Stupid Simple Sourdough Starter
2020.04.24
6 minutes read

The 2019-2020 Coronavirus Pandemic and its accompanying social restrictions have kindled a global wave of baking. I don’t know why people seem to have turned to baking bread, but the result is no flour on the store shelves and a yeast shortage. This in turn has led to an increased interest in sourdough starters. After all,

In the land of the no-yeast, the man with a sourdough starter is king.

I was lucky to get bit with the bread-baking bug early, during my parental leave last Autumn, and was well prepared and stocked for the new bread-baking reality. Crucially, I had already gone through a series of disastrous sourdough failures, and entered the pandemic with a robust starter that I can employ confidently. I am writing this post to try and share some of what I learned to make it simple enough that me from six months ago could’ve spared himself some headache.

If you want to debate different flours, hydration levels, and all that breadgeek stuff, there are websites for you, but if you are easily confused like me and just wanna wiggle your toe in the Deep End without knowing the physics of buoyancy, maybe I can help.

starter_unfed

What is a sourdough starter?

There’s all kind of nuanced jargon around sourdough starters. Is it a starter or a levain or a mother? Who cares. For my purposes, a “sourdough starter” is a catch-all term for any living culture containing yeast that you maintain for deployment in bread-rising operations.

For those who don’t know, yeast are wee beasties that eat sugars and starches and poop out carbon dioxide and alcohol. Yes, that kind of alcohol. When you make beer or wine, the alcohol is the point. In the case of bread, we’re more interested in the carbon dioxide. The carbon dioxide, a gas, is pooped out throughout the dough. When the bread is baked, all that gas expands and gives you light, fluffy bread.

Yeast is all over the place. You can’t see it, but it’s there, doing its thing. When you start a sourdough starter, you’re simply opening up a buffet for microorganisms and letting them have at it. Fortunately, yeast are pretty good at what they do, so after a spell they’ll have kicked all the real undesirables out of the buffet.

Not every non-yeast organism at the buffet is an undesirable, which is why sourdough is sourdough. Unlike bread made with storebought yeast, sourdough starters don’t contain only yeast, but also have lactobacilli which is a bacteria that makes lactic acid. This gives sourdough its namesake sour flavor.

How to make a sourdough starter?

The shortest version: Don’t. Find a friend with one and get a mature starter from them.

The short version: Add flour and water to a clean jar, stir, cover, and wait a day. Remove some of the mixture, add some more flour and water, and repeat for a couple weeks.

The long version: Put rough equal amounts water and flour into a clean vessel (jar, tupperware, whatever) and leave it (covered) for 24 hours in a room temperature place, like a room. The next day, remove about 2/3 of the stuff and throw it out. Yes, this is wasteful, but it’s only while you’re getting things going. Replace that 2/3 with equal amounts water and flour. Do this the next day, too. And the next one. Your starter will go through a few stages as the strains of microbes battle it out. Eventually, after a couple weeks of this, your starter should begin behaving in a predictable manner. Over the course of the 12 hours or so after you feed it, it should bubble and double in size. It should smell pretty good, with kind of a boozy note to it.

The hardest part about this process is the patience and the routine. Fortunately, the daily routine is only when you’re starting it up.

How to maintain and use a sourdough starter?

This is where people tend to make things more complicated than they need to be. If you bake every day, you should be feeding your starter every day (or 2x a day if you’d rather), but most people don’t bake every day. Fortunately, you can bung that starter in the fridge. The yeast will just chill out a bit in the fridge, give you some breathing room. If you’re not baking, it’s still a good idea to pull it out every week or so and refresh it.

To feed the starter, just remove 2/3 and replace with equal amounts water and flour. However, because your starter is mature, you should not throw that 2/3 in the bin. Keep it. I keep mine in an empty pasta jar. This is known as “sourdough discard”. King Arthur Flour has a ton of recipes that use sourdough discard. I recommend the cinnamon raisin bread. For pancakes, these sourdough discard pancakes are fantastic. Whenever your discard jar is starting to look a bit full, you can make one of these recipes.

my gross fridge

To avoid making pancakes every morning (not that there’s any problem with that), I recommend maintaining a small sourdough starter. I keep a 60g starter in a petite 125ml jar. When I feed the starter, I place the jar on a digital scale, remove 40g, and replace with 20g flour and 20g water (slightly less than a shotglass).

starter_fed

To use your sourdough starter, I recommend “building up” to the amount you need. A starter kept in a fridge will need a few feedings to get back up to fightin' strength, so I take it out a couple days' ahead of time, and remove the 40g as usual… but it doesn’t go in my discard jar. Instead, I stick it in another vessel, and add 40g flour and 40g water to it. Now I have 120g of sourdough starter. After it’s bubbled up, 12-24 hours later, I add 120g flour and 120g water to that, and now I have 360g of sourdough starter, which is almost always sufficient for any recipe I use it in.

Incidentally, you don’t need to only use sourdough in sourdough recipes. You can substitute it in for normal baker’s yeast. To do this, use roughly 1 cup sourdough starter to replace a packet of yeast. Decrease the flour and water in the recipe by 1/2 cup each to account for the flour and water from the starter. Because sourdough takes longer to rise, you will have to adjust all rise times. Expect things to take at least 2 or 3 times as long.

There you have it, a sourdough starter that only “eats” 20g of flour a week unless you’re using it, and which (if you keep and use your discard) doesn’t produce any waste. It’s really not hard or complicated. Don’t let all the gobbledygook mislead you.


tags:  bread  sourdough  cooking