Sourdough Starter: A Memoir

It goes by many names: starter, levain, traditional sourdough.

Whatever you call it, it’s having a moment.

A major MAJOR moment.

It’s all too familiar, the conversation with the cashier at the bakery, the attendant at the grocery store. I ask “Do you have real sourdough?”

“Of course we do!”

“OK, great. Does it have actual levain or sourdough starter in it?”

Blank stare.

Increasingly though, I’m starting to feel a little less insane. There are now two bakeries in my hometown that specialize in natural levain and traditional sourdough baking.

For me, however, sourdough baking represents a multi-year effort.

Fermentation holds a special fascination for me.

What is a sourdough starter?

The way bread was made before commercial yeast was invented. A fermented culture made from flour, water and the wild yeast caught from the environment.

What’s important:
  1. The Flour: Since flour is the main ingredient in a sourdough starter, it is important to use something high quality and as fresh as possible. Throughout my sourdough journey, I’ve used either King Arthur Flour or Bob’s Red Mill, both of which offer an array of good quality flours. The varieties I always keep on hand are: bread flour, white whole wheat, whole wheat, spelt and whole wheat pastry flour.
  2. The Water: chlorination compromises the fermentation in your starter. Unless you have well water, it is likely that your water contains some degree of chlorination. When I lived in the city I used to purchase gallons of distilled water from the grocery store solely for the purpose of feeding my starter. If you’d rather not go that route, filtered water should work.
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How do you get started?

For my first sourdough starter, I used a complex recipe I found online that included fruit juices, fruit and multiple different flours. It started up alright, but after a few weeks developed a foul odor that was distinctly not “good starter.” Of course, identifying what’s “good” and “bad” with levain takes some time, as it is going to smell putrid to some degree. Good sourdough smells acidic, fruity, alcoholic and just slightly putrid. If mold grows, or a scent that just doesn’t smell “right” pervades–use your best judgment. It may be time to start again.

After the first mishap, I started ordering freeze dried starters from a reputable online company. I loved their tutorials and the variety of starters they offered. As I tended to bake more in the winter than the summer, I ended up purchasing a different starter from them each year for about three years, so I tried a number of their options. I think I could have eventually gotten good results from one of these starters, as what I was really lacking was baking technique. But no matter which starter I used, I always ended up with a product that tasted decidedly acrid, and almost like rich cheese. Not exactly what I was looking for.

Things changed for me when I was gifted, by a most thoughtful aunt, the Tartine Bread book for my birthday.

Contrary to my complex multi-ingredient recipe of years ago, Chad Robertson’s sourdough starter calls for only flour and water. It was written so simply, that upon reading it I immediately thought, “Well he’s a master baker, so of course he thinks this is easy…there’s no way this will work.”

But, in the spirit of giving anything a shot once, I tried it.

That starter, is the one in my kitchen today. It is easily the best and most robust starter I’ve ever had. It also has a delicate flavor, and is extremely resilient, even after days of neglect–sorry it just happens sometimes.

So here it is, the un-recipe, the slurry of flour and water that is the levain:

Ingredients:

Some flour

(maybe 1/2 cup bread flour and 1/2 cup white whole wheat, which is about what I used)

Some water

(same amount as flour you used, so about 1 cup)

Process:

The original recipe instructed to make a mixture of white and whole wheat bread flour–a 5 lb mixture, and to use that to feed the starter. I didn’t do this. I don’t really know why…I didn’t want to, didn’t have a clean container, didn’t really think this recipe would work…take your pick.

What I did do was take my 1/2 cup measure and scoop it into my bread flour and then into my white whole wheat flour. I then filled the same 1/2 cup with water twice. The recipe also advised to mix with your hands, in order to catch any wild yeast that may be on your hands. I also didn’t do this–full disclosure. I mixed it with my small silicon spatula, covered with a dish towel and left it on the counter.

The idea is to catch any wild yeast that may be in the air and let it work on the flour and water mixture to kickstart the culture.

Keep it in spot that’s out of the sun, and not too warm, or your starter may develop some “off” scents and therefore flavors.

Bubbles should start forming after about three days. Once the bubbles are prevalent and appear all throughout the top of your starter, it is ready to be fed.

To feed it, discard over half of it, and replace it with equal parts bread flour and whole wheat flour.

Now, you’ll need to feed the starter twice per day to get it going. I used to feed mine once in the morning and once in the evening. After about a week or so of consistent feedings, you’ll notice that your starter has lots of bubbles and is rising reliably about four or five hours after each feeding–depending on the temperature of the room.

Once your starter is consistently rising each day, you can go down to just one feeding per day.

How do you know when your starter is ready to bake with?

It looks like this:

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It will be bubbling vigorously

It will have a sour, but also fresh, fruity scent (your starter will always smell a little “putrid” but a starter ready to bake with will have a fresher, less rich scent)

A small spoonful of starter will float if dropped in water. If it sinks, take out half the starter, replace with equal parts flour and water, and wait a few hours. Try again until a drop of the starter floats.

Maintaining a Sourdough Starter

If you want to bake every day, you can keep your starter in  your kitchen at room temperature. This is most suited to people who want to bake very often, as to keep your starter in shape to bake with on a whim, you must feed it every day.

If you skip a day, or two, don’t worry. Your starter just might take a day or two of feedings before it’s ready to bake with again.

If you know you don’t want to bake with your starter every day, it is prudent to keep it in the refrigerator long-term. Just be prepared, you’ll need to take your starter out of the refrigerator and feed it two to three times before it will be ready for baking.

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What can you do with all that starter that you discard during a feeding?

Though it does not work well for leavening bread, you can use the discard in place of a portion of flour and water for a number of recipes including: pancakes, waffles, crepes, quick breads, biscuits, and even cake.

I will share a sourdough bread recipe in a separate post, as it is a saga all it’s own.

Do you have a sourdough starter story/favorite recipe? Share it!

More about Kaitlin

I’m a food lover, health researcher, amateur cook, recovering journalist, nutrition student and avid kitchen experimenter. I live in the woods with a boyfriend and a dog.

Comments

  1. Reply

    Kaitlin, I’ve posted my sourdough starter story on my blog, and I so enjoyed reading yours. I bake sourdough bread twice a week so keep my starter in the fridge in a half-pint jar. The day before I want to bake a loaf, I take out my jar in the morning, put 2 tablespoons of the starter in a 2-cup glass measure, add 1/2 cup flour and 1/3 cup water to the measure, stir it well and leave both containers on the counter. I repeat the feeding 12 hours later and leave it overnight. Next morning, I’m ready to bake. First I stir a couple of tablespoons of the fed starter into the starter in the jar and put the jar back in the fridge. I never discard starter.

    1. Reply

      Thanks for your comment Jean! I will definitely have to try your method. I like the idea of not discarding any starter. I hate wasting it–which is why I try to use it in other recipes. I typically bake every weekend and do two loaves at a time. 🙂

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