Sourdough 101 – About Sourdough Starters

I’ve been avoiding writing this Sourdough series for a while.

Not because I don’t want to show you, but because I want to show you correctly. I want to walk you through the process every step of the way. I want to build a starter with you, so you can see that it does happen in real life. The problem is, I just haven’t had the time. With school and work and trying to keep up with friends, things get pushed to the side!

But, I feel that it’s time. So let’s make some sourdough.

This is my current sourdough starter. He’s about 6 months old, and extremely flavorful for such a young guy! My boyfriend says that it makes the best sourdough bread he’s ever had, hands down. It took a few weeks for him to get going, but one day I made a loaf and WOW! Flavor explosion. But instead of using him as an example, I’m going to make a new one to show you guys how. And maybe, if anybody is interested, I’ll give it away when I’m done!

What is a Sourdough Starter?

A sourdough starter is a culture of yeast and bacteria that you grow on a water and flour medium. That sounds technical. Basically, it’s a living thing that you can add to your breads for natural leavening (as opposed to commercial yeast) and a fermented, or “sour,” flavor.

Sourdough, or wild yeast, starters are grown using just flour and water (or sometimes pineapple or orange juice to keep away bad bacteria, as we will use here). There is no commercial yeast added to “get it going.” This will hinder the growth of a really good starter.

Wait. Isn’t yeast, yeast?? Unfortunately, no. The yeast you buy in the store to make your loaves is a different strain of yeast, whose name I won’t burden you with. It is grown specifically to leaven bread. The yeast used in sourdough cultures and breads is a naturally occurring organism found everywhere. It is on your clothes, in your hair, in your food… and it tends to have high concentrations in your flour. Except the bleached stuff. Much lower concentrations there.

The trick with this wild yeast is capturing it and convincing it to grow in large amounts in a small area, i.e. in your new starter. This isn’t very hard to do at all – in fact, it is very easy. The most difficult part is being patient and not giving up. It might seem like the starter doesn’t do anything for the first week, but all the sudden it awakens!

This is due to a phenomenon called exponential growth. Say you have an initial yeast population of 4. If those divide once, you have 8. If those divide again, you have 16. Then 32, then 64, then 128, 256, 512, 1024, 2048, 4096, and soon you have millions! The problem is, you don’t see the yeast activity until you have huge numbers of them in your culture. Growing this many can take a up to 14 days depending on the conditions, so be patient. Just because you don’t see them doesn’t mean they are not there.

That being said, there are some bad bacteria that can find their way into the culture and kill the little yeasties. We’ll use orange juice in our starter to try and ward off these guys. If you’re worried that the flour you are using is contaminating your starter, try buying a new bag, possibly of a different brand. The flour you are using might be contaminated.

So what’s the process?

As I said, growing your starter is very easy. All you need to do is feed it (add some flour and water) once a day, and stir it twice a day. Ideally, you’ll want to feed it by weight, but I’ll include volume measurements here for those of you who haven’t yet invested in a scale (do it!!!). After a couple days, you’ll notice that your starter will start to rise a bit. If you’re using a glass or see-through plastic container, you’ll be able to see little air bubbles forming along the walls of the container. Soon, your starter will only take a few hours to double, and it will be active enough to use, kind of like this:

I had only fed him (I guess it’s a he?) about 2 hours before hand, so he’s just getting going. Also, this isn’t really where he lives, it just looks a lot better than this:

which is his real home. Their containers can get kind of yucky, but you’ll get tired of trying to clean it. It’s like the dirty roommate – you don’t care how tidy they are as long as it stays in their room.

We’ll make our starters tomorrow. All you need is some coarse rye flour, unbleached & unenriched bread flour, pineapple or orange juice, and water. You can make it with just the bread flour (still unbleached and unenriched) and water, but rye flour is a good kick-starter (ha. ha.) and the juice helps keep bad bacteria out.

Have a good Friday, and get ready to capture those wild yeast!

Follow-Up Posts

Building Your Starter – Day 1
Building Your Starter – Day 2 – coming soon!

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2 thoughts on “Sourdough 101 – About Sourdough Starters

  1. Pingback: Building Your Starter – Day 1 | Ovenmitts

  2. Pingback: Building Your Starter – Day 2 | Ovenmitts

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