Before we even start, if you’ve already tried this recipe and are having trouble getting your sourdough starter to the “very-active” stage, or if your loaves aren’t rising well, or if they’re too dense, you can skip to the Troubleshooting tips below… scroll waaaay down. If you’re new to this page, start right here:
Here’s a great method for and easy sourdough starter from Chapter 11 of The New Healthy Bread in Five Minutes a Day. (The recipe also appears in Chapter 12 of The Best of Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day) You can create a sourdough starter (in French, levain); without fear and without dedicating your whole day to the project. It only takes a few minutes a day to get starter up and running. It takes a while to get your starter strong enough to actually use in a batch of bread, but until it is ready to go, you can always bake any of the other yeast-based recipes in the books, or from the Master yeast-based method.
Sourdough starter just needs flour, water and a container to keep it in. Nothing special or fancy. Just make sure the container can hold at least two quarts of starter. You’ll see some Baking Bloopers below of what happens if your container is too small (or if you seal a glass container. Spoiler alert: don’t).
Once you have created your starter you can use it to bake beautiful loaves, with or without added yeast. The flavor is incredible and you will still be making a large batch of dough and storing it for up to a week, so you will do the work on one day for many loaves.
To make the starter:
Day 1: In a clean Jar or container* add 1/2 cup flour (unbleached white, whole wheat, rye, brown rice) and 1/2 cup water. That’s it.
*the jar needs to be big enough to hold 2 quarts and it needs to be open to the air, since you want to gather the natural yeasts from the flour and the environment. If you seal your jar, you won’t collect the yeast and/or the jar may actually explode. Yes, I said explode, see picture at the bottom of the post.
Stir the flour and water. Let this mixture sit for 2 days on the counter at room temperature.
Day 3: You should see bubbles forming in the starter. That’s the sign you are off to a great start. If you don’t see any bubbles on day 3, leave it for another day.
If you have bubbles, add 1/2 cup flour (you don’t have to stick to the same kind you used on the first day I like to make mine with a combination of whole wheat, rye and white flour) and 1/2 cup water. Str together and let sit for one day.
Day 4, 5, 6: Add 1/2 cup flour and water to the jar and stir on each of these days to build the strength of your starter. Let sit at room temperature after stirring.
By the 6th day your starter should seem mildly bubbly and it will have a pleasant sour smell building up. Add more flour and water so you have at least 3 1/2 cups of starter to use in a batch of dough.
Day 7: Once it is nice and strong, the starter will be actively bubbling and puffy.
If your container isn’t big enough, the starter may try to escape. You’ll notice I never snap the jar shut.
The starter’s ready to use in any of the recipes. After incorporating starter into a recipe (keep scrolling down), you’ll need to store what remains. If you’re using it soon, it’ll be good in the fridge for a few days, but if you won’t be baking for a while, try drying-out starter: Mix in as much flour as you can get it to absorb, and refrigerate in a non-airtight container. This will preserve the starter without the need for feeding. Re-activate within a month for new loaves, or the starter will die out. You can also freeze a starter, either dried-out or not, for up to a month or so, but you’ll have to bring it back to life by feeding it again for a few cycles. Reactivating dried-out starter: Defrost and scoop starter out of its storage container into a larger one, and work in water until it’s a very loose pancake batter. Then add back new flour until it’s the consistency of a thick pancake batter. That’s your first feeding cycle; continue until active.
Here is a basic rule to using sourdough in your recipes, but for WAY more information and specific recipes check out chapter 11 of The New Healthy Bread in Five Minutes a Day. You will also find information about how to store your sourdough long term and how to reactivate it if you haven’t used it in many months.
To bake with your starter: Use about 3 cups of the activated sourdough starter for a full-batch of dough, which make 4 to 5 pounds of dough. This means that you need to decrease the water in the recipes by 1 1/2 cups, and the flour by 1 1/2 cups. Adjust the water and flour to create a dough that looks and feels just like what you get with the yeast-based recipes. Depending on the strength of your sourdough starter it may take 2-12 hours for your dough to rise. This slow rise is part of the beauty of a natural lavain bread.
If you want to use your sourdough in combination with commercial yeast, you can use half as much starter (replacing just 3/4 cup flour and 3/4 cup water). Some people like the lighter sour flavor and it gives beginner bakers a sense of insurance to add the yeast.
This why you never want to use a screw top glass jar for your starter. If you have a really large glass jar that will fit the dough, be sure to poke a hole in the top of the lid so the gas from the yeast can escape.
Troubleshooting tips: If your starter is stalled and it isn’t getting to the very active stage seen in the Day 7 pictures above, or if your loaves aren’t rising well, or if they’re too dense:
- Manage your expectations: Your first loaf should give you the nice, open hole structure of sourdough bread. But if you store the dough, it won’t yield an “open” crumb. You’ll get smaller, more uniform holes, but sourdough flavor will still be there (and will intensify over the storage life of the batch).
- Increase the temperature: getting a starter to look like the Day 7 pictures requires a warm environment, and in cool weather, or anytime at all, you may have better results by storing the developing starter in a oven with the heat off, but with the oven light on. Many people have better results in the summer for this reason, but the problem of course… is that everyone likes to bake bread in the cool seasons!
- Be patient! Depending on local conditions (especially cool/cold kitchen temperatures), initial activation could require fourteen days of feeding, rather than seven. Most often, the process slows down around Day 4 or 5, so don’t give up—keep feeding throughout those days. That said, if you do give up, the discarded levain-attempt can be incorporated into yeasted batches. If at any stage dark liquid collects on top, don’t worry about it. Just mix this in as you feed/expand your starter.
- Feed/expand twice-a-day rather than once: You’ll be giving the growing micro-organism colony more food to eat.
- Transfer to a clean jar for every feeding: Contamination with poorly-rising microorganisms could be the culprit in a slow-to-expand starter.
- Whole-grain flours get started more easily, because the beneficial micro-organisms are more plentiful in the external coat of the grain-seed. That means whole wheat or rye flour (US rye flours are mostly whole-grain flour). If you’re making white-flour recipes, you can always switch out the “feeding” flour once it gets started and is vigorously fermenting.
- Consider using filtered or bottled water: If your local water supply is high in chlorine, that can inhibit wild yeast growth. Alternative: let your tap water sit overnight in an open container, which dissipates the chlorine.
- If you’re bread isn’t rising well, it may be that your starter isn’t quite active enough before use. One fail-safe way to test for this is to take a spoonful of starter and drop it into water. Really “gassy” starter, with lots of bubbles, will float on the surface. If it doesn’t float, keep feeding for a few more days, and be patient.
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