I’ve been wanting to write a post about sourdough starter FOREVER. Or at least since I started my blog.
It’s taken me this long because I knew it would be full of info and I really wanted to do justice to sourdough. Baking with sourdough starter is my greatest culinary passion. And I promise promise promise it’s not complicated if you don’t want it to be. Truly. Like the title says, I do sourdough in a very uncomplicated (read: lazy) way. No special equipment, no weird ingredients, no proofing my loaves at varying temperatures to make my sourdough more sour.
Be warned: once you get into baking with sourdough there’s no turning back. After you make your first loaf, trust me, you’ll be obsessed. You’ll spend hours racking your brain for new ways to use it. Sourdough cinnamon rolls? (Don’t worry, I’ve got you covered there. Recipe coming.) Sourdough English muffins. Sourdough added to your go-to Sunday-morning pancake recipe. Sourdough scones? Is that even possible? My grandma made (gross) sourdough biscotti once so possibly.
But before we get to my all-time, most-very-favorite sourdough bread recipe let’s cover the basics.
First, what the heck is sourdough starter?
AKA the mother, the sponge, the leaven, and many other names, starter is a fermented mixture of flour and water. That’s it. For reasons I don’t fully understand (because science isn’t my thing) sourdough starter contains wild yeast; because of this many sourdough breads do not use other leavening agents. I keep mine in my fridge and feed it once a month or so. More on that later.
How do you get a sourdough starter?
The easiest way is to ask a friend who already has one to share with you. This process involves feeding the starter, then giving you the excess. It’s super simple and I’ve given dozens of people starter over the years. If you aren’t lucky enough to know any sourdough bakers you can very easily make your own.
Follow these instructions from the kitchn; I made a starter using exactly this method and it turned out wonderfully. I had to add a pinch of yeast on the fourth day and it’s so active at this point that I can’t tell the difference between the one I made and the one I had before. (See those loaves up at the top of the page? One is made with my original starter and one is made with the starter I made following this method. No difference in taste or appearance, except that the one on the RIGHT is a slightly different color because I used whole wheat flour to make the starter.)
What does it mean to feed a starter?
Having sourdough starter is a little like having a pet. It needs to be fed regularly—my grandmother fed hers a minimum of once every two weeks. Being lazy, I feed mine about once every four weeks and it has survived. If you’re going to be out of town for more than a few weeks and can’t take your starter with you I recommend a babysitter. No joke. Have someone feed your starter or it will die.
I keep my sourdough starter in a small Tupperware container in the fridge. When I want to feed it I remove it from the fridge, dump it into a non-reactive mixing bowl (I use plastic), then add half a cup of all-purpose flour and half a cup of lukewarm water (or milk, or sour milk, or buttermilk), and then mix it until no lumps of flour remain. I let it sit at room temperature on the counter overnight. In the morning I stir it well, then discard about half and place the remainder in the fridge. And it’s fed and you can forget about it until next month.
If I want to bake with the starter (as opposed to just feeding it so it doesn’t die) I use the same process as above but instead of using a half cup of flour and a half cup of liquid, I use the amount the recipe calls for. So if the recipe calls for one cup of starter, I would use one cup of flour and one cup of liquid.
The above photograph is starter just out of the refrigerator. It’s very thick.
And this is healthy sourdough starter the morning after it’s been fed. It’s much looser when you stir it. It also smells very sour (especially if you fed it with milk instead of water. Then it smells kind of gross but the starter seems to like that once in a while.) See those teeny tiny bubbles in the top? That means your starter is healthy and ready to be used.
I have never, ever weighed the flour or water, nor have I ever weighed the starter to determine how much flour and water to add. Many books and web sites recommend weighing but for me that’s more work than I care to put into the process. I inherited my grandmother’s 100-year-old starter when she died and I have yet to kill it using my method, which not coincidentally is the method I learned from her.
This is tons of information and I really hope your eyes aren’t glazed over at this point; once you get used to the process it’s not intimidating at all. I’m sure I left out lots of important things you want/need to know so if you have any questions FEEL FREE to leave me a comment or send me an email. I’m not an expert but I will happily answer. I really, really want you guys to catch the sourdough bug so we can have fun baking bread together!
If you get really into sourdough and want to learn more I highly recommend the book Classic Sourdoughs. The writers include tons of information on perfecting your technique, and I really hope neither of them ever reads this post because I’m sure the way I do things would make them cringe. But hey, it works for me!
Now please, go forth and bake bread! Below you’ll find the most amazing sourdough bread recipe from the wonderful book The Bread Bible. It’s simple, divine slathered with butter, and the perfect way to start your sourdough baking.
- 3/4 cup warm water
- 1 1/2 teaspoons active dry yeast
- 1 1/2 teaspoons granulated sugar
- 1/2 cup sourdough starter
- 4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
- 1 1/2 teaspoons salt
- 2 3/4 to 3 cups all-purpose flour
- Pour 1/4 cup of the water in a small bowl. Sprinkle yeast and a pinch of the sugar over the top of the water and mix. Let stand at room temperature until foamy, about 10 minutes.
- In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment combine the starter, remaining water, sugar, butter, salt, and 1 1/2 cups of the flour.* Beat on low until smooth, 1 to 2 minutes. Add the yeast mixture and beat 1 minute more. Add remaining flour 1/2 cup at a time until it forms a soft dough that just clears the sides of the bowl.
- Turn out the dough onto a lightly floured surface and knead until smooth and elastic, just a couple of minutes. Dust with just enough flour to keep dough from sticking.
- Spray a large mixing bowl with cooking spray and place dough inside, turning dough a few times to coat with the spray. Loosely cover the bowl with plastic wrap or a dish towel and allow to rise at room temperature until doubled in size, 60 to 90 minutes.
- Lightly spray a 9- x 5-inch loaf pan with cooking spray. Gently deflate the dough and shape into a rectangle. Place in the pan, then cover loosely with plastic wrap. Allow to rise until doubled in bulk and the dough has risen over the edge of the pan, about 1 hour.
- Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Bake in the center of the oven for 35 to 40 minutes, until the top is golden brown and the loaf sounds hollow when tapped gently on top. Transfer to a wire rack to cool before serving.
- *You can do this by hand, too, but you’ll have to knead the dough longer.