Obtaining and managing sourdough starter can seem like an intimidating prospect for the uninitiated, but the process is surprisingly simple. With some water, flour, and a little bit of patience, you can capture and harness your own wild yeast to hand-craft a starter culture.
Like many novice bakers, I first only understood yeast as a weird, pellety material that you got from foil packages and then added to your dough because the instructions said so.
I had a vague, alchemical notion that it always had to be mixed with sugar to make something happen, and knew it had something to do with beer. But as I kept baking, I began to understand the one-celled fungus of yeast a little bit better. And then the question struck me: How did people of the past make leavened bread without the aid of something store-bought?
Because I don’t think they sold little pre-measured pouches in those 1800s country stores, I’m confident there was no pellet-yeast hanging out the European bakeries of the Middle Ages, and I’d certainly wager that the Hebrew people, experiencing the first Passover in Egypt so long ago, weren’t just omitting Red Star from their recipes when they were making unleavened bread.
So, a little research taught me that the yeast you can buy in the store (Saccharomyces cerevisiae) is a different strain than the “wild” yeast which is used for sourdough (one of them being Saccharomyces exiguus). This wild stuff is everywhere, and as easy to find as breathing, literally. It’s in the air in your home!
For thousands of years, even before microscopes and scientific explanations of fermentation were written, people knew that if you left flour and water dough out for a length of time, something was going on in that dough — and that something could be made into delicious bread.
So, if you're feeling up for joining in with the millennia of people capturing this awesome organism, you can harness it into becoming your very own super-local leavening source and take an ingredient off of your future grocery lists.
Materials and ingredients:
• 1 large glass NOT METAL jar (I love using mason jars with the rings—very convenient).
• cheesecloth, a coffee filter, or a piece of cotton material
• rubber bands (if you’re not using a mason jar with the ring)
• 1 chopstick (the handle of a wooden spoon can work, too)
• filtered water
• 100 percent whole-wheat flour
• Patience. If all goes well, this process takes about 2 weeks until you can eat bread, so buckle in and hang on for the ride!
In your clean mason jar, measure out 1/2 cup flour and 1/2 cup filtered water. Mix with the chopstick until you have blended them well. Cover with the coffee filter or two layers of cheesecloth, and secure on the top with rubber bands or the mason jar ring.
Note: It is very important to cover it thoroughly — fruit flies love starter, and will happily lay eggs in it if they can reach it. Don't cover with anything air-tight, though — your mix needs to be able to breathe (it is going to be alive, remember!)
Put in a relatively warm, dark place. I found that a secluded corner of our kitchen worked just fine.
Every morning, discard half the mix into your compost and feed the starter 1/2 cup flour and 1/2 cup warm (not hot) filtered water, mixing well.
Right now, you’re waiting for the yeast that is naturally in the air to settle into your mix and start eating the starches in the batter you’ve made. You don’t have to hope you caught it—it is there (it is everywhere). Stir to aerate the mix again mid-day (if you can) and before you go to bed.
Signs of active yeast are bubbles, a layer of a clear or light brown liquid rising to the top (it’s alcohol...AKA yeast poop!) and the start of a sour smell. Don’t be too put off by the smells at this point if they hit you strangely — they’ll become more pleasant as the starter gets established.
Things you don't want to see at this stage are mold or fruit fly maggots. If you find these, don’t try to save it: it’s lost. Compost your tears and failure and start over. Thankfully, once your starter is well established, it will never mold: the yeast out-competes anything else alive.
After about 5 days, you may find that you are now in the possession of your own fledgling colony of free, local yeast. It should be the consistency of pancake batter, have a pleasant, beer-y aroma and bubbles. You will need to keep feeding it daily, but as it gains strength, you will be able to finally use the excess starter rather than just dumping it!
It's time now to start building up your starter's strength and preparing it for baking. You want to have starter that is strong enough that it can roughly double in size during the 4 hours that occur after a feeding. If you wait longer, it will rise and fall and you might have no idea just how active it is (this is why I threw out my first starter attempt — I only checked it when I came back from a full day of teaching, and found it at the same level. I had no idea that it was rising and falling while I was gone.) I finally began using my starter to bake bread about two weeks after initiating the whole process — you may be able to start sooner in warmer climates!
To maintain the starter, continue to halve what is in the jar and add the flour/water food (at a 1:1 ratio) every day or so. You can adjust how much you feed it by how much you’ll need to bake with the next day (for example, if I want to bake several loaves, I’ll add a full cup of flour and a full cup of water to my jar — this will give me plenty for baking and still leave enough to maintain).
If you find a lot of liquid at the top, you can pour that off before you feed it again. Then, bake with it! Don’t be disappointed if your first few loaves seem a little flat — just keep maintaining your jar (you can name it if it helps), and before you know it, you’ll have amazing, homemade bread.
If you bake bread every week, you will find a good rhythm for feeding/using your starter jar, and you’ll never have to compost the extra (you’ll be baking with it!). If you don’t bake every week, you can refrigerate the jar to slow down its fermentation (just make sure to feed it at least once a week and make sure it can breathe!).
Now, if you are having difficulty with this process, there are lots of fantastic resources for troubleshooting your problems. I really enjoy using The Art of Baking with Natural Yeast as a resource.
Melissa Richardson and Caleb Warnock are fantastic companions to bring along on this adventure, and Melissa also keeps a great blog full of suggestions and advice, as well as some suggestions for how to ease the process with potatoes, raisins, and even pineapple juice. In the end, do what works for you, because your homemade bread will be so worth it, however you come by it!
Andrew and Michelle Shall run Shuv Naturals, an all-natural soap and skincare business out of their home in Akron, Ohio. Find them online at Simple Life Homestead, and read all of their MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.
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