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Sourdough Starter of Yer Very Own

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Why I Love This Recipe

OK, you can laugh all you like: My first memory of sourdough bread is "The San Francisco Sandwich" that the Hardee's fast food chain ran for a while back in the 90's. Now, we can stand here and debate the relative authenticity and perhaps dubious quality of sourdough bread served at a fast food chain until the cows come home. Whether it was truly the "Authentic Taste of San Francisco Sourdough" or addictive chemicals added to the dough, I was hooked.

My friends, the truth is that sourdough is really, truly, verily not as scary as it sounds. No expensive 'starter' powders from foofy baking companies. No secret ingredients only available on the baker's black market. You don't need anything fancier than a tupperware container, flour, water, and a pinch of yeast to get it going. It's even easier if you can beg a cup of starter off a friend (or steal a cup from a fancy French bakery, hee hee hee).

If you feel like making it from scratch, here's how:

Ingredients You'll Need

Day 1:
¾ c. plus 2 tablespoons (4 oz) all-purpose, white flour
½ c. (4 oz) water (filtered is best)
a pinch moist or dry yeast
Day 2:
¾ c. plus 2 tablespoons (4 oz) all-purpose, white flour
½ c. (4 oz) water (filtered is best)
Day 3:
¾ c. plus 2 tablespoons (4 oz) all-purpose, white flour
½ c. (4 oz) water (filtered is best)
Day 4 and Beyond:
½ cup (4 oz) of water
¾ cup (4 oz) of flour


To create the most basic sourdough starter from scratch, you need a big container (at least 2 – 3 quarts) with a lid, flour, water, a little bit of yeast. I have found that regular, run of the mill, all-purpose, white flour works the best (I use King Arthur Flour). For a while, I kept a separate sourdough that was about half whole wheat and half white. It worked fine, but it got to be too much for a lil' home baker like me to maintain two sourdoughs starters. I’ve also seen other sourdough starter recipes that use various ingredients like milk, honey, buttermilk, molasses, salt, and even grapes (see note at end of post). All these ingredients will vary the flavor of the sourdough. I recommend starting with the basic sourdough and elaborating once you get the hang of it.

Day 1: Combine all ingredients and stir well to make a thick, soft dough. Do not add any more flour or water at this point. Scrape down the sides with a spatula, cover with a lid, and let stand at room temperature for 24 hours. Mark the side of the container at the level of the mixture with a dry-erase marker.

Day 2: The starter should have doubled in volume and have tiny bubbles in the surface. The initial bacteria cells from that pinch of yeast have been eagerly munching on the flour and reproducing like mad. Sugar and alcohol are byproducts of their reproduction (it's more technical than this, I'm sure, but that's another post).

Add new flour and water and stir vigorously to distribute all the ingredients and add fresh oxygen. Scrape down the sides, mark the level of the starter, and cover tightly for another 24 hours.

Day 3: The starter should now have the texture of thick batter, should have doubled in volume, and be quite bubbly. If you taste it, it will have a musty, sour flavor. It will smell of alcohol and vinegar. Mix in the fresh ingredients as with Day 2. Scrape down the sides, mark the level of the starter, and cover tightly for another 24 hours.

Day 4 and Beyond: Caring for your sourdough starter: Now your starter is ripe and ready to use. The best place to keep starter is in the fridge. The mixture will expand and contract a bit, but shouldn’t double. After a week, a clear or yellowy liquid may have formed on the surface and the starter should smell strongly of alcohol and vinegar. This is fine. If the liquid is tinted pink or smells ‘off’ then the starter has spoiled and you should throw it away and start fresh.

To nourish your starter, discard about one cup (8 oz) every week. Add in ½ cup (4 oz) of water and ¾ cup (4 oz) of flour. Mix well and store in the fridge.

TIPS: Filtered or spring water is best for starter. There are often hard minerals or chlorine in tap water that can kill or hinder the bacteria developing in the starter. On the other hand, potato water (water that you’ve used to boil potatoes) is excellent food for the bacteria and can be used in place of filtered water.

If you ever want to increase the amount of your starter, you can discard less or none of your starter. It’s most important to keep adding new 'food' every week.

If you want to decrease the amount of your starter or if you’ve noticed that the bread you’ve been making is getting really sour, you can discard all but ¼ cup (2 oz) of the starter. Add fresh ingredients and begin to build it up again.

Starter needs to be 'fed' about once a week, though I’ve gone as long as two weeks without having it spoil. If you go away for vacation, be sure to have ask a friend or neighbor to care for it along with the plants and pets! I’ve heard that you can freeze starter for up to several months, but I’ve never tried this myself. You can also keep sourdough on the counter, but it needs to be fed more often, which isn’t so practical for the home baker.

For this and other baking adventures, I highly recommend using an electric scale to accurately measure the ingredients.

NOTE: Keep in mind that the 'sour' flavor of your final dough is affected by lots of things including how long you've been maintaining the starter, how recently it was 'fed,' the manner in which you prepared the final dough, and even how fresh your final loaf is (I've noticed that my loaves will get more distinctly sour as the week goes on). Sourdough flavor also varies depending on your location. If you have a highly refined palate (oh, la la) and access to sourdough breads from a variety of regions, you might actually noticed distinct sourdough flavors in each loaf. I'll research an actual science lesson for another post, but the general principle is that the sourdough starter interacts with the wild yeast in the air where you live. Ipso facto, a true San Francisco sourdough can really only come from San Francisco. FYI, wild yeast is visible in one form as the film on grapes (which is why you might see some starter recipes using crushed grapes in the initial starter).

Questions, Comments & Reviews

excellent summary of sourdough starter-thanks for letting people know they shouldn't use tap water because of chlorine and other antibiotic chemicals. Since sourdough is definitely a probiotic product this is important. Too sour? can there be such a thing? lucas hess

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