Sourdough is the original way to leaven bread, and evidence of it dates to 1500 B.C., when the Egyptians used blends of wild yeasts and lactobacilli to make both beer and bread.
When flour mixes with water, starches convert to sugars in an enzymatic reaction. The lactobacilli change sugars to lactic and acetic acids, souring the dough. As the dough becomes more acidic, the yeasts that tolerate acid begin to convert sugars into carbon dioxide and ethanol. The carbon dioxide makes sourdough’s characteristic holes, and the ethanol evaporates.
Here, we’ll show you how to work with starters, and give you two recipes to use them.
Because they are living entities, sourdough starters need care, and this may be where their reputation for being finicky comes from. Actually, caring for sourdough starters is easy: They just need regular feedings of flour and water.
Following sourdough bread recipes involves steps spanning more than one day, but these steps are not complicated.
One way to make sourdough bread recipes work with your schedule is to bake the bread when you have time and eat it later. Homemade sourdough bread stays fresh longer than other breads — up to a week, and baked sourdough loaves also freeze well.
Amber Eisler, an instructor at the King Arthur Flour Baking Education Center in Vermont, says personifying helps you tend your sourdough. “Sourdough likes to be at a comfy temperature. It likes to be fed regularly. It requires food, water and oxygen, plus time to digest its meals. Think of it like a pet to make your life easier and sourdough bread less mysterious.” (Email your sourdough starter tales to us at RealFood@MotherEarthNews.com — how long you’ve used yours, its pet names, why you like it and more. — MOTHER)
Start With a Sourdough Starter
Order fresh or dried starters (which come with activation instructions) from companies such as Sourdoughs International. Usually the instructions tell you to feed the starter several times over a couple of days to bring it up to baking potential.
You can also get a sourdough starter from a friend or generous baker. Most often, the baker will discard some of the original starter at each feeding. Use this discarded, “unfed” starter to make flavorful pancakes, bagels and other baked goods, or feed it to turn it into a new starter.
Store your starter in a nonreactive container with an opening wide enough to allow you to stir the starter. A ceramic crock or glass jar works well. Cover loosely, and make sure the lid is not airtight — cheesecloth secured with a rubber band will do the trick.
Some starters reportedly work best with only refined flour or only whole-grain flour. Through experimentation, you can discover which your starter likes. Monica Spiller, a sourdough baker of more than 30 years and founder of The Whole Grain Connection, recommends using exclusively stone-ground, 100-percent whole-wheat flour for sourdough. Other bakers, including Eric Rusch of Breadtopia, say refined white flour makes a better and more predictable starter, even if you use it in whole-grain doughs.
Whole-grain starters tend to be more needy because they are more active. The enzymes in the outer layers and the germ of the wheat seed are not present in white flour. These enzymes contribute to more active and faster fermentation.
If you have a neglected sourdough starter, try to revive it with small feedings before giving up.
Maintain the Starter
You can maintain a stiff starter with a consistency similar to bread dough, or a wetter version. Here are some sample starter-maintenance methods, all of which can be adjusted according to the recipe you use on baking day.
If you plan on making sourdough bread three times per week or more: Maintain your starter at room temperature. In this case, experts at King Arthur Flour recommend feeding the starter daily. First remove all but 4 ounces. To this, add 4 ounces each of water and flour (that’s about a cup of flour and a half-cup of water), mix until smooth and cover loosely. The day before baking, feed it twice without removing any starter. Let a minimum of six hours elapse between feedings. The last feeding should be six to eight hours before you mix your bread dough.
If you plan on making sourdough bread just once or twice a week: Keep your starter in the refrigerator. For example, if you plan to bake on Saturday, remove the starter from the refrigerator on Thursday morning. Set aside all but 4 ounces, and feed that with 4 ounces each of flour and water. Stir them in until mixed well, and cover loosely. Feed again on Friday morning, Friday night and Saturday morning, adding enough flour and water to build the starter up to the volume your recipe requires, plus a little extra (at least 1 ounce) to keep your starter going. When you remove the amount of starter called for in your recipe, feed whatever is left behind by stirring in 4 ounces each of flour and water, and let the mixture reach optimal leavening power (ripen) at room temperature before putting it back into the refrigerator.
If you will not bake at all during the week: Store your starter in the refrigerator and feed it once. Remove it from the refrigerator, feed it, and let it ripen before returning it to the refrigerator.
If you will not bake for a long time: Be sure to feed your starter occasionally — at least once a month — to keep the population of yeast and bacteria healthy, and store the starter in your refrigerator. You can dehydrate starter, too — here's an instructional video on how to dehydrate a starter.
‘Ripe’ for Baking
A sourdough starter that is ready for baking is referred to as “fed” or “ripe.” In recipes, it may be called “leaven.” Chad Robertson, author of Tartine Bread, says sourdough starter is ready when it will float in room-temperature water. Eisler of King Arthur Flour suggests also looking for small bubbles all over and on top of the starter. Storing the starter in a glass jar will help you see the sides. Some crevices also may have formed on top, which indicate that the mixture has reached its maximum volume and is beginning to sink. It should be aromatic, with a sour-fruity smell, but not too vinegary. It may look foamy in places. A stiffer starter will dome and begin to fall.
You should ideally use the starter to mix dough within about two hours of this ripe stage. If it has reached the point of smelling powerfully like vinegar and has fallen quite a bit, you should feed the starter again before baking.
The last feeding before you’ll use the sourdough starter is referred to in some recipes as the “culture proof.” Do not confuse this step with the “dough proof” that follows it, or the “loaf proof” that happens just before baking. Take care to read recipes thoroughly and carefully so you don’t get the steps mixed up.
Mix the Dough
Many recipes instruct you to mix the dough and knead it for up to a half-hour before the next step. The reason is that kneading the dough helps develop the rubber band-like strands of gluten (one of wheat’s proteins) that give dough its elasticity and help capture the gasses released by the yeasts as they consume the dough’s sugars.
Some recipes employ the “autolyse” (pronounced AUT’-o-leez) method, in which you mix up all of the ingredients except salt and let them rest for about a half-hour (or a little longer for whole-grain doughs). Then mix in the salt and either knead for just a few minutes or, if following a no-knead recipe, move on to the next step.
When making a no-knead bread recipe, the most manipulating you’ll be required to do is picking up the dough every half-hour or so during the initial rise and stretching and folding it over onto itself to help strengthen the gluten. Breadtopia’s Rusch substitutes a quarter-cup of ripe sourdough culture for the yeast in a basic no-knead recipe (such as the one on our Easy, No-Knead Crusty Bread Recipe).
Ferment the Dough
This step is referred to as “dough proof” or “bulk fermentation.” In many recipes, you leave the dough alone to rise for anywhere between two and 12 hours. Some recipes also instruct you to press down the dough, fold it over onto itself or punch it down.
If sourdough ferments in a cool environment, it will be mildly sour, but this may also result in limited rise and longer fermentation. Warm environments speed rising time and lead to a higher rise and more acid development (and acid tang).
These variables of time and temperature give you tremendous control over your finished bread.
Shape a Loaf
Your dough should be pillowy for the “final proof.” It may not have doubled in bulk, but look for lightness in the dough. You may be able to feel air pockets. Try to catch the dough when it’s filled with the maximum level of gasses but before it begins to collapse.
If you have time, turn the dough out of your container onto a floured board and let it rest before shaping it into a loaf for its final proof with either of these recipes.
Into the Oven
Bake your bread in an enclosed, humid environment to create a crisp, crackling crust. Preheated Dutch ovens are perfect for making sourdough bread, but it’s difficult to slash the loaves after the dough is inside the pot. The design of the bread cloche made by Emile Henry and both the cast-iron combo cooker and double Dutch oven made by Lodge solve this problem.
When ready to bake, slash the loaves to provide a place for the dough to expand during baking. The pattern, angle and depth of the cuts will affect how the bread expands during baking. Some patterns of cuts are traditionally used to identify the type of bread.
You can also bake the bread for about 40 minutes in an uncovered pan or on a baking stone in an oven preheated to 450 degrees Fahrenheit. Or put the bread in a cold oven, turn the oven to 375 degrees, and bake the bread for 70 minutes. Add steam to the oven during baking for good rise and a crisp crust. You can set a pan of ice cubes on a different rack, or mist the oven walls with water before closing the door.
To determine when your bread is done, the classic thump test is still the best. If you like to rely on temperature, make sure sourdoughs have hit at least 200 degrees internally. King Arthur’s Eisler likes to squeeze the crust. If it yields to the pressure, it isn’t done. It should be very firm until the bread cools down.
Sample Sourdough Baking Schedules
For Sunday Afternoon Baking (with refrigerated starter)
Friday morning: Take starter out of refrigerator. Follow the discard and feed process outlined above, hereafter known as “feed starter.”
Saturday morning: Feed starter.
Saturday evening: Feed starter.
Sunday morning: Mix dough.
Sunday late morning or early afternoon: Shape dough.
Sunday late afternoon: Bake bread.
For Wednesday Evening Baking (with refrigerated starter)
Monday morning before work: Take starter out of refrigerator. Feed starter.
Tuesday morning before work: Feed starter.
Tuesday evening after work: Feed starter.
Wednesday before work: Mix dough.
Wednesday after work: Shape dough.
Wednesday evening: Bake bread (perhaps in time for late dinner if rising place is warm).
For Weekdays When Baking Nearly Every Day (with room temperature starter)
Every Morning: Wake, brush teeth, put coffee on, feed starter.
Every Evening: After dinner, do dishes, feed starter.
Morning before baking day: Feed starter without discarding any starter
Later that day, after work: Mix dough and let rise.
Before bed: Shape loaf. Retard loaf in refrigerator overnight.
Morning of baking day: Bake bread.
For Weekends When Baking Nearly Every Day (with room temperature starter)
Every Morning: Wake, brush teeth, put coffee on, feed starter.
Every Evening: After dinner, do dishes, feed starter.
Saturday morning: Feed starter without discarding any starter.
Books For Bread Lovers
Contributing Editor Tabitha Alterman is a sourdough enthusiast from way back. For tips about baking and whole grains, follow @TabithaAlterman on Twitter.