Sourdough Starter Recipe for Bread Baking and More

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Photo courtesy of Alaska
There are a number of recipes for sourdough starter and most of them scare off the beginner by calling for potatoes and other things more complicated and esoteric than you may have on hand. Forget them. Life wasn't meant to be that difficult.  

Clarence Massey’s recipes for sourdough in this issue of MOTHER EARTH NEWS are darn good ones . . . But there’s
more than one formula for sourings and the baked goods made
from them. Here are two more variations on the theme. It’s
especially interesting that Cathy Johnson and Clarence
Massey both knead their dough long and vigorously while
Dudley Shaw cautions against unnecessary handling of the
dough. Since both methods obviously produce the desired
result, it seems that sourdough will work most any ole way
you want to make it.

If you’re tired of forgetting the yeast or tired of whole
wheat bread’s tendency to crumble (mine, a no-knead recipe,
does anyway) or just tired of the same old taste . . . try
some bread with real body. Try sourdough.

There are a number of recipes for sourdough starter and most
of them scare off the beginner by calling for potatoes and
other things more complicated and esoteric than you may
have on hand. Forget them. Life wasn’t meant to be that
difficult. I’ve rummaged through the cookbooks and
amalgamated the following formula that works (for me, at
least) perfectly every time:

Sourdough Starter Recipe

1 cup rye flour
1/2 cup lukewarm water (can be potato cooking water if you
have it but we’ve found that it’s not necessary.
1/2 cake or 1/2 tablespoon dry yeast, softened in another
1/2 cup warm water.

Stir these ingredients together and put the mixture in a
clean crock with a lid if you have one . . . if not, a bowl
with a plate on it, an enameled pan with a lid or even a
nice big jar should do (just don’t screw the lid down too
tight or you may find yourself cleaning sourdough off half
the Free World).

Without stirring or disturbing the starter, allow it to
rise and fall until it gets as sour as you want it. And how
sour should that be? We didn’t know either the first time
through, so we just ad-libbed and let ours get
good and sour. The original recipe said, “allow to
work two or three days” but our first batch, sitting next
to the wood heater (on the cold floor` took about four.
Once the starter is sour, put it in the refrigerator till
you’re ready to use it.

Now for the good part . . . the sourdough bread!

I like to experiment with my cooking and I’ve evolved a
kind of a health-food, German-style, made-up bread recipe
that you might want to try. Take one cup of starter and

Sourdough Bread Recipe

1 1/2 quarts lukewarm water (the original recipe called for
potato cooking water . . . but how would you ever
get that much if you cooked your potatoes in as
little water as possible to retain the vitamins? What I did
was use 2/3 cup potato water and plain water for the rest.
I think plain water all the way through would work just as
1/2 cup blackstrap molasses
6 cups rye flour

Mix well, cook and let the sponge “work” about three hours
in a warm place until it gets nice and sour. Stir, take out
one cup of starter for your next batch (and, believe me,
there’ll be a next batch!) and store the starter in your

Stir two tablespoons salt (we use flake salt from the feed
store but, since it contains no iodine, sea salt is
probably better for you) and two tablespoons lard or other
shortening into into the remaining sponge.

Add about four more cups flour (I use a mixture of rice
polishings and corn, wheat, soy, rye and millet flour that
we get from a health-food store in Kansas City) and stir
well. Keep adding flour and stirring until you have a
kneadable mixture. The original recipe called for ten cups
but I’ve ended up using as much as 13, including what I put
on the board to knead on (and in). The dough should be

Knead until the dough isn’t sticky anymore. Shape it into
three round loaves (or two, if you want big ones), place on
oiled cookie sheets or in old pie tins (or even new ones .
. . what the heck!) and put in a warm place to let rise
approximately two to three hours or until dough has
expanded in size by a third. I make cuts in the top of the
sponge and judge the dough’s expansion by how the cuts
swell open.

If you cook on a wood stove–as I do–and your
fire hasn’t already been going all day, start stoking the
blaze about an hour before the bread’s due to be risen. At
least that’s how long it takes me to get mine hot
enough. Contrary to the articles in MOTHER EARTH NEWS NO. 7, our
little cookstove does not seem to get too hot. My
fault, probably.

We have mainly soft maple and elm kindling and oak and
walnut for the main fire . . . but to really stoke our
stove on up there, I’ve found that corncobs are the thing
to use. They’re hot!

My stove’s oven doesn’t have a thermometer–not even
the “warm-medium-hot” kind–so I put my little
dimestore oven thermometer in there and it works fine.

Anyway, the temperature to shoot for is 350° F. If you
have a gas or electric range, just preheat to that setting
and forget it. If it’s wood you’re using, be prepared with
lots of corncobs . . . you’ll have to maintain
that temperature for 1 1/4 to 1 1/2 hours.

I’ve found that it’s easier to hold oven heat on my
cookstove if I partially close the damper and reduce the
draft once the stove is really roaring. It seems to keep
the heat in and I don’t have to jump up and down tending
the fire nearly as much as I did last week when I made
chocolate chip cookies. Then, I had the draft wide open and
it just blew the fire right away. It took me almost an hour
and a half to get the oven to register 225° F. and
another hour and a half to bake three sheets of cookies.
Live and learn.

Anyway, if you’re cooking with wood, you’ll certainly have
worked up an appetite for that good old-time sourdough
bread by the time it’s done. We cut ours as soon as it’s
finished and put a lot of butter on it . . . and
we figure we’ll want some other kind of bread about 1989!

We’ll probably be using the same starter then, too. Some
sourdough starters have been kept alive for over 100 years
and handed down through generations just like family
silver. I can’t think of a nicer thing to inherit.

Brad and Vena Angier, authors of a number of books about
their homesteading experience in the bush country of
British Columbia (see MOTHER EARTH NEWS Bookshelf) have often told
how they were introduced to sourdough by seventy-year-old
B.C. trapper Dudley Shaw.

Dudley preferred to launch his starter with four cups of
flour, enough warm water to make a thick, creamy batter and
an optional two tablespoons of sugar and two teaspoons of
salt . . . although he allowed that a yeast cake dissolved
in warm water would hasten the brew. He also mentioned that
some old-timers found it handy to add a tablespoon of
vinegar to the original batch or to any aged sourings that
needed reviving.

“Mix three-fourths of this initial starter with a
tablespoon of melted fat and a cup of flour in which a
teaspoon of baking soda has been well stirred,” was
Dudley’s advice, “then add whatever additional flour is
needed to make a smoothly kneading dough . . . and keep
attacking. Don’t gentle it. Too much pushing and pressing
lets the gas escape that’s needed to raise the stuff. Just
bang the dough together in a hurry, cut off loaves to fit
your pans and put them in a warm place to raise.”

Let the dough plump out to double size, then bake it from
forty minutes to one hour in an oven that is hottest during
the first fifteen minutes and, according to Dudley, your
bread will again be doubled in size and baked crisply done.
If you want to test the loaves before cutting, jab `em with
a straw. It should come out dry and “at least as clean as
it was when inserted”.

In the usual sourdough tradition, Dudley recommended that
the Angiers recycle the cup of saved-back starter into a
long series of baking adventures but he cautioned that they
should always “cover the sourings loosely or they’ll
explode all over the place. Makes a ghastly mess. Remember
they bubble copiously to better than double size, so use a
container that’s vast enough. When the mixture gets too
rampageous, a touch of baking soda will gentle it.”

Dudley added that too much soda could make the bread
yellowish or even kill the sourdough altogether . . . and
not enough would leave the bake: goods tasting sour.
Experience is the best teacher.

The Angiers report that Dudley ended his lesson by
presenting them with a batch of 14-year-old starter. When
they gasped at the age of the sourings, he beamed, “They’ve
just started nicely.”