How it all began.
When the Coronavirus came to America and businesses slowed down, we found ourselves with time that we didn't know what to do with. So, most of us started baking. The rest of us started growing organisms on our counter tops.
At first, I remembered the story of an Italian restaurant owner we met who was making pizza with his family's hundred year old starter. I pictured his sourdough starter carried through Italian families for generations and was amazed at how it was passed down the family line year after year. My kids will be so grateful for their inheritance.
Then, I thought Sourdough would be a fun hobby that would also result in delicious bakery style bread. While that is true, it's also true that one must actually keep the sourdough starter alive. Which I did not. So, I tried again and so far, so good. Since I now have two sourdough starter children under my belt, I thought I could tell you how in case you wanted to join a totally normal group of people who enjoy fermenting foods in their home kitchens.
What is a sourdough starter?
A sourdough starter is a lot more simple than you might think. Well, it starts out that way anyway. First, you mix equal parts flour and water in a glass jar. Use only wooden spoons for stirring and avoid using any kind of metal.
Once the flour and water sit and combine with wild yeast (some naturally found bacteria on the flour itself and smaller amounts in the air) and work with lactic acid bacteria to reproduce and make different enzymes. When you see a word that ends in "ase" that's usually an enzyme. All that means is it's job is to break things down.
Amylase and maltase break down complex starches into simple sugars. The simple sugars then ferment into CO2 and you'll start to see the bubbles they produce. This fermentation is also what helps the rise in the sourdough. Phytase breaks down the phytic acid which makes the nutrients more readily available and improves the digestibility of the finished grain product. This is why some people say sourdough bread is more easily tolerated than other breads.
How do I make a sourdough starter?
With patience! But really, you'll need 5 to 7 days to work on this project and then in order to keep it alive, you'll have to give it some daily or weekly attention; depending on your uses. You may see different measurements here and there. I have weighed it and I have measured it using utensils. The result is pretty much the same but I do tend to weigh it. The reason is, water and flour weigh differently. 75g of water is about ⅓ of a cup, but 75g of flour is about ½ cup. Don't over complicate it, add flour and then add about half that amount in water.
Add 1 cup flour and ½ cup water. Mix with wooden spoon. Top with loose fitting lid. You shouldn't see much action right now. Keep going.
Pour off about ½ of the starter and discard it, just not down the drain. That creates a problem because this stuff hardens!
Add 1 cup flour and ½ cup water. Mix with a wooden spoon and top with a loose fitting lid.
One of two things can happen around day 4. You may start seeing some action; tiny air bubbles peaking through the top (remember the CO2?). Great! Or, you may see absolutely nothing. Either way, you do the same thing.
Pour off about ½ of the starter and discard it. Add 1 cup flour and ½ cup water. Stir with a wooden spoon and top with a loose fitting lid.
12 hours later, feed it again by repeating the above steps.
Keep doing the same thing: Discarding half of the starter, adding 1 cup flour and ½ cup water. Stir with wooden spoon and top with loose fitting lid. Repeat 12 hours later.
Your starter should start smelling sweet, sort of like yeast bread or a beer, but not quite that good. If it starts to smell bitter or like acetone (nail polish remover), it needs to be fed.
By day 7, you should be able to use it! But how do you know? You'll notice the familiar smell of fermentation and you'll see bubbles rising to the top. My first starter took closer to 10 days, but the second one bubbled after a few days. I think the difference was in the flour I used, but don't throw it away just because it is taking longer than 7 days. It will get there if you keep feeding it.
What does feeding the sourdough starter mean?
Feeding it simply means you add the flour and water in those equal weights. Each time you feed a starter, it takes a couple of hours to start to bubble more, but if you don't see anything within about 4 hours, your starter may not be quite ready.
You don't have to feed it every 12 hours. That is up to you! It will work if you feed it once a day, it just may take longer.
Once it is a healthy "mature" starter, you can feed it once a day and leave it on your counter, or (for an easier approach) store it in the refrigerator and feed it once a week. My favorite option is the refrigerator method because I do have a day job and I can't baby this thing forever...right? But, keep in mind that most sourdough recipes require you to feed the starter and let it sit overnight meaning first, you have to actually remember to get it out of the refrigerator. Adulting is hard.
I hope you are inspired to make your own sourdough starter at home. If you do, come back here and tell us about it!