Bread-Making Basics: Getting Started on Your Sourdough

Give rise to amazing loaves of homemade sourdough bread with these pointers on creating and caring for a thriving starter.

  • sourdough starter
    There is an incredible feeling of satisfaction that comes from making your own sourdough starter.
    Photo by Nassima Rothacker
  • The Sourdough School cover
    “The Sourdough School” is an informative compilation of the author’s teachings from her renowned Sourdough School. Inside readers will discover the secrets of the uniquely healthy bread and master the delectable crust and tangy taste of a sourdough loaf in their own kitchen.
    Cover courtesy Kyle Books

  • sourdough starter
  • The Sourdough School cover

In The Sourdough School: The Ground-Breaking Guide to Making Gut-Friendly Bread by Vanessa Kimble, readers will learn to master the art of sourdough from the expert herself. Kimble uses the teachings from her renowned Sourdough School in a brilliant compilation of easy-to-follow instructions and stunning photography. Readers of all experience levels can try their hand at the timeless craft of artisan baking with this indispensable guide. The following excerpt is from Chapter 5, "The Foundation for Your Loaf."

Before you begin, you need a starter, and to understand how to create and look after it. You can make your own by capturing the wild yeasts and bacteria already present on the grains that your flour is milled from. This is fun, and will give you a huge sense of satisfaction, but it takes a little time. Depending on the ambient temperature of your room, and the microbial activity of the flour you are using, it can take from three days to two weeks, so if you are full of enthusiasm about starting baking, I suggest that you begin by making a loaf with a thriving starter that is already producing great loaves for someone else. If you don't have a baking friend who will give you a small amount of their starter, you can buy an established one from one of the online resources. Scientific studies indicate that an established starter is stable, active, and resilient, and in your first attempts at making sourdough bread, it will guarantee a better loaf, which is more likely to keep you baking.

Sourdough is a symbiotic microbial ecosystem made up of wild yeasts and lactic acid bacteria that have colonized the mixture of flour and water. The behavior and the characteristics of your starter depend on the type of yeast and lactic acid bacteria, which in turn depend on the temperature at which your starter is refreshed, the kind of flour used to maintain it, and the resident bacteria in the environment that it is kept in.

Do I need to understand the microbes to make great sourdough?

No — people made bread for thousands of years before we even invented microscopes or knew of their existence — though a basic knowledge will help you better understand how to change the flavor of your bread. At the School, we have students from all over the world who want to understand how they can use fermentation to experiment with flavor, and make more nutritious bread. Controlling the levels of acid in the dough influences the flavor and the level of sourness, which in turn affects the gluten structure, texture, and crumb of the bread. So it is very useful to understand where the acids come from, and what they do.

Where do the bacteria come from?

The flour that you use to refresh your starter is a major influence on the kind of bacteria that colonize your starter.

What other factors affect the starter?

The soil that your flour is grown in can affect the kind of microbes you get colonizing your starter, as can the environment in which you keep your starter, and the temperature at which you refresh it. The farming practices used to grow the grain (usually wheat) also affect the microbial composition.

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