This post is about making and maintaining a sourdough starter. Mainly aiming for newbies (like myself 4 years ago) and anyone who is interested in natural levain. But if you are a pro, please feel free to read and help me improve the contents. All ideas, suggestions and proposals are welcome.
A lot of baking enthusiasts have been asking me questions about the process. Even though, I reply to every single message the best way possible, I feel like I need to write a good comprehensive post explaining everything I know and I do. So it will be helpful to anyone looking for answers.
I will try to include more pictures with time and also let this post grow based on replies and any follow up questions. I want this to be a conversation rather than a article, for it to continue to grow. Please feel free to add your thoughts in comments section and/or reply to any question, if you think you know the answer. We can all try to help each other.
Lets get some basic things straightened up:
What is a starter:
A starter also referred to as a culture, is a micro-organism. In the context of sourdough, this organism is yeast.
what is yeast:
A microscopic single-cell fungus. While there are many species, the bakers yeast is identified by the scientific name Saccharomyces cerevisiae.
How do yeast help make bread:
Yeast, when provided with flour, water and air, start to reproduce. They consume the sugars and release CO2 (carbon dioxide) and ethyl alcohol as by-products. CO2 helps give the bread the rise or the bloom. This in turn, gives the light and airy crumb that we love. Without yeast, the dough will be dense, hard, flat and not enjoyable.
Commercial yeast vs natural leaven:
commercial yeast is nothing but the same single-cell organism that is isolated. They are grown, extracted and then compacted for commercial use. This gives speed and reliability. Natural leaven, however is slow, because the yeast density is low. Hence it takes longer for the process. This gives lactobacilli (another bacteria naturally occurring) ample time,to act on flour. The lactobacilli consumes the protein in flour (gluten) and releases lactic acid as a by product, which gives sour-dough, well, the sour flavor.
This is a very basic simple explanation. But if you are curious, internet is flooded with information. With that in mind lets see the process of making a starter from the scratch. It is easy, you just need patience and consistency.
- Place 1 cup flour(120g) and 1/2 cup filtered, room temperature water(125g) in a clean container
- I use either bread flour or all purpose flour
- white flour is the easiest
- although, you can use whole wheat, rye, spelt etc.
- measurements are rough, 1:1 water:flour in weight is what we are looking for
- Mix with a clean spoon until it resembles porridge(I will call this slurry) pic_1
- If you like, deposit this mixture in a clear glass jar or a drinking glass.
- if it is clear, you can watch the activity
- the container can be anything but it has to be clean and non-reactive (no metal or aluminium)
- a tall, narrow jar is ideal (eg: jam jar/mason jar) so you can see growth
- Loosely cover the container, with a lid or a piece of plastic wrap
- do not make it air tight
- we want the yeast in the air to reach out to the flour
- consider your mixture as bait for the yeast
- Now let the mixture sit in a warm(not cold spot) but dry place for 2 days
- if it is warmer, make it 1 day
- The process takes longer if environment is colder (I once let my slurry sit for 4 days)
- If it is too warm, the mixture might go bad, because other bacteria start to act upon the slurry before the yeast
- Check if your slurry is catching yeast or going off
- if it has green, yellow, gray spots then it has caught other bacteria. So discard and start the process again. Don’t get discouraged.
- if it smells horrible, its gone bad and you will have to start again.
- The good signs are,
- seeing nothing dramatic
- may be seeing a few air pockets
- getting a faint smell of acidity (this should not be off-putting) like vinegar
- smell like cheese
- If your slurry is doing good, then, discard half of it.
- Make a new slurry using 1 cup flour and 1/2 cup water.
- Mix well and add to the saved mixture. Mix well to incorporate everything. Let it sit for a day.
- This is considered a feeding
- assume now that yeast has started to grow
- Now we have to repeat this process everyday until you see some activity for up to a week
- like air bubbles (pic_2)
- the mixture expand
- when its active like this, we change the feeding style. We discard everything but a teaspoon full of our active starter
(culture) and feed it the same amount of food (1 cup flour 1/2 cup water or 1/2 cup flour and 1/4 cup water)
- Continue to feed everyday, until you see some real activity
- usually takes about another 4-5 days, sometimes less
- when your starter doubles in size over night, its a good sigh(pic_3)
- Its is ready to be used at this stage
- I personally, think, you can’t really know a starter is ready for sure, until you make a loaf of bread with it
- Once your starter is active, you can feed it the same way and leave it in the fridge
- But you have to take it out often(every week ) and freshen it up for best results
- To freshen up, take it out of fridge, let it come to room temperature and become active
- Discard most of it, feed it and let grow over night
- Give a feeding in the morning and place back in fridge
- Anytime you make bread, freshen it up first
- Then use some of the fresh starter to make bread
- when you freshen up, if you see slow activity, feed it for a day or two more before using or storing away in fridge
A good starter is like a sponge. It is airy,light and fluffy. When you very gently fold it with a spoon, you will hear the bubbles pop. Another good indication is, that when you pour the starter into a bowl of water, it will float like a foamy sloppy thing. Pic_4.
The best time to use a starter once it is fed is, when it is at it’s peak or better yet, just before it reaches it’s peak. How do we know if it is at its peak. Well this takes a lot of getting to know your starter. You can usually keep an eye once you feed and use it when it doubles.
If you want and have got time you can chart your starter growth, and use the chart to get the exact hour that it reaches it’s peak. But keep in mind, starters have got a mind of their own, so you’ll have to re-do this chart once in a while for maximum accuracy.
Can I save/use the discard?
Yes. You don’t have to throw away the discard. When you feed the starter, you can save a teaspoon (or whatever the amount you are feeding) and store the rest in the refrigerator in a sealed plastic/glass container (non-reactive). You can feed more than a teaspoon to make a bigger starter or make several starters. You can then use the saved discard, in other recipes in place of some of the flour and moisture of that recipe. I use these discard in, pancakes, waffles, flat bread, scones etc. The discard won’t be as active and it would mostly be just death dough (flour+water) so you cannot expect it to work as a levain. But this is a good way to minimize food wastage.
Can I recover a neglected starter?
Probably you can. This depends on the time the starter had been neglected for and the fact that it was left in the refrigerator or not. In the fridge, it may be possible leave a starter for up to two months and still recover it. there are cases like that and personally, I have only left it for a month only. I was able recover of course. But if a starter is left at room temperature, it probably won’t survive as long. This is because, other bacteria in the air is going to get to it and the starter will go bad rapidly.
You can tell if a starter has gone bad it it has a foul smell or green/blue/gray/red spots. In these cases, it’s best to throw it out and start afresh. If only the surface, is gone bad, you can try rescuing a tiny bit from the very bottom and feed this daily (or twice daily) in a fresh container for about a week.
If the starter was in the refrigerator, it will probably be in a dormant state and there might still be some live(active) yeast cells. Your will probably see a layer of liquid on top (light grayish) and it will smell like strong vinegar or acid. What you can do is, rescue (spoon out) a tiny bit from the very bottom and feed it to life.Make sure to leave it at room temperature. keep an eye on the activity level. If this didn’t show any sign of activity on day two of feeding, then probably, it is dead and you might have to get rid of it and start a new one.
How to refresh a chilled starter ?
If you keep your starter in the refrigerator when you don’t use it, then this is how you refresh it;
– get the starter out from the fridge and let it sit at room temperature(or in a warm place) until you see some activity ( I leave it for 2-3 hours)
– then save roughly about a tablespoon of the starter and discard the rest ( do not throw away the discard, use it in another discard recipe)
– feed this tablespoon of starter with flour and water like below
* you don’t have to waste time measuring water and flour, just get roughly about 1/2 cup flour and add water until it start to look like a porridge. Then mix the starter with this porridge and let ripe.
This is how you refresh or feed your starter. Once your starter doubles/ripe, then you can use it in a recipe or use it to make another starter to be used in another recipe. You can measure out flour, water and starter according to the recipe at this stage. But if you are just refreshing the stater, you can be flexible and eyeball flour and water.
It is always a good idea to refresh you starter before using it in a recipe. Depending on how long it has been in the refrigerator(neglected), you may want to consider feeding it once or twice. This way you can make sure the starter is super active and is in it’s best form to be used in a recipe. A fed healthy starter is fast in action and hence you will have a decent bulk and proof in relatively shorter time. Also a healthy, fed starter yield products with less sour flavor.
When to feed the starter for a recipe ?
A common question I get asked. Well if your recipe do have a starter recipe/formula, then follow that. Otherwise, you can be the judge on how to feed or when to feed and the ratio. Keep in mind, temperature affects starter activity. To do this you should have a basic understanding of your starter (know your starter) usually with 20% culture, most starters ripe in about 6 hours at room temperature. Based on this, you can decide when to feed and what ratio to feed.
If I want to feed my start 10 p.m. and want it ready by 6 a.m. next day I would feed about 1-2% seeds(culture), meaning roughly a ratio of 1:10:10. Since there is very little yeast, it is going to take a long time to ripe ( for them to multiply) I don’t weigh starter as it is not practical to weight 1g or 2g, so I mostly take a teaspoonful and mix it with roughly about 100g flour and water. With practice, I know this will be ready by the morning.
If I want my starter ready in 4-6 hours, then I would feed around 20% culture(seeds) so a ratio of (1:5:5)
If the recipe says to use a 80% hydrated starter, your feed will contain less water. eg:
1:10:8 – starter:flour:water will take 10-12 hours (overnight)
2:10:8 – starter:flour:water will take about 6-8 and so forth…
This timing is all rough and it also depends on room temperature and your starter activity