Apr 1, 2013

The Sourdough Bread Method; Getting Started with Your Starter

The sourdough starter has become known exclusively for use with round, crusty, tangy, sourdough loaves, and perhaps to some, sourdough biscuits. But if you examine the usage of sourdough starter in history, you'll find that the starter would better be known as liquid yeast (referred to simply as "yeast" before baker's yeast was isolated and packaged) and can be used in just about any kind of bread recipe with very little, or no sour taste.

The flour and water you mix together for your starter in a sense become a trap to catch wild yeast that lives in the air. When your starter is ready to use it will smell like packaged yeast during proofing, with or without a slight tangy scent. (Click here to skip ahead to my sourdough bread recipe.)

Why Sourdough?

Most store-bought bread is filled with unhealthy additives to make it soft, taste good, and have a long shelf-life. Making your bread at home is one step the frugal, healthy cook can make to improving the nutrition of her family. But wheat flour contains gluten, a protein difficult to digest by humans, and whole grain flours contain phytates, nutrient blockers designed to help protect the grain until the optimum conditions are met for germination.

Traditionally almost all bread was created with a starter yeast and soured as it slowly rose, a process that predigests the gluten, dissolves the phytates, and makes the vitamins and minerals found in the grain (those being protected fiercely for germination) bioavailable to our bodies. Souring also makes the bread lower glycemic. When baker's yeast was isolated and marketed to the public it significantly shortened the rising time for bread. This appealed to a lot of people, but especially bakeries. Yet the nutritional consequences of eliminating the sourdough method of preparation were not studied and are becoming more and more well-known today as gluten allergies and sensitivities are popping up all over the place, in addition to health problems (like malnutrition, believe it or not) related to consuming whole grains that are not properly prepared.

Today some people seeking to consume bread in a nutritious way are soaking their breads (the flour is left overnight in an acidic solution), sprouting the grains (the grain is tricked into sprouting, then dehydrated, then ground, then made into bread, all which sounds very time-consuming), and using the traditional sourdough method. I have done a lot of soaking (I still soak my baked oatmeal, though I am thinking about figuring out a version that uses my sourdough starter), I've never done any sprouting, and since reading the Vintage Remedies Guide to Bread book, I now use the sourdough method almost exclusively for my breads. 

As I detailed in my book review, the Vintage Remedies Guide to Bread was extremely informative and revolutionized the way I think of bread. Reading this book gave me the foundation I needed to start crafting my own sourdough bread recipes and become confident in the kitchen with adaptions and alterations. Please take a moment to read my book review here. I highly recommend purchasing this book if you are interested in beginning the sourdough bread making method.

Sourdough Bread Starter

1/2 cup flour of choice (I use whole wheat, or unbleached all-purpose flour, rye is also a popular sourdough flour, but I do not use it due to the cost)
1/2 cup distilled water

Additional flour and water.

Mix flour and water together in a quart mason jar or another glass or ceramic container you can do without. This will become your starter's "home" so don't use a container you use for other things in the kitchen.

Day one: Mix the flour and water in a mason jar. Cover your jar loosely with cheesecloth or other loose weave material (I used a piece of plastic netting folded several times). Secure with a rubber band. This will help keep dust and such out of the starter while still allowing the yeast to enter.

Day two: Feed the starter 1/4 water and 1/4 flour. Mix well.

Day three: Your starter should be starting to bubble by now. Feed the starter 1/4 water and 1/4 flour. Mix well.

Day four: Feed the starter 1/4 water and 1/4 flour. Mix well.

Day five: feed the starter 1/4 water and 1/4 flour. Mix well. After about 6 hours after feeding you can use the starter to bake bread! Click here to head over to my sourdough bread recipe.

Caring for your starter:

Once your starter is established, it's not as complicated as you might think to keep the it healthy. But here are some pointers that will help your starter thrive:

1. Feed your starter every day to keep it from tasting too sour. You can skip a day, or even two days if you are traveling, or forget, without the starter dying. But it will take a few days or a week of regular feeding again for the sour taste to diminish. 

2. Always use purified or distilled water when working with sourdough bread. The chlorine in tap water can kill the yeast and beneficial bacteria in the starter. I leave a pitcher of tap water on the counter. The chlorine evaporates after about half a day, and is safe to use for your starter.

3. Drain off the brownish water that forms on the top (known as the hooch). This contributes to the sour taste and is not necessary for successful sourdough baking. If you really love a strong sour taste, then just stir the hooch back into the starter.

4. Never use aluminum when working with sourdough. Even mixing the starter with an aluminum spoon can cause a chemical reaction and kill the yeast. Remember this when it comes time to bake the bread as aluminum baking pans are still pretty common.

5. You can place the sourdough starter in the fridge, or even the freezer, if you know you won't be baking for awhile. To use again, bring the starter to room temperature and give it a generous feeding. If it starts bubbling again, then it's healthy. You can make your bread after about 6 hours after feeding.

Maintaining a Healthy Starter:

 I've read that when you feed a starter you should feed it with this method: If you have 1/2 starter, feed it 1/2 water and 1/2 cup flour. However, once you have 3 cups of starter, if you feed it you will then have a huge amount of starter! I thought about the premise behind this -to feed the yeast- and figured that the yeast probably doesn't need to eat that much to be healthy. So I feed my starter (of any amount) about 1/4 to 1/2 cup portions of flour and water every day. This seems to work fine for me. 

Once you have your starter established you will want to add a little more flour than water when you are feeding the starter. Most recipes calling for starter assume that it will be the consistency of pancake batter. I found that the one to one ratio of water and flour is pretty runny. Once you've started draining of the hooch, your starter will thicken a bit, but think pancake batter when feeding your starter.


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  2. Thanks for sharing this at Fabulously Frugal Thursday. I've struggled a bit with doing sourdough. My bread always seemed a bit dense.

  3. It seems I'm on the right track, I hope I can do well. The result was something I did and was doing to implement it.