Whole Wheat Sourdough starter basics*
Sourdough starter is simply flour and water left to ferment. But, when you look closer, it’s a medium teaming with wild yeasts, enzymes and lactobacilli. This culture leavens, conditions, flavors, and partially breaks down complex substances in the dough. In fact, the lactobacillus actually predigests the gluten in the dough, making bread baked with sourdough easier to metabolize. Michael Pollan argues, “what sourdough starter is, is the traditional way that bread was made until only about 100 years ago.”
Your sourdough starter will be hyper-local to your home because it will pick up yeast unique to your home. No other sourdough starter will be exactly like yours. It takes some effort the keep sourdough starter because it needs to be fed. You’ll find that you begin to develop a relationship during these daily feedings. Some people name their starters. A friend in London named her sourdough starter after me, I guess that’s almost like having a child named after you. I’m flattered.
Note: read these instructions all the way through because the process takes a few days and assumes you already have sourdough starter. It you don’t have starter, contact us.
How to maintain your sourdough starter
- Using a small wooden spoon, not metal, transfer 1 tablespoon of starter into a clean bowl and discard the remainder or make sour dough pancakes with the excess.
- To the starter, add ¼ cup water and mix, then add ¼ cup flour (or a bit more) and combine well. It should have the consistency of pancake batter. Store covered with cheesecloth in a place where you won’t forget about it. (I store mine with my tea mugs since I enjoy tea every morning and I certainly don’t forgot that!)
- Repeat the feeding every 24 hours at approximately the same time of day. The starter should start to rise and fall consistently throughout the day. As the starter develops, the smell will change from ripe to sour to sweet and pleasantly fermented, like yogurt. Once you have an active starter, which is to say, one that is light and bubbly, with a pleasant yeasty-boozy aroma it is time to make the leaven.
- Two days before you want to make bread, feed the starter twice daily, once in the morning and once in the evening to increase fermentation activity.
- To test the starter’s readiness, drop a spoonful into a small glass of room temperature water. If it sinks, it is not ready and needs more time to ripen. When it floats on the surface or close to it, it’s ready to use to make the dough.
- About 4-6 hours before you want to begin making bread, transfer 1 tablespoon of starter to ½ cup water and ½ cup flour. This is your leaven. Cover and let rest 4-6 hours.
Storing sourdough starter
- Always retain some of the starter for your next loaf. If you plan to use it again in the near future, return to feeding it every 24 hours at the same time of day so it’s ready the next time you bake.
- To save the sourdough starter for longer periods without use, add enough flour to make a dry paste and keep covered in the refrigerator. When you want to use it again, keep at warm temperature for at least 2 days and do three to four feedings to refresh and reduce the acid load that builds up while it is stored in the refrigerator.
NOTE: when storing starter in the refrigerator for a long time, a brown liquid layer on top of your starter, called hooch, can form. This simply indicates that the starter is hungry. When you’re ready to bake, remove the starter from the refrigerator, pour or scrape off any hooch and feed the starter as soon as possible.
SECOND NOTE: I keep a “back-up” starter in my refrigerator in a mason jar labeled in case something happens to the active one. Even at the famous, Tartine in San Francisco, Chad Robertson tells a story that his age-old starter was accidentally thrown away.
*Thanks to Chad Robertson and his book, Tartine Book No 3.