If you want to bake unbelievably delicious and nutrient-rich artisan bread that is transformative to your mind, body, and spirit, then it’s essential to START HERE.
Taking care of a sourdough starter can feel like a huge pain that isn’t worth the effort. However, when you consider the transformative effects a sourdough culture/starter has on bread (and other baked goods), it just makes good common sense to take just a few minutes a month to feed this living organism.
Being that sourdough has become such an important part of artisan bread in my home, I HAD to find a way to make it easier. Although I come from a large family of landscapers and gardeners, I can kill a cactus…so if I can do it, YOU can do it.
Learn to care for a sourdough culture the EASY way, and lay the foundation for arguably the only kind of bread we should all be eating.
THE LEGEND OF SOURDOUGH
Some historians believe that sourdough bread originated in Egypt sometime between 4000 and 3000 B.C. Legend says that a woman was making the unleavened bread of that time (meaning bread with no yeast) and she forgot a portion of the dough and left it outside near the warm, humid Nile River. Later, she found the dough and discovered it had greatly increased in size, so she added it to the next batch of dough. Thus, sourdough was born.
Whether or not this story is true, it makes sense that this natural fermentation process would be discovered by accident.
WHAT IS A SOURDOUGH CULTURE?
A culture (aka a mother or starter) is created from a natural fermentation process from wild yeast and wild bacteria. Wild yeast and wild bacteria are present in our air, water, and flour. When flour and water are combined and fed more flour and water regularly, the fermentation process can begin, resulting in an active live culture that can be used to ferment bread and make it rise. Another name for sourdough bread is naturally leavened bread.
WHY IS A SOURDOUGH STARTER SO IMPORTANT TO BREAD?
The sourdough process is one that has been all but lost in most commercial and home kitchens since the industrial revolution and the invention of dry instant yeast. For the sake of convenience, we have shifted to dry yeast that ferments bread in record time.
However, at no point did anyone stop to ask, “Is this actually healthy for us?”
Bread was NEVER meant to be the fast food it has become today, hence the reason it has become such a problem for millions of people.
Here are just a few reasons why a sourdough culture is transformative to bread:
- A sourdough culture BREAKS DOWN GLUTEN, making it easier to digest. A bread that has fermented with a sourdough culture anywhere from a few hours to 24 hours has basically been pre-digested for you. The longer a bread ferments, the healthier it gets, and the easier it is to digest. People with gluten intolerance have likely (their entire lives) been eating mass-market bread and processed food without a sourdough culture that has only been fermented for 2-4 hours. The way bread is made in modern times is a recipe for disaster for our digestive system, even if you don’t think you have a “gluten intolerance”.
- Lactobacillus, the bacteria found in a sourdough culture, breaks down and neutralizes phytic acid. Phytic acid is an organic compound that is found in the outer layer of grains, hence the part where all the nutrients are. All whole grains, even gluten free grains, contain phytic acid. The irony of phytic acid is that it blocks absorption in your intestinal track of the very nutrients found in the outer portion of the grains such as calcium, magnesium, copper, zinc, and iron! Luckily, the lactobacillus found in a sourdough starter helps to neutralize phytic acid making it possible for your body to ABSORB KEY NUTRIENTS. One of the biggest problems of the American diet is that we are overfed and undernourished. I believe eating bread (especially whole grain bread) that hasn’t been treated with a sourdough culture and allowed to slowly ferment is a key reason this problem exists.
- Using a sourdough culture instead of dry yeast requires a longer fermentation time in your bread. And this is really great news for your digestion! By comparison, one gram of a sourdough culture (one billion bacteria) is less active and has less fermentative power than one gram of commercial yeast (10 million bacteria). In order for sourdough bread to have enough rise, the bread needs to ferment for a longer period of time, resulting in the creation of even more beneficial enzymes that aid in digestion. Again, it’s all about the digestion and bioavailabiliy of nutrients!
- A sourdough starter gives your bread MORE flavor. Beyond all the important nutritional aspects of consuming sourdough bread, it simply tastes better.
- Sourdough bread has a longer shelf life! Breads that have been fermented with commercial yeast will mold within a few days. Sourdough bread doesn’t mold, but rather dries out. This makes it possible to leave it on the counter for longer, sometimes up to two weeks depending on the bread. When it dries out, don’t throw it away. Instead make croutons! Many ancient recipes call for soaking the old sourdough bread and adding it to another batch of dough, eliminating bread waste.
Now, you can certainly start a sourdough culture at home with flour and water. To activate the fermentation process from scratch, a starter does really well being fed whole grain flours like rye or whole wheat flour. This process can take about five days and the starter needs to be fed twice a day in order to get going. It’s sluggish at first, but the more it’s fed on the front end, the better it will be to use in sourdough bread.
But you want the EASY way, right? Well, I find the simplest way to start your own starter at home is to purchase a small portion of live starter from someone else. By all means, start a starter at home yourself, but considering how much you have to feed it the first week to get it going, you might be scared away from the process.
There are plenty of reputable companies that feed their starter everyday and sell it so that you don’t have to worry about starting it from scratch. My favorite company to buy a sourdough starter from is King Arthur Flour. The little container of starter you see above is shipped right to your door, and all you have to do is feed it a few times, then it’s ready to use. They have been feeding their starter for over 100 years, so it’s really cool to buy a culture with a bit of history. It might take a few days to get to your door and you will need to refresh it by feeding it, so allow for at least 7-10 days before your starter will be ready to use in your bread at home.
Once your starter is ripe, it’s ready to be put in the fridge or freezer to be preserved…more on that in a bit!
WHAT KIND OF FLOUR SHOULD YOU FEED A STARTER?
The flour you choose to feed your starter depends on the flavor profile you want in your culture. I knew I wanted a whole grain starter because of the earthy aroma and added nutrition. When I got my starter from King Arthur Flour, I started feeding it 100% organic whole wheat flour. However, I found some Organic Sprouted Spelt Flour at Sprouts’ Market, which I’ve never seen in any other grocery stores, and I jumped on the chance to buy some because of the benefits of spelt flour. Spelt is an ancient form of wheat that hasn’t been hybridized as much as modern wheat. So now I have a spelt flour culture that I am loving!
If you want to have a lighter sourdough starter, you can certainly use all purpose flour.
Buying flours online can be expensive because of the shipping. You save the most money by buying a pack of 6 small bags. Here are a few affiliate links, otherwise check your local grocery or health food store.
MEASURING FLOUR + WATER
A digital kitchen scale is the perfect tool to measure your flour and water because it ensures that the measurements are equal and you don’t have to use measuring cups, which speeds up the process too. For instance, if you weighed out 50 grams each of water and flour, the flour (depending on the type) would be about 1/4 cup plus 1 Tbsp, and the water would be just a smidge under 1/4 cup. You want to get as close to the same measurements as possible to ensure you have sufficient “food” for your starter to eat each time. It’s pretty annoying having to measure out 1/4 cup plus 1 Tbsp., so save yourself the trouble and get a scale…no measuring spoons or cups needed. I have had the scale you see below for 5 years now and it works like a charm. It makes measuring ingredients SO much easier and precise, and you can measure in grams and ounces. You can use a digital scale when baking in general too!
Are you still with me?! Although it might seem like quite a process, feeding a sourdough can take as little as a few minutes a week or month. Below are detailed photos and instructions for how you feed a starter once you receive a live culture in the mail.
When your sourdough starter arrives in the mail, you can pop it in the fridge for up to one day if you aren’t ready to get started. I like using a small mason jar, but the only thing I had was an extra large mason jar for this photo shoot. Use a bowl to mix the starter with water and flour, but transfer it to a jar so you can watch it rise and see fermentation in action. You should feed it for the first two days twice a day, about 12 hours apart. Once in the morning, and once at night. It should literally take just a couple of minutes each time.
The King Arthur Flour starter measured in at 20 grams.
Add the starter to a bowl with 50 grams lukewarm water + 50 grams flour. Mix until combined and add to a glass jar. Make sure just to sit the lid on top of the jar. The starter likes to have a little bit of air flow. Place it in your kitchen in a warmer spot if you have one. I’m choosing to just measure very small amounts because I don’t like waisting all the expensive flour!
Below is what the starter looks like right after the first feeding. You can see there is no bubbling action just yet.
EVENING OF DAY 1
You can see in the photo below the starter has risen quite a bit and there are some bubbles starting to form already. This is really because of the whole grain flour adding extra minerals to the party.
Now each feeding we have to discard most of the starter and reserve a small portion of it to the new mix. This is because it will help to balance the ph, and will keep your starter from being the size of a skyscraper! Anytime you discard some of the starter, you can easily add it to a muffin mix, pizza dough, waffles, etc. It won’t have any effect on the dough unless you ferment the batter for a bit. There will be some easy recipes coming your way for the discarded starter!
So now, measure out 20 grams of the starter and discard the rest.
Mix the starter with 50 grams lukewarm water + 50 grams flour. Cover loosely with a lid and let set on your counter overnight. Below is what it looks like right after feeding.
MORNING OF DAY 2
Again, below we can see how much it rose overnight.
And you can see some nice bubbles below.
Below is what it looks like overhead. We still want a bit more bubbly goodness at the top, but just one more feeding and it should be ready. If your starter isn’t bubbling, just feed it once a day for one to two more days and it should be ripe for bread-baking.
CONT’D FEEDING DAY 2
Now that you can see the action, just feed it one more time on the morning of day two.
Same deal: Measure 20 grams starter and throw away the excess (or add it to some muffin batter if you want).
Mix the starter with 50 grams lukewarm water + 50 grams flour.
USING YOUR SOURDOUGH STARTER TO BAKE
At this point after the feeding on the morning of day 2 it needs to ferment for 4-12 hours before it’s ready to use in a bread dough. You can also let the starter go up to 24 hours (after a feeding) before starting your dough. Simply take out the amount of starter you need for your recipe, making sure to reserve at least 20 grams for your next feeding. Feed the reserved starter and set it aside. Now get to baking with your ripe starter!
Anytime you have a bake scheduled, make sure you adjust the amount of starter for your recipe. For instance, if you know you need 1 cup of starter for a recipe, then you will need to increase the amount of flour and water on the feeding before your bake so you will have enough for baking, and a small amount reserved for feeding.
Always remember to reserve 20 grams of starter whenever you use some to bake with!
PRESERVING YOUR STARTER
Ok, let’s be honest. The idea of feeding a starter every single damn day for the rest of your life may not sound so awesome, am I right or am I right? Well, we can actually slow down the fermentation quite a bit so that it only needs to be fed weekly from the fridge or a couple of times a month from the freezer, YEAH!
THE FRIDGE METHOD
When you are ready to stall your starter, make sure that you have just fed your starter. Let it hang out for 1-2 hours at room temp to get fermentation going, then pop it in the fridge. Again, don’t seal it too tightly. I love using my sourdough crock from King Arthur Flour pictured below because the lid lets a little air flow through, plus it’s really pretty and is a cool decorative piece when it’s on the counter. They also sell a sourdough crock set which includes the sourdough starter! Whatever kind of container you use, keep it in the front of the fridge because it can often get pushed to the back and be forgotten about. You can actually go as long as two weeks in between feedings but it will be more sour smelling.
When you are ready to bake with it, take it out of the fridge and stir it together as there will be some “hooch” most likely at the top which looks a bit oily. Give it two feedings in one day (about 8-12 hours apart), the next morning it should be ready to go.
If you want to bake consistently on the weekends take it out Thursday morning and give it two feedings. After the second feeding, you can wait until Friday night if that’s when you want to start baking and let your bread ferment overnight. You can get really creative and bake a few things in one weekend and have them for the month. Just remember, if you keep it out at room temp., you will need to feed it at the same time everyday.
THE FREEZER METHOD
This is my FAVORITE way to take care of starter because it requires no effort at all. And honestly, I wouldn’t even bother with the fridge method if you don’t want to bake very often because refreshing out of the freezer took about the same amount of time as the fridge method, especially when you use a whole grain flour.
Once you have fed your starter, let it sit out for 1-2 hours, then pop in the freezer. I just use a plastic container and put the date on it from when it was last fed. Anytime you have fresh starter, make sure to save a portion in the freezer in case you forget to feed it and it dies. That way you won’t be starting from scratch. Replenish your starter once a month to be safe. Even if you don’t feel like baking that month, at least take it out of the freezer and give it two to three days before re-freezing to ensure it stays active.
Below is what it looks like frozen. To refresh it, thaw it at room temp, or in a bowl of warm water (which will speed it up).
Measure 20 grams out and discard the rest.
Mix with 50 grams lukewarm water + 50 grams flour.
Feed it twice in one day for it to be ready for the next day or just feed once a day for at least two days until you are ready to bake.
After it thaws, it will look like this below.
Then after I fed it just once, it looked like this below. Because I use a whole grain flour to feed it, it gets active much faster so this one was ready to use after two feedings.
HERE’S A RECAP
Does reading this post make you feel overwhelmed about trying to care for a starter? Ok, let’s take a deep breath together and just relax. Remember, if you don’t want to feed it but two to three times a month, keep some in the freezer. After feeding it a couple of times, then do a once a month bake for bread, muffins, pizza dough, waffles, even tortillas, and store everything in the freezer to have on demand throughout the month.
If you want to bake more often, you can keep it in the fridge and feed it weekly and do a weekend bake. But like I said, I found the freezer method to be just as fast because I used whole grain flour. If you are unsure about your starter being active enough for a bake, just feed it twice a day the first day out of the freezer, and once the next morning to get it going.
If your starter is looking sluggish out of the freezer after two or three feedings (meaning it’s not bubbling), just keep it out for an extra day or two and feed it once a day before freezing again.
TIPS FOR REMEBERING TO FEED YOUR STARTER!
- Put a reminder on your phone! It’s so easy to forget about your starter in the fridge as it gets pushed to the back, and even more in the freezer. So make it easy to remember. Put it on your physical calender or whatever online calender you use regularly.
- Give your starter a name. I’m serious! In bread school, we gave our starters names like Sir Stinkypants or Pierre, but give yours a name that you will remember.
YOU CAN DO THIS!
If you have ANY questions about getting started or troubleshooting, please don’t hesitate to comment below!
Bon Appetit Ya’ll,