How to Make a Sourdough Starter from Scratch
It seems that home bakers everywhere are showing off their sourdough loaves. These breads, with their burnished, dark crusts and chewy crumbs, were made with a live starter, a wet paste of flour and water that it is bubbly enough to create the leavening needed to bake a loaf of bread. The existing wild yeasts and bacteria in flour can be encouraged to thrive through regular feedings of warm water and flour. This ancient way of raising a dough is what people used long before commercial yeast was developed. When that arrived, it made baking more reliably consistent and convenient. But lately the pleasures and digestibility of eating naturally leavened breads have been rediscovered with a passion.
Most people say the best way to get a starter is from a friend. They can also be mail-ordered, and will arrive in dehydrated or fresh form: King Arthur Flour has fresh starter and Bien Cuit offers a sourdough starter kit that includes flour, tools, and a jar of starter. But if you want to make your own starter, just how do you get started?
Creating a Natural Culture
Making a sourdough starter takes about one week, but it can sometimes take longer. Begin by stirring a paste of equal amount of flour and water together in a jar and letting it sit in a warm room, stirring, and feeding at regular intervals. That's the beginning of it all. Once you've created and are caring for a starter it can last for quite some time. Several years ago, a group of food editors in the Martha Stewart test kitchen created a starter by following the method used by Chad Robertson of Tartine Bakery as used in his Tartine Country Bread.
The success of that starter, which they named Ladybird, has encouraged many current and former Martha Stewart food editors to carry on the tradition. Currently, Sarah Carey, Lauryn Tyrell, Greg Lofts, Lucinda Scala Quinn, and I are maintaining and baking with Ladybird starter progeny. With it we make the Tartine Country Bread and many other delicious things. Although a starter is only made from equal parts of flour and water, there are a few important details to keep in mind.
Any type of flour will work, but never use bleached flour. A blend of white flour with a whole grain wheat or rye will give a more complex flavor to your dough; also those whole flours have more microbial content for the yeasts to feed upon.
Choose a jar big enough for your starter to double in size. Glass is best, which allows you to see the activity of your starter. Plastic may slowly react to the acidity in the culture so it's not the healthiest option.
It's important to follow the instructions and feed your starter with water at about 80º F. Too hot and it could kill the yeast. Also, an ambient temperature of 70-75ºF is ideal for encouraging activity in your culture. If your kitchen is cool, place the starter in the oven with only the oven light on, in a warm corner cupboard, or on a shelf near an electronic device giving off a small amount of heat.
Managing the Bacteria
Sandor Katz, author of Wild Fermentation, and other bread bakers use organic fresh fruit or raisins to encourage the yeasts to develop in their starters. The author of The BreadBaker's Apprentice, Peter Reinhart, uses unsweetened pineapple juice in place of water, which creates the perfect pH balance for a reliable starter.
Reinhart suggests stirring your starter two to three times daily: "For about one minute each time, to aerate it. Yeast loves oxygen and multiplies faster when you stimulate the mixture with air. In addition, the stirring evens out the hydration of the dough and exposes any surface organisms that may have drifted onto the starter to the acidic environment within, and thus deactivates them while the yeast and the good lactobacillus organisms continue to grow. I've lost count of how many people solved their starter problem simply by this aeration technique."
Home bakers and professionals agree, making a sourdough starter is well worth it. There is much to learn and delicious bread to be gained. So take these tips to your kitchen, and get started.