John here. I'll be posting here from time to time, and might eventually even get my own byline, as soon as we figure out how to use Wordpress better. No promises, though. You'll probably learn a little more about me in the near future.
Anyway, on to the topic at hand: bread.
I love bread.
It’s arguably one of the most important prepared foods in human history, and one of the oldest, dating back tens of thousands of years. It’s such an integral part of our culture that we don’t even think about it. Perhaps because of its ubiquity, it’s also one of the most derided foods – often used as shorthand for a bland, meager diet meant to keep someone alive, and do nothing else (“bread and water”).
I guess bread would get boring if you had nothing else to eat, but, if you’re reading this, you’re probably fortunate enough to be able to choose what you eat on a daily basis – a luxury much of the world doesn’t enjoy – and don’t have to worry about such things. And considering the seemingly-endless variety of breads that can be made with the same few ingredients, boredom should not be an issue.
Bread is a food that epitomizes “greater than the sum of its parts.” In its most basic form, it’s made with flour, water, and salt. But combine those things in just the right way, and you’ve got one of life’s great, simple pleasures. Most types of bread today are leavened with commercially-produced yeast, which makes it rise quickly. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with bread made with commercial yeast, but it’s not the only way to do things. Given a little bit of time and care, the critters that live in the air around you, and on the flour in your pantry, will do a perfectly good job leavening as much bread as you’d ever need to make, and they’ll impart a flavor that can’t be replicated.
And that brings me to the actual topic at hand: sourdough bread. Throughout the vast majority of human history, if you wanted leavened bread, this was how you did it. It takes some time, and ends up producing something that you have to care for indefinitely (and it’s not nearly as cute or fun as a puppy). But the bread you can make. Let’s just say that, once you get the hang of it, it’s well worth the effort.
Sourdough starter involves cultivating the yeast and bacteria that naturally occur on wheat grains, and continue to live, in a dormant state, in most types of flour. By continuously adding flour and water to the starter (and removing excess starter to prevent the size from becoming unmanageable), you ensure that they have a constant food source. Sourdough gets its sour flavor thanks to the presence of bacteria called “lactobacillus.” They grow alongside the yeast, and produce lactic acid as a byproduct of the bacteria’s metabolism of sugar.
When I first decided I would make a sourdough starter, I spent a lot of time looking around the Internet for the “right” way to do it. As it turns out, there are a lot of different ways to make a starter. Some (and the one I ended up using) involve only flour and water. Others call for yogurt, commercial yeast, or grapes. And everybody seemed to swear by their particular method of making a starter, and woe unto anyone who used another method. It was a little paralyzing. But having made a few starters now, I’m sure that almost all of the methods I considered would have worked fine. After all, people have been making bread this way for thousands of years, and do you think the preferred method of Caveman A was identical to that of Caveman B? Doubtful. What I can say about this method is that it has always worked fine for me. I’ve been keeping the same starter for about 2 years now.
One thing I will say is that there’s no need to add commercial yeast to your starter, and doing so would defeat the whole purpose of this exercise.
And now, finally, the instructions. You will need:
- Organic whole wheat flour
- Unbleached all-purpose flour
- A non-reactive container that can easily be covered with a lid that does not lock. No jars with screw-on lids or other tightly-sealing containers. Unless these are vented every few hours, the buildup of gas will cause them to explode, at the very least making a terrible mess, and possibly causing serious injury or property damage. (Sorry. I’m a lawyer, and sometimes I can’t help myself.)
In your container, combine ¼ cup of the whole wheat flour, with slightly less water. Knead it until it forms a thick paste. Allow it to sit, uncovered, for 12 hours. At this point, it might not look much different than it did 12 hours earlier. It might smell kind of funky – this is a good thing, even if it smells terrible. It’s a sign of life.
Add another ¼ cup of wheat flour, and the same amount of water. Knead it into the dough that’s been sitting out. Let it sit for another 12 hours. You now have about ½ cup of dough. You want to double it again, so add ½ cup of wheat flour, and enough water to maintain the same consistency. Knead it together, and let it sit for 12 hours. Adding flour and water to the starter is called “feeding.” Think of it as a pet. You can give it a name, if you really want to.
Continue to double the size of the starter every 12 hours until you’ve got about 4 cups of starter. You still want to double the amount of starter every feeding. But if you keep this up, it won’t be too long before you’ve got enough starter to fill a swimming pool. And then doubling it will require another swimming pool full of starter. This obviously isn’t practical.
So, when you’ve got a good amount of starter (as I said, about 4 cups), you want to remove and discard (or use) half of it, and then replenish it with the same amount.
After 4 or 5 days, the starter should not stink. If it still does, start over. It should, however, have a very strong sour smell, and it should be pretty bubbly. At this point, you can switch to all-purpose flour. As you might have guessed, you should start with organic whole wheat flour because it’s crawling with the bugs that you want to cultivate. Once a good population is established, you can switch to regular flour. Using the same amount of all-purpose flour will result in a thinner starter. This is fine. You can adjust the proportions of flour and water in your starter to make it thicker or thinner, but I generally keep mine about the consistency of a thick pancake batter.
Within a few hours of each feeding, your starter should reliably become bubbly and foamy. If you keep your starter out at room temperature, you should probably feed it every day. But you can get away with going a few days without feeding it.
I keep mine in the refrigerator, and have gone over a month without feeding it. After bringing it up to room temperature, and feeding it once or twice, it was completely fine, as if nothing had ever happened. So, while you do have to take care of a starter, it has an extremely high tolerance for neglect. You can even freeze it for long-term storage. Just let it thaw at room temperature, and feed it a couple times.