Getting Started with Sourdough

By on December 30, 2014

Working with Sourdough is fun and easy!

There are few things nicer than the smell of fresh bread baking in a warm cozy kitchen, while the snow falls outside the window. So whether you’re snowbound or just craving a healthy fresh breakfast, get that oven preheating for homemade sourdough!

Sourdough is Super Fun

Of all the kinds of bread – yeast, flat, unleavened, quick, etc – sourdough has a bad reputation for being a demanding and difficult set of microbes to work with. Tales of “the sourdough starter that consumed the kitchen counter” abound.

If you’ve been discouraged from trying sourdough, or tried to make some and failed - don’t give up on it yet! With proper care and planning, introducing a sourdough starter into your life does not mean it has to take over your kitchen.

Selecting your Starter

There are many kinds of sourdough “starters” – the base culture of sourdough yeast microbes from which all your bread will be made. Each culture has a unique flavor, not unlike how cheese made from the same milk tastes different depending on how it is made.

For a mild sourdough flavor, a Parisian (French) starter is great. For a bold sourdough flavor, try San Francisco starter. If you prefer the nutrition of whole wheat bread, there’s even a starter for that!

Getting the Starter Started

Taking care of sourdough starter is a lot like other fermented foods, such as kombucha, cheese, beer, or yogurt. All of these ingredients are alive, and when they are healthy and happy, they will help transform your food into something delicious! However, if you are caring for several microbial ingredients at once, make sure that they live at least 10 feet from each other to prevent them from colonizing and contaminating each other.

When you get your starter, it doesn’t look like much. Plan ahead, because it will take up to a week from when you open the package for it to be ready to use. If you won’t want to use it for longer than that, you can store the unopened package in the freezer until you are ready.

Simply follow the directions included with the package. The first week requires a LOT of flour (at least 8 cups, and up to 16 cups), so make sure you stock up at the grocery store before you get started!

The first week also requires the most care, as the starter must be fed every 12 hours. Staying on this regular feeding schedule will give you a healthy and delicious starter. If you miss a feeding, don’t panic – it won’t die, but it will be hungry. Try to treat it like a pet that needs a morning and evening feeding, because just like a tiny puppy, it is alive and growing.

You know your starter is getting very hungry when it gets a layer of liquid on the top, like in this photo. The more liquid, the hungrier it is. The liquid is simply the waste produced by the microbes in your yeast. You can drain it off before feeding, or mix it back in.

Hungry Starter

Because you will be feeding your starter so much flour, the first week also produces the most “waste starter.” At every feeding, you will only keep ½ cup of what had been growing in the jar, and discarding the rest. Luckily for the frugal cook, there are many good recipes for using all that extra starter, especially at www.culturesforhealth.com

Keeping the Starter from Taking Over

Once your baby starter is consistently bubbling within a few hours of being fed, it’s ready to be used! Using the starter also requires some advanced planning: take note of how much starter your recipe calls for. Then feed your starter (without discarding any) every 12 hours until you have the amount you require PLUS an additional 1/4 cup. This additional amount will be the part you keep feeding in the future, so you will have a constant supply of starter.

If you are going to be baking multiple times a week, your starter can live on your kitchen counter, and you would need to feed it every 12 hours. This will produce enough starter to bake every few days – and if you don’t bake every few days, the starter can accumulate to overwhelming proportions.

The solution? Keep it in the fridge. If you will be baking once a week or less, this is the best way to go. A day or two before you will be baking, remove 1/4 cup of starter from the fridge. Feed it every 12 hours until you have enough for your recipe (and at least three times total), and you’re set.

The starter living in the fridge will only need fed once per week, whether you use it or not. Simply feed as directed, and allow it to “eat” at room temperature for a few hours before returning it to hibernation in the fridge.

The Gift that Keeps on Giving

With just a few minutes of care every week, your sourdough starter can live forever. Plus, it grows so quickly that you can share your starter with your friends, neighbors, and family, perhaps even passing it down for generations to come!  And with so many great recipes to try, you’ll be glad you’ve added this hard worker to your kitchen team.

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