It’s the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
A sourdough bread starter may be one of the most peculiar, yet (obviously) essential ingredients needed to make a loaf of beautiful, crusty sourdough bread. Creating and maintaining it is a task that should be taken on by patient people. The starter basically takes on the role of a pet because it constantly needs to be fed and looked after. If you are lucky enough, someone before you has passed their starter on to you, but if not, it’s also simple enough to develop one on your own with pantry staples. When you are ready to take on the challenge, here is what you need to know about making your first sourdough bread starter.
What is a sourdough bread starter?
A sourdough bread starter is a fermented mixture of flour and water that breeds naturally occuring bacteria and wild yeast. The starter acts as a leavening agent and also gives the bread its tangy flavor. The starter is the lifeline of the sourdough making process, and you must handle it with care.
How do you make one?
To make one, an equal parts ratio of all-purpose flour and water are mixed together in a large plastic or glass bowl to form a loose batter. The acidity produced by the starter can react with a metal bowls overtime, therefore, it’s best to avoid using them all together. The mixture needs to rest covered with plastic in a safe place in your kitchen around room temperature (about 70°F) for the first 24 hours. An open-air space where your starter won’t be in the way, such as the counter or the top of your refrigerator, is a good place to keep it. In this time, the wild yeast that freely exists in the air, finds a home in the mixture and begins to grow and feed off the sugars in the flour. Wild yeast, you say? Yep, capturing and cultivating the wild yeast is the reason why we need a starter in the first place. This method is the OG way to bake bread before fast-active, dry yeast was a thing.
Over the next few days, mother nature will do her magic, and the mixture will come alive, forming gases and bubbles as the yeast grows and releases carbon dioxide. You now have a precious bundle of joy that needs to be nurtured and fed. By feeding your starter everyday with a new batch of flour and water, the yeast stays alive and bubbling. If you are a person that suffers from commitment issues, abort mission now, because this project needs a lot of attention and dedicated interest.
Paige Grandjean, Time Inc. Food Studios recipe developer and tester, says she's had her starter for about a year now. “It’s definitely a lot of work. I had to find someone to take care of my starter when I was on vacation,” Grandjean says. “I have become obsessed to the point where I come into work on the weekends just to make bread.” Instead of using all-purpose flour, Grandjean prefers to use a mixture of bread flour and whole wheat for her starter. “It doesn’t really matter for the starter [to incorporate bread flour], but it does [affect the flavor of] the actual loaves of bread. It’s what helps develop the gluten and give the bread structure,” says Grandjean.
Her starter is a combination of 2 ounces bread flour, 2 ounces whole wheat flour, and 4 ounces water. After the first 3 to 4 days of, she removes the dark skin that has formed on the top and begins to feed her starter by stirring in a smaller ratio of 1 ounces bread flour, 1 ounces whole wheat flour, and 2 ounces water. To prevent the starter from physically growing over the size of its bowl, Grandjean discards nearly 80% of the batter after each feeding (i.e. this is the friend to make if you’re trying to snag some already-started starter for yourself). Day in and day out, Grandjean feeds her starter with the same flour and water combo. (Remember, if you get a pre-existing starter, you still have to continue to feed and maintain it.) Her starter is stored in the refrigerator, and she allows skipping only one day a week of feeding it, if things in her life get crazy. After about a month of feeding, your starter will finally be mature enough to use for baking your first your first sourdough loaf.
Not sure you’re ready to commit to starting a starter just yet? Ease your way into bread baking with a slightly more approachable project first, like Paige’s classic English muffins, focaccia dough, or our foolproof No-Knead Bread.