How to Cultivate Your Own Sourdough Starter
Since this whole isolation/quarantine has started, I’ve been quite antsy. Yes, I am home all day and that does get on my nerves, but I’m more worried about my sourdough - stores are pretty much sold out of flour! For someone who’s life is built on the ability to endlessly bake treats, this is really getting to me. Anyways, this whole ‘flour shortage’ (which really isn’t a shortage, just a heightened demand with an oversupply) has caused people to ask me for discards of my sourdough. Me being the protective person I am refused to give away part of my sourdough that I’ve worked on so hard for months (since October). I instead decided I’d rather make a new one for them from scratch. I have decided to bring you along on the journey to build your own sourdough from scratch - the easy and humble beginnings to what we know and love, bread.
But what is sourdough?
Bread began to appear in the world around 9000 BCE, with leavened bread possibly being an accidental invention by the Egyptians at around 5000 BCE when a piece of dough became sour (Robuchon & Montagné, 2009, p. 130). Today, bread is so important to our daily lives, we often take it for granted.
Some people know it as sourdough, others know it as a sourdough starter, or simply a starter. Many bakeries call their sourdoughs the mother dough. This is because each loaf receives a bit of the mother dough to create its rise (Robuchon & Montagné, 2009, p. 131). Sourdough is a simple mix of whole grain and water, both untreated, which activates the lactic acid bacteria and fungi on the grain to create a symbiotic relationship that allows for each other to thrive (Rogers, 2010, para. 2-4).
Bread baking spread around the world rapidly, by the 19th century, there were many advancements in the world of bread baking including steam-injected ovens (Robuchon & Montagné, 2009, p. 131) and San Francisco having been known as the sourdough capital of the world (Lindsey, 1972, p. 50). San Francisco became so popular for its massive sourdough operations, the most common strain of the bacteria that creates the signature sour taste is named after the famous city, Lactobacillus sanfranciscensis. It was later found that this strain of lactobacillus was, in fact, all over the world, amongst over forty different strains of lactobacilli found in sourdoughs (Corsetti & Settanni, 2007, p. 543).
I heard sourdough is healthier, is that true?
Sourdough for sure isn’t unhealthier than your plain old yeast-leavened loaf, it has the same ingredients - flour, water, yeast, and salt. Though sourdough has been the subject of various studies proving it does have health benefits. Whole grains are a key source of vitamins, minerals, and important biologically active compounds (Corsetti & Settanni, 2007, p. 543). As well, the long fermentation of the sourdough forces the bacteria and yeast in it to break down the hard-to-digest starches of the whole grain. Sourdough bacteria are also used in cases to prevent gluten contamination in celiac-friendly foods. In the same study, it was discussed that sourdough fermentation can even positively influence gut health, though this is yet to be further proved (Poutanen, Flander, & Katina, 2009, p. 696-7).
Okay, I’m ready, what do I need?
For the most part, you should have everything you need to create a sourdough at home. For the most part. Here is everything you need to start your sourdough:
A glass jar that is at least 250 mL in volume: The jar should have a lose-fitting lid. If you are using a mason jar or jam jar, I would caution you to not close the lid all the way, which can create a sourdough bomb! When the yeast’s carbon dioxide has nowhere else to go and will force the glass outwards.
A rubber spatula or small wooden spoon/dowel: I prefer to use a small rubber spatula to make sure that the sides of the jar are pretty and the sourdough is well combined. Try to stay away from metals, especially copper and aluminium, as they can negatively affect your sourdough.
A digital kitchen scale: An essential part of baking is the use of weight. The whole idea of using weight is mostly for its accuracy in comparison to using volume. In short, when someone measures a cup of flour, not only are there two different types of cups (Imperial and US Customary) but depending on who is measuring it, each cup will weigh differently. Digital kitchen scales are relatively inexpensive and easily accessible; they can be purchased at any home grocery store or even Amazon. These small gadgets will greatly increase your sanity in the kitchen from having to wash all those cup measures!
Easy, right? Three pieces of equipment, its gotta be simple. You’re correct on that - its as simple as two ingredients as well!
Untreated whole grain flour: The important part of sourdough is the flour. Because we are calling upon the natural yeasts and bacteria that live on the outside of the grain, whole grain flour is important here. Without the bran (the outer shell of the grain), we won’t get those fungi (yeast) or bacteria that we need! It is important to also look for unbleached and untreated flours, as bleaching the flour can cause the same fungi and bacteria to die. I prefer to use Bulk Barn’s Stoneground Dark Rye - it is a great traditional grain with amazing results every time!
Untreated water: Again, for the same reason why we don’t want bleach in our flour, we don’t want chlorine or chloramine, two very popular disinfectants used in water. Though the City of Ottawa does use both in their water treatment process, I have never had a problem with this, but I can’t speak for everyone on this! Your best bet is to use filtered spring water.
I’ve got the equipment and the ingredients, now what?
It will take a few days to create a perfect environment for sourdough, which is essentially a culture of bacteria and fungi. Hence, I have split the process into a multi-day process. Each day should be separated by an exact difference of 24 hours, and a half-day by 12 hours.
Day 1: Clean your glass jar thoroughly to ensure it is completely clean. Place your jar on your scale and press the tare button to bring the reading back to 0.00 grams. Into your jar, scoop in 50 grams of your flour and pour in 75 grams of water. Mix the two together and tap the bottom of the jar so that there are no air bubbles in your mix. Lightly cover the jar and let it sit out at room temperature.
Day 2: By now, you should be seeing some activity, there will be a few bubbles in the dough itself and it may start to smell a bit. Let it keep doing its thing and come back tomorrow!
Day 3: There should be a significant amount of bubbles in the dough by now and the smell should start to smell light of dirty socks and vomit (sounds absolutely appetising doesn’t it?). Take out your scale and tare the jar. You’ll add in 25 grams of flour and 30 grams of water. Mix this all together and loosely fit the lid back on. Place it back where it was and we’ll leave it alone until tomorrow.
Days 4 to 7: Each day you will “discard” a portion of your sourdough. You could gift these discards to others to be able to create their own sourdoughs if that is something you would like to do - they can pick it up right from this point. Your sourdough will probably continue to smell like dirty socks as the lactobacilli and yeast slowly try to fight off the bad bacteria that was on the grain. Each day, take the sourdough and remove the total mass of the feed from the day before (in this case, 55 grams). You’ll feed your starter the same feed as yesterday, 25 grams of flour and 30 grams of water. Continue this each day until you reach Day 7.
By this point, you can see that the sourdough is going through cycles of rising and deflating. This is good and healthy, it shows that you have active yeast in your sourdough culture! If that this point you are not seeing the rising, you may want to consider either going back to a day 3 feed or restarting.
When your sourdough is at its highest point, the peak, that’s when there is the most yeast activity, it's perfect for breadmaking, well not yet. This is what we call the mature state. It is full of air, light, fluffy, and it passes what we call the float test. If you can take a spoonful of your sourdough and drop it onto a bowl of cold water and it floats, it is ready to make bread! Personally, I would wait until Day 14 to make bread, and instead, use the discards to make other fun things like sourdough pancakes or biscuits - but that is up to you!
From Day 7, the culture is now strong enough to be put in the fridge, to slow the fermentation process, so you can begin feeding the sourdough less often. It is important to watch the growth status of your sourdough. When you can see that your sourdough has reached its peak and is beginning to deflate (take a look at the photo below), that means that it is ready for a discard and feed. When you are ready to feed your sourdough, you’ll continue with the same Day 7 feed as above.
Soooo how do I make bread?
First, let’s make sure that your sourdough is in good health and has reached all of the important milestones we talked about before we can make bread. It is important to know and understand how to take care of your sourdough before we make bread. Chances are that your sourdough will outlive you, some go for over a century before they die!
I’ll see you back here in two weeks with my favourite recipe for a country loaf using my sourdough starter!
Corsetti, A., & Settanni, L. (2007). Lactobacilli in sourdough fermentation. Food Research International, 40(5), 539-558. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.foodres.2006.11.001
Lindsey, R. (1972, September 12). A tiny 'bug' gives San Francisco sourdough its special taste. New York Times, p. 50. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/1972/09/12/archives/a-tiny-bug-gives-san-francisco-sourdough-its-special-taste.html?fbclid=IwAR06oHL9hurBkIj-mqsqaqBrv36xB2EI0WTZjbSfjWyF3admaNqqiJsVs3k
Poutanen, K., Flander, L., & Katina, K. (2009). Sourdough and cereal fermentation in a nutritional perspective. Food Microbiology, 26(7), 693-699. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.fm.2009.07.011
Robuchon, J., & Montagné, P. (2009). Larousse gastronomique: The world's greatest culinary encyclopedia. New York: Clarkson Potter/Publishers.
Rogers, K. (2010, January 29). Sourdough bread: A delicious mix of harmonious microbes. Retrieved from http://blogs.britannica.com/2010/01/sourdough-bread-a-delicious-mix-of-harmonious-microbes/