Sourdough starter grows in flour and water. It is a colony of yeast and bacteria that live together. The yeast raises the bread and the bacteria make it flavorful and tangy. To keep the colony alive, you must feed it regularly, at least weekly if possible. The best way to feed it is to use it for baking. It will live in your refrigerator between uses. This slows it down so it doesn’t need so much food (again, “food” is just flour and water). The starter is healthiest if it is used every day, but that’s impossible for most of us!
Sourdough starter is not difficult to make from scratch. Here’s a recipe. You will need RYE FLOUR, GOLD N WHITE or BREAD FLOUR, a small amount of HONEY and WATER. These directions to start a liquid culture are taken from the Jeffrey Hamelman book, Bread:
DAY 1: 1 ½ cups whole rye flour (4.8 oz) 6 oz water (3/4 cup) 1 tsp honey Mix together, cover with plastic, let stand 24 hours
DAY 2: TWO FEEDINGS about 12 hours apart Half of above mix (5.5 oz) 1.2 oz. Whole rye flour (3/8 cup) 1.2 oz white flour (1/4 cup gold n white or good quality bread flour) 3 oz water 90°F (3/8 cup) Mix well, cover with plastic, let stand in a warm area (75-80°). Throw away the unused portion of the old culture (you have to be heartless about this or your house will be filled with sourdough culture in no time—I send it down the sink with plenty of water)
DAYS 3-5: TWO FEEDINGS per day, ideally about 12 hours apart Half of above mix (5.5 oz) 2.4 oz (1/2 cup) white or gold n white flour 3 oz (3/8 cup) water Mix together, cover with plastic and let stand in a warm area.
By day 6 the culture should be ready for bread production. To develop further strength and complexity, feed it for 2 or 3 more days before you use it.
The culture is sticky, stringy, and gluey, and your dough, when you make it, may initially be stickier and gluier than the kind made with regular baker’s yeast. A key part of working with sourdough is washing the bowls and utensils quickly when you are finished with them, so the gluey dough doesn’t dry on. The artisan bakers say the longer it takes to make the bread, the fuller the flavor will be. This bread will also keep longer than other bread. Never refrigerate it. That hastens spoilage. The sourdough culture fights off invaders! You will get a workout with this bread too—by kneading it 10 minutes twice (20 minutes total).
To bake on Saturday, take out the starter Thursday evening and let it warm up overnight. On Friday morning, stir it, then add 2 T of the starter to 3 ounces of water, then mix in ½ cup flour (white bread flour or gold n white flour from Natural Way Mills in Middle River MN). Throw away the rest of the starter. Allow the bowl of starter to remain at room temperature during the day. That night, start your PART 1 mix for bread day according to the recipe. The starter is at its best when it is fully risen and bubbly. Try to catch it at the top of its bubbling power for good rising bread.
RECIPE 1: Sourdough with Whole Wheat (The proportions are from Vermont Sourdough in the Hamelman book. Some of the method is from Hamelman and some methods come from Breads from the La Brea Bakery by Nancy Silverton. I use gold n white flour from Natural Way Mills and, of course, local East Nary starter)
PART 1: Liquid-levain build The night before you bake, mix together and cover the bowl-- 5 oz (1 cup) good quality bread flour or gold n white flour 6 oz water (3/4 cup) 1 oz (2 T) mature culture Let this stand for about 12 hours at room temperature (about 70°)
PART 2: Final dough 15 oz water (1 7/8 cups) All but 2 Tablespoons of the PART 1 levain starter (reserve 2 T to make more starter—mix w/ 3 oz water and ½ cup flour, leave on the counter for a couple hours, then put in fridge) 1 lb, 8 oz (5 ½ cups) gold n white or bread flour 3 oz (3/4 cup) whole wheat flour 1 Tablespoon kosher salt
Put the water in the mixing bowl, add all but two tablespoons of the bubbly, PART 1 culture and stir or mix with fingers until it’s incorporated. Stir in the flour until you have to knead it. DO NOT ADD THE SALT YET.
Knead the dough for about 10 minutes until you have achieved a satin smooth, elastic texture. To knead, dump out the dough on your surface, dusting the surface with the flour you couldn’t mix in for kneading. Try to follow the proportions precisely. I generally don’t need to add any more flour when needing and wind up kneading on the bare countertop. Wash out the bowl, butter it, return the dough to the bowl and cover the bowl. Wash the kneading surface.
Let the dough rest for 20-60 minutes.
After the dough has rested, spread 1 T SALT on your kneading surface. Dump the dough onto the salt. Knead the salt into the dough. After all the salt is incorporated into the flour, knead it for 10 more minutes, until the dough feels like a “baby’s bottom,” satiny, smooth and elastic. At first the dough will be hard to knead, because the salt will make it wet and resistant. Get past this point, until it is sticky again, and then finally becomes smooth.
Butter or oil the bowl again, put the dough back in, and cover the bowl. The hard work is done!
The next phase takes 2 ½ hours total: After 50 minutes, fold the dough by putting it on a lightly floured surface, flattening it, and folding each side and then the top and the bottom to the center. Dust off the dough and return it to the buttered bowl, first top-side-down, then flip it top-side-up to oil the whole thing. The dough will not have risen much yet. Do this again after another 50 minutes, always keeping the dough oriented the same way (the smooth top is turned out onto the floured surface and remains the outside of the dough). Each time the dough will have risen a little more.
After the third 50-minute interval, divide the dough into 2 pieces and shape it as you wish, keeping the outside of the dough on the outside of the loaves. I generally make 2 oval-shaped-but-fairly-round loaves by flattening the dough and rolling it up one way, then rolling it up the other way. Place the loaves on a large cookie sheet that has been buttered and sprinkled with corn meal (oil/butter isn’t absolutely necessary, but the corn meal is).
Let the bread rise 2 more hours at room temperature on the sheet, well covered with plastic wrap and a towel (up to 2 ½ hours may be ok—but don’t allow it to over-rise). Then slash the loaves for baking.
Start the oven 45 minutes before you bake the bread, preheating it to 425°F. Put a cast iron skillet in the oven on the shelf under the bread. Let the skillet heat up with the oven (45 minutes).
Put the loaves in the oven, then (wearing a protective mitt and long sleeves!) pour 1 cup boiling water into the cast iron skillet under the bread and close the door. This will steam the bread and make a good crust. Bake the bread 40 to 45 minutes. It is better to over-brown the bread than to under bake it.
Here’s one more recipe (50% whole wheat). Use the same method.
RECIPE 2: Whole Wheat Levain (This is the recipe I generally make every weekend!)
PART 1: 5 oz (1 1/8 cups) whole wheat flour 5 oz (5/8 cups) water 1 oz (2 T) starter
PART 2: 11 oz (2 ½ cups) whole wheat flour 1# (4 ½ cups) bread or gold n white flour 2 cups + 2 T (or 500 ml) water 1 T kosher salt All (less 2 Tablespoons) of the PART 1 starter (aka levain)
Mix and bake by the same method as the first recipe above. Same time. Same temperature.
These bread recipes usually turn out well. I have read that it is virtually impossible to over-knead sourdough bread by hand, so be sure to knead the bread sufficiently. In hot weather, use slightly cool water to make the bread.