How to Make a Sourdough Starter
A sourdough is defined as “a prospector or settler in the western United States or Canada, especially one living alone: so called because their staple was sourdough bread” (Webster’s). Sourdough, the food, is a fermented dough made of wild yeast and a traditional pioneer food of mining camps, chuck wagons, and for those living on the trail. It was known as the best food for energy because of its protein content—according to experts, laboratory tests have shown sourdough contains the greatest amount of protein for its weight and size of any comparable food.
Sourdough was common in pioneer days because yeast was extremely hard to come by, and when it was available, it was almost always “dead” from exposure to extreme conditions. Dead yeast resulted in baking failures, which was a grievous waste of supplies. Sourdough became the standard because it could be controlled and kept alive and was always dependable.
Developing a sourdough culture involves attracting wild yeast from the environment and bacteria that will coexist with it; wild yeast provides the leavening, and bacteria provides the “sourdough” flavor.
The best way to get started with sourdough is to acquire a small quantity from an active pot and then begin feeding it to increase the volume. Ask fellow homesteaders if they’d be willing to give you some of their starter. If not, just make your own.
Many complicated starter recipes have been published in books and magazines over the years, but the simplest technique for making starter is to mix together some fresh organic flour with some spring water (avoid chlorinated water, which can kill the microorganisms you’re trying to encourage), and set in a warm place for a few days. If you feed it organic freshly ground flour and good water and keep it at a steady temperature, you’ll develop a stable society of microorganisms that will get along quite well.
You’ll need a glass jar or nonmetal mixing bowl to start your culture. Wash it well before you begin, so you don’t give any undesirable bacteria a head start. Mix 1 cup organic, unbleached all-purpose flour with ¾ cup water, then cover the bowl lightly with cheesecloth and set it in a place where the temperature will remain warm and constant. Stir the mixture occasionally and check it after 24 to 48 hours. When you see small bubbles beginning to form, start adding equal amounts of flour and water (begin with ¼ cup) once a day for the next 2 days, until the culture becomes very bubbly, possibly even foamy. (If nothing happens, it’s probably best to throw the whole mix in the compost bin and begin again.)
Once the starter becomes active, the microbes will get hungry more quickly. Remove 1 cup of the culture (discard the remainder) and feed it 1 cup of flour and about ¾ cup of water every 12 hours for the next 3 days. By week’s end you should have a bubbly, active starter that will become even more lively and flavorful as you use it over the next few weeks.
You can store your starter in the refrigerator for weeks, even months, between baking. Each time you bake, remember to reserve a cup of the starter and feed it 1 cup of flour and 1 cup of water. Pour this mixture into a wide-mouthed jar or crock, then cover loosely with cheesecloth fastened with a rubber band to permit some air exchange. Allow the mixture to rest for a couple of hours before putting it back in the refrigerator to give the microbes a chance to work on the fresh flour. At some point, a light-brown liquid (called hooch) may form on top. This is a normal development in a healthy culture. Just stir it back into the mixture.
Feeding sourdough is more of an art than a science. You really must use your baking intuition and your sense of smell and make sure to feed it often enough to keep it bubbling and fermenting; but not too often so that you end up with an unusable quantity, having wasted cups and cups of flour. If your pot is becoming too full and you won’t be using your sourdough for a few days, toss half of it out, and feed it small doses of flour to increase its volume gradually.
Whatever the case, it’s a good idea to stir it every day to aerate, regardless of whether you’re feeding it or not. Always stir with a wooden spoon or rubber spatula— never metal. Metal causes an undesirable chemical reaction with the sourdough.
Excerpted from Bread by Mother Earth News: Our Favorite Recipes for Artisan Breads, Quick Breads, Buns, Rolls, Flatbreads, and More. By Mother Earth News. Edited by Karen K. Will. Voyageur Press, 2015.