Sourdough Starter for Beginners

Sourdough is not only delicious, but it’s essential for certain grains like rye that don’t have the right proteins to rise with baker’s yeast.

Before the slow, lagering process for beer was developed, bakers would often get their yeast from brewers, who were essentially left with a starter after brewing. This wild brewers yeast would help all sorts of breads to rise. Industrial quick-acting yeast quickly took its place in developed society.

Sourdough starter breaks down the carbohydrates, proteins (like gluten) and release minerals through fermentation to make bread more digestible and bio-available.

Commercial breads are fortified in part because they skip most of the fermentation process, only activating a short stage of fermentation for yeast to produce gases to expand gluten molecules and make bread rise. As a result, nutrients are missing from commercial bread and they can be harder to digest.

Sourdough is basically how bread was made before fast-acting dried yeast. If you just leave water and flour out overnight, your dough will ferment and become a sour dough. But a starter helps the process along and improves the chances that you bake with a somewhat consistent, palatable fermentation.

Ingredients

  • 1 cup of all-purpose flour with equivalent weight of water

Recipe

  • Whatever amount of starter that you want, the ratio is equal parts (by weight) of flour and room-temperature water. I used 1 cup of all-purpose flour and the equivalent weight of water.
  • You need a jar that will fit at least double the amount of the flour/water mixture because the starter expands with carbon dioxide from fermentation. I used a litre jar. Plenty of room.
  • Cover with a breathable material (coffee filter, paper towel) and attach with a rubber band.
  • The mixture should bubble and expand in the jar in a couple of days. Mix the mixture from time to time (if you remember) since the solid and liquid may separate. Mixing isn’t explicitly necessary but it will give a consistent starter (spreading the yeast and acidity around the starter).
  • If there’s no activity in the first couple of days or if it smells rotten or if there’s coloured mold, throw the starter out. The starter should smell slightly sour.
  • You have about 2 cups of starter now that the volume has expanded with gas. You need about a cup to remain in the jar to keep your starter going into the future.
  • Now you need to take your recipe and either use up to 1 cup of starter or continue growing the starter to whatever amount you need (the preferment – see recipe below).
  • Add your starter amount to your bread recipe mixture overnight for baking the next day.
  • You have two options for the remaining cup of starter in the jar. You can either:
    1. add whatever flour you’ll need for tomorrow’s baking if you’re baking regularly or;
    2. add another cup for the starter to feed (and a pinch of salt for preservation) and then refrigerate for your next baking session (When you’re ready to bake, take the starter out of the fridge the night before and feed it the amount of starter you need for your recipe) or;
    3. add about 25 grams of flour and 25 grams of water every other evening to feed the starter.
  • I’ve found the third option is better than the second option because it really keeps the yeast active to have them at room temperature.
  • Organize your feeding around a weekend baking schedule for simplicity. 25 grams of flour/water a day leads to a large enough starter for the below recipe. Your schedule would look like this:
    • Monday: feed starter 25g of water and 25 g of flour.
    • Wednesday: feed starter 25 g of water and 25 g of flour.
    • Friday: Make preferment (see below)
    • Saturday: Bake

Sourdough Bread Recipe for the Breadmachine

Super Basic Recipe

Your Preferment

  • 50g warm water
  • 50g flour
  • 50g starter
  • 24h before baking

Bread Ingredients

  • 400g all-purpose flour
  • 200g water
  • 150g preferment from above
  • 5g salt

Run dough cycle then French cycle. If you didn’t notice much yeast activity in your pre-ferment, add a teaspoon of active yeast to ensure the bread rises.

Sourdough
Sourdough with salmon roe and duck pate.

Notes

  • Early in the starter, you may want to replace about half of the volume from the original fermentation to stabilize the starter’s environment (balance of microorganisms, pH) as the yeasts convert the flour/water mixture into a starter. Some recipes call for throwing out half the starter and feeding it daily (or even twice daily) but this is an obsessiveness that I don’t think is particularly necessary and will discourage people from getting starter.
  • I use the dough and then the French bread setting on my bread machine based on advice that the sourdough should be given as much time as possible to rise and these settings allow for that result. I promise to learn to make bread without a machine very soon.
  • Because the starter depends on yeast activity, there are no true set times for baking. Because Canada can get cold, we might need to test to see if the starter is ready. You can either check to see if the feedings double in volume in a few hours and/or drop a spoonful into water and see if it floats from the gases. You can put your starter near a heat generating appliance like your refrigerator to help the starter along.
  • Use either a bread machine or a dutch oven to maintain heat and moisture while baking.
  • If you use a bread machine, run the dough cycle first. If you use a dutch oven, fold the dough over periodically every hour or so while you wait for your leaven to form. A bread machine has simple, default settings. In the oven, you’ll have to experiment over time based on how your dutch oven operates and the recipe you use. An hour is a good benchmark to aim around.
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