My Sourdough Journey…Just Started! January 7, 2010

Filed under: Tip of the Day — sotsil @ 9:22 pm
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In the last days of December,  I nervously took the plunge into making a starter for sourdough bread.  My eyes must have gone ballistic because I crawled into many bread blogs and discussion forums looking for information on how to make a healthy starter.  You see, I have never made sourdough bread before.  It’s a different universe to the one I’ve grown accustomed to; that is, baking sweet rolls, loaves and yeast breads. 

Luck was on my side.  I finally got around to making my starter – by the 24th of December it was bubbly, frothy, alive and kicking!

starter ready

As soon as I saw those bubbles and that frothy-smoothie appearance, I was ecstatic.  For my first attempt, it wasn’t bad.  I had read people’s comments about their starter dying.

Just for the record:  I am not a sourdough expert.  I have not made a single sourdough loaf…yet.  One of my New Year’s resolutions is to keep hammering away at the art and technique of sourdoughs because I know it’s going to be an arduous, steep climb.  And since I’m not an expert with no sourdough “portfolio”, I can’t advice you on how to make a sourdough starter. 

But this much I can do.  I’ll share what I’ve learned so far.  When I started out, I was in the TFL (The Fresh Loaf) sourdough forums like an overstaying visitor.  The problem with forums is that everyone has an opinion, so the more I read the posts, the more I was confused.  Then I hopped from one blog to the next, taking down notes and comparing the techniques.

I came to a saturation point.  I told myself, “if I continue at this pace and search and search, I’ll never start a starter.”  The fear that an important bit of knowledge is missing can hold you back.  If you feel compelled to read more than necessary, you’ll never get started.  Remember that saying about how over-analysis leads to paralysis?

I finally had to apply the brakes on my sourdough research.  “That’s enough”, I said to myself.  “Just do it.  Have a back-up plan, just in case.”

First, I decided that I would follow the tutorial posted by a member – Gaarp – on the Fresh Loaf.  Here is that tutorial:

Second, if Gaarp’s tutorial took me nowhere, my back-up plan was Peter Reinhart’s pineapple juice solution (pages 227-230 of Bread Baker’s Apprentice).

If Reinhart’s method fails, I was going to use the grape method by Nancy Silverton, and then again if that didn’t work, I would introduce a pinch of commercial yeast to help jump start the culture.  Read in between the lines:  there are as many ways to make a starter as there are sourdough loaves in the planet!  There was even one advice that said put the starter on the window sill so it catches the wild yeast.  I think I’ll pass on that one.  I read that the yeast is actually in the flour, not in the air.  But I could be wrong.

Guess what folks?  No back-up plan was needed.  Gaarp’s tutorial was very good.  The only thing he did not mention – and which he should have – is that the starter has to be stirred twice or thrice a day.  This allows the yeast to be aerated and to spread the oxygen around.

Like I said, I’m not an expert on sourdough, but here are a few pointers:

  • use organic rye flour (the experts say there’s more wild yeast in rye flour) and natural spring water.  Lately though I’ve been feeding it with water from the tap and it’s fine and dandy.  Some say that if you can drink your tap water, so can yeast.  I started with 1/4 cup rye flour and 1/4 cup spring water.
  • leave your starter on the counter covered lightly with plastic or with cheese cloth.  Stir it 2-3x a day.
  • feed your starter twice a day up to the point when it begins to double in volume.  You can decrease the number of times you feed it to once daily or every 48 hours.
  • on subsequent feedings, you can use bread flour, wheat flour or unbleached all purpose flour (rye flour is used only when you’re starting a starter).
  • you can’t ever kill a starter, as long as you don’t douse it with kerosene or expose it to high heat.
  • the way to revive a starter is to feed it regularly.  Consider it like a newborn.
  • when your starter has become bubbly and frothy, this means it’s ready.  If you’re not planning on using it, cover it and leave it in the fridge.  Feed it once a week.

There’s so much advice on the Net.  Go with your instincts.  Don’t be afraid if your starter looks dead.  Don’t be afraid if it looks like the moon’s crater – that is, with a brown crust, a “knock-em-dead” smell and some hooch.  Hooch is a liquid that resembles old stale beer.  This was what my starter looked like on day 3 and I almost gave up:

 starting starter

Again, don’t worry.  When feeding time comes, discard half the mixture, and feed it with 1/4 cup bread flour and 1/4 cup water.  I know it seems wasteful, but the reason for throwing half the mixture away is so that the starter does not escape from the container and flood your kitchen.  I read one post saying that if you don’t do that, you’ll have a starter the size of your swimming pool in a few days!

Elements like temperature, container, flour and water will determine how difficult the starter process can be.  The idea is not to despair.  It will take anywhere from 5 days to 2 weeks for your starter to look like mine above.  Aim for a bubbly and frothy mixture.  Oh, don’t forget, it should also rise and double, even triple in volume.

Last advice:  instead of taking my word for it, why don’t you drop by this web site Play the video.  He  explains and demonstrates the steps effectively, bearing in mind the KIS principle (keep it simple).

As soon as I get around to making my first sourdough loaf, I’ll post it!