Ah, summer… corn on the cob, lazy reading in the hammock, and… sourdough starter, of course!
I’ve been taking advantage of this warm weather to try raising some starters from scratch. I had done it before in a week-long class (in fact, that’s the starter I’ve been using for months), but we were able to keep our cultures at a constant 80 degrees F, and we added extra malt to jump-start the process. I wanted to see how it worked with just flour and water, in the warm but fluctuating room temperatures of my non-air-conditioned house in these beautiful early summer weeks in northern California.
Success! Raising a starter seems to be something that is perceived as mysterious, complicated, or hard. But in my experience, it’s not; it just requires attention and patience.
I did this a couple of times, once with rye and once with whole wheat flour. Both worked, but the rye worked better, so that’s the one I’m summarizing. (Note: this ends up as a white starter. The rye is just in the beginning, to get things going.)
Ready to try it?
Sourdough Starter from Scratch
- White flour (bread or all-purpose), preferably one that contains malted barley flour. Most white flours do, but some do not, especially if they are organic. Check the label.
- Rye flour.
- Water. I use bottled (not distilled) water because I don’t want the chlorine in tap water, and I do want the minerals that are removed by my water softener. If your tap water is not softened, you could let some sit out for a few hours to allow the chlorine to dissipate. All the water should be at about 85F; the yeast you want to nurture likes warmish water. I heat a small amount of water in the microwave and mix it with room temperature water, checking it with an instant-read thermometer. If you don’t have one, the water should feel about neutral to the touch.
- A 1-quart or larger container with a lid, preferably transparent and with straight vertical sides (this makes it easier to gauge the activity of the culture).
- A kitchen scale. If you don’t have one, get one. In the meantime, I’ll give the approximate volume measurements. But just this once; really, weigh your ingredients! (I never said I wasn’t opinionated.)
- An instant-read thermometer is useful for checking water temperature.
- A rubber spatula or plastic dough scraper.
- Transparent tape.
- A way to heat water.
- A warm(ish) place, preferably around 80F. The room I used fluctuated from low 70’s to mid 80’s. A room thermometer is helpful.
- The stuff you’re growing is a “culture” before it is mature and stable enough to bake with, at which point it becomes a “starter.”
- The volume measurements I’ve given do not corresponding exactly to the weight measurements, but the proportions are the same. Don’t mix weight and volume measurements.
- You will initially leave the culture alone for 24 hours, after which you will “feed” it at 12-hour intervals; choose your starting time accordingly. I arbitrarily assume you’re starting in the morning.
- Feeding involves removing and discarding a portion of the culture, and adding water and flour to what remains: first mix the culture and water together thoroughly, then add the flour and mix until thoroughly blended.
- Before you begin, it’s helpful to mark the weight of the container on the bottom with a Sharpie, or note it elsewhere. Then when it’s time to discard some of the culture, you can just keep taking some out and weighing the container until you know that the remaining culture is the right amount. I do not wash my container between every feeding.
- Contrary to a somewhat popular belief, it is OK to use a stainless steel spoon for mixing.
- After mixing, use a spatula or dough scraper to squeegee the sides of the container so they’re nice and clean. This helps you see how much the culture has risen, and keeps things tidy.
- When you’re done mixing, smooth the top of the culture flat as much as possible. Place a piece of tape running straight up the outside of the container, and mark the level of the culture. This is how you will know how much it has risen.
- Replace the container lid when you’re done mixing. If it’s a screw on lid or mason-jar type, you may want to leave it a little loose to give accumulated gas an escape route. If it is a plastic snap-on lid, you can snap it tight; the lid will pop off if the pressure inside gets too high.
Day 1 AM:
- Make sure your container is clean, well-rinsed, and dry.
- Mix 100 g water, 50 g rye flour, and 50 g white flour (or 1/2 c. water and 3/8 c. of each flour.)
- Leave the culture in its warm spot for 24 hours.
Day 2 AM:
- Hopefully you will see signs of life. Has the culture risen a little? Are there any bubbles in it, even one or two? (These are sometimes best seen by picking it up and looking at it through the bottom of the container.)
- It is possible that you will see a large rise (50% or more) at this point. Don’t be fooled; this does not mean you’ve birthed a miracle baby. In the initial stages of a culture, a type of bacteria called leuconostoc may predominate; it produces a lot of gas and causes the rapid rise. This bacteria is not desirable, but not harmful either, and it will eventually die out as the beneficial critters settle in and the culture becomes more acidic. You may also notice that the culture has a rather unpleasant odor; don’t worry, this too shall pass.
- (If you see absolutely no sign of life whatsoever, I suggest leaving it alone for another 12 hours before proceeding. If there is still nothing, why not forge ahead anyway and see what happens?)
- Discard all but 75 g of the culture. Feed this with 75 g water, 25 g rye flour, and 50 g white flour (1/3 c. starter, 1/3 c. water, 5 teaspoons rye flour, and 1/3 c. white flour).
- Set it back in its warm spot for 12 hours.
Day 2 PM:
- You may see signs of activity, but the culture may be either more or less lively than what you saw this morning. Anything from a single bubble to a 100% rise is good.
- Again, feed 75 g of culture with 75 g water, 25 g rye flour, and 50 g white flour, and return it to the warm spot.
Day 3 AM:
- Your culture may appear dead, but it’s probably not. Don’t worry, just go ahead and feed as before.
Day 3 PM and every 12 hours thereafter:
- Continue to feed as you’ve been doing. At some point things should pick up steam, and you will notice that the culture gets a little more vigorous with each feeding.
- When the culture at least doubles itself in 12 hours and is looking nice and bubbly, start feeding with only white flour (75 g culture / 75 g water / 75 g flour). This happened for me around the end of Day 4.
- After about 5 – 7 days, hopefully you will observe that the culture can double itself in 8 hours or less, smells pleasantly sour, and is full of bubbles. Congratulations, you have raised a 100% hydration starter that’s ready to bake with! If you’re looking for a recipe, how about this Norwich Sourdough?
- At this point you can also start decreasing the amount of culture in relation to the feeding flour and water, and use room-temperature instead of 85-degree water. You have been mixing 1:1:1 culture:water:flour at each feeding. Now try 1:2:2 and see if the starter can still double in 8 hours or less.
I’ll say more about the care and feeding of my starter in a near-future post.