doing in order to keep it happy.  You hear about people who have starters for years and years.  This is definitely possible–but you need to take care of it well.  Once your starter is on its way, you need to reduce the amount of starter each time you feed it in order keep it happy and healthy.  This means that you need to pour off some starter each time you feed and water it so it doesn’t get too big.  If the starter gets bigger than about 2 cups/475 ml, you need to feed and water it with more than 1 cup of flour and water at a feeding.  The bigger the starter and the less the yeast are feed, 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 old and 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.

Therefore, I recommend keeping the starter to about 2 cups/475 ml maximum before you feed it each time.  At each feeding, pour off as much as you need to pour off in order to maintain roughly 2 cups/475 ml or less.  Then feed it with 1 cup flour and 1 cup water.  When you are ready to make your bread, you will need 4 cups/950 ml of starter.  So, you need to plan your baking a bit in advance and use a starter that is big enough that you would have poured it off at the next feeding.  Save at least 1/2 cup/120 ml of the starter in order to keep it going.

Then again, you don’t need 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 most of these folks are in the baking business.

If you’re not going to use your starter anytime soon, you can refrigerate it.  This allows the yeast to go dormant and allows you to feed it every 3 days or so rather than every 8-12 hours.

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 a question.  Thanks!

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