Sourdough Bread Starter –


Sourdough breads are a whole new level of baking. Some like it – I do. Some don’t. No less an authority than James Beard didn’t think much of the sourdoughs as a whole. However – since the only opinion that matters is your own taste buds – try it – you might just like it.

There are three ways to get into the whole sourdough thing:

  1. Grow your own from scratch. Basically just put a cup of water and a cup of four into a bowl, mix it up, cover with a towel and let it sit for one to four days and it should bubble and grow. Every day toss half, add a cup of flour and 1/2 cup of water.
  2. Get some from a friend who does sourdough baking. You will see why all sourdough people have the stuff to give away in a minute.
  3. Buy some from somewhere. The web is full of places that will sell you starter. If you like a really sour clang, you probably want some San Francisco stuff. If you like a mild, flavorful mix, King Arthur Flour’s website has a very nice New England starter that is 250 years old. Very tasty. However, no matter where your starter is from it will eventually become samey-samey as local starter grown from scratch as local yeast-beasts invade and multiply. You just about can’t keep it pure.

Regardless of how you get there, you will have to maintain the starter, since it is a living organism. Short version: Keep it in the refrigerator in a quart jar with the lid on loosely. Once a week, throw out or use about half of the mix, add flour and water 2 to 1. Usually 2 cups flour, 1 cup water. If you use one cup of starter, just add 1 cup flour and 1/2 cup water back to the base. I am usually using about half the starter to make a sponge, so there’s not a whole lot of waste. Anyway, once you get this whole cycle going, you will have plenty to share. Be sure to leave enough room in the jar for it to grow, and leave the lid loose enough to allow gas to escape.

If you look on the web, there are tons of places that discuss the growing, care and feeding of sourdough starter. Why go with this rather irritating process? Simple – flavor. There’s a ton more flavor in a starter driven bread than in any yeast packet I know of.

Using the stuff. Most sourdough recipes will be three stage jobbies. Starter, sponge, dough = bread. And several rises. Sourdough doesn’t rise as enthusiastically as commercial baker’s yeast – you know – the stuff in the packs or jars. Therefore you can see that the rise may take a little longer, therefore more time to develop flavor.

Starter can be grown from just about any flour, but you will probably have best success with plain old all-purpose unbleached. Don’t use bread flour, it has a higher protein content and the yeast gets giddy with that much food. Not to mention that it will be a bit gummy. To get the stuff to be rye or something else, just use about a cup of starter with 2 cups rye flour and a cup of warm water. Feed it for several days and you will have a very happy rye starter. Or grow it from scratch over a 10 day period. First 3 days feed it once a day. Next 7 days feed it twice a day. Now you have a really good rye starter.

I am not a purist, I will sometimes use commercial yeast in the dough stage if I think a bit more lift is needed. The purists will take issue with this practice, but it works.

Now – a simple recipe to try:

Just plain old sourdough white bread:

1 cup starter
1 1/2 cups warm water
3 cups flour

Mix it up, cover, sit overnight in a warm but not hot place. This is called the sponge. If the sponge is too warm, it will rise too fast and not develop full flavor. Depending on your climate, putting plastic wrap over the bowl and then a towel may produce better results than just the towel by its lonesome. You will only find out by trial. (We don’t admit to error!)

Add in:

1 tablespoon salt
1 tablespoon sugar (you can skip this if you want)
2 to 3 more cups of flour, depending

Mix in the salt and sugar and 1 cup flour at a time until it is smooth and elastic to the feel. The amount of flour will be variable. Knead for about 10 minutes by hand, or until it is together and climbs the hook in a good mixer. Let it rise in a bowl until doubled, maybe 2 hours.

Divide in half, make whatever shape bread you like: baguette, batard, round, oval, whatever. Place on a greased baking pan that has been liberally sprinkled with coarse cornmeal. Cover, let rise to double, could be 2 hours or so. Slash the tops with something good and sharp and bake at 350° until golden brown. 20 to 30 minutes. Let it cool on a rack before cutting.

BTW – the bread snobs hate batard – means bastard in French. But – the batard is better for sandwiches or toast than the baguette – which is better for dunking in a nice soup. Do what you like, never mind the snobs. We will get into shapes and pans and oven stones and such in some future writing, but don’t worry, you can knock this stuff out on a plain old cookie sheet or some other type flat oven pan.

Well – just one advanced tip for now. Get a cheap spray bottle that can be set for a mist. Fill it with good, clean, water with no chlorine. Filter and/or let sit overnight if necessary, or use bottled water. Anyway, spray a good bit in the oven when you put the bread in. Spray again after 30 seconds. Spray again after 1 minute. Spray again after 2 minutes. That’s enough, let the bread finish cooking to the thump test level of done. This will produce the nicest, crunchy-chewiest crust you have ever had. What we have done is faked the steam injection used in French commercial ovens. I guess I should mention that if you want bread with big holes in the crumb, just let it over rise by 1/3 or so.


13 Responses to “Sourdough Bread Starter –”

  1. Brooke Says:

    This is great advice. The spray bottle worked great and the sourdough came out exactly as planned. Thank you so much!

  2. turtlemom3 Says:

    Herself sez: Hi Brooke – glad it worked for you! Lots more to come in the bread-baking department, so stay tuned!
    Turtlemom3 aka Herself

  3. Rye Sourdough Mysteries – « Rumblings of an Ol’ Curmudgeon Says:

    […] First of all, most rye bread made in this country is not good European rye. Most of the European rye breads are sourdough derivatives. From waaaay back. Later bread was done with a process called Detmolder sourdough, which was developed in Germany. Detmolder will get the maximum flavor out of the sourdough. (See previous discussion of Sourdough Breads.) […]

  4. Safari Says:

    Hi! I’ve just gotten to the sponge stage and will know in the morning if it worked. If it doesn’t…I’m sure it is something on my side that went wrong. If all goes well, I’ll let you know tomorrow!! Thanks for the recipes.

  5. mtriggs Says:

    Herself Sez: Hi Safari – the Ol’ Curmudgeon had to go to a job site today. He mostly doesn’t respond to comments, anyway. Anyhoo, I’m glad, and he will be glad, that you are trying this out. If your yeastie beasties were active before the sponge stage, they probably will be active during the sponge stage, so I don’t anticipate any problems there. They may be slow to grow if the room or area temperature is too cool. If so, just let them grow a bit longer. Remember, slow rise adds flavor!

  6. Safari Says:

    Yaahoooooo!!!!! Total success. I can’t believe it…I’ve actually made a great loaf of Sourdough bread thanks to you. Please let me know whenever you have more on bread making. Your instructions were very clear and easy to follow. Safari

  7. mtriggs Says:

    Herself Sez: Good for you! Glad it worked out well. If you continue to read the Blog, you will find several bread recipes and how-to digressions on breadmaking – including, for those who want to put in the time and effort, Westphalian Pumpernickel (Sourdough) Rye.
    The Ol’ Curmudgeon doesn’t reply to comments, himself. He leaves that to me. He truly IS an Ol’ Curmudgeon. But he appreciates people taking time to comment. 🙂

  8. All the Bread Posts - « Rumblings of an Ol’ Curmudgeon Says:

    […] September 20, 2007 Sourdough Bread Starter […]

  9. sam Says:

    you said ” 3. However, no matter where your starter is from it will eventually become samey-samey as local starter grown from scratch as local yeast-beasts invade and multiply. You just about can’t keep it pure.”

    That goes against the opinion of most well known professionals will tell you. Once a culture is firmly established and maintained in the correct environment, it is hard for another strain to get in. Kind of like an exclusive country club that does not want to let in people who are not of the same ilk.

  10. mtriggs Says:

    Herself sez: The keys to what you mentioned are “firmly established” and “maintained in the correct environment.” Certainly, in the early days of the westward push, sourdough was not kept pure – and it produced some of the most exciting tastes going! I’ve had bread made from sourdough cultures that have been in families for over 100 years – and each one is different, very, very good, but different. I lived in Utah for years, and visited frequently to Idaho, Nevada and California, not to mention New Mexico and Arizona. This was sourdough heaven. I’ve also had sourdough in Alaska. Again, different. Most people won’t keep their sourdough cultures perfectly to prevent contamination with other yeasts. And if they are contaminated, it will provide a slight variance that will make each person’s sourdough slightly different and unique.

    Of course, for commercial purposes, the cultures must be kept pure for consistency. In this circumstance, it is critical to handle the cultures very carefully to avoid contamination with wild yeasts.

    The Ol’ Curmudgeon, however, speaks only to the home bakers among us, and is trying to encourage those interested to undertake bread baking. Under home-baking situations, it usually is not a tragedy if the occasional wild yeast is added to the mix, and adds to the individuality of the culture. If, however, bacterial overgrowth occurs, it can ruin the culture, and you have to start over. So, while you want to be careful with the cultures, when home-baking, you don’t need to be obsessive!

  11. Carolyn Grant Says:

    I live in Mexico in a city that has an altitude of 6300 ft. Do I need to make any adjustments for that?

    I know I do in other baking.

    Thank you.

  12. mtriggs Says:

    I am not a high altitude baker (Atlanta is only 1010 feet up), but from what I see there are a couple of things that are somewhat do different. Rising might be considerably faster, so keep an eye on the volume and adjust the time accordingly. Secondly it might be necessary to up the oven temp from 5 to 25 degrees so that the crust sets a bit faster and oven spring does not get out of hand. (This will probably result in less cooking time). You are generally looking for finished temps of 200F to 210F around here. I don’t think that your finish temps will be quite as high, but I could be wrong. Also, since the less dense air cannot hold as much moisture spraying and steaming the oven heavily is more critical than it is at lower altitudes. Having said all this I am afraid that there is going to be a certain amount of trial and error until you figure how things are going to react in your part of the world. Unless you find someone local with your interests who has already worked all this stuff out. Good luck and good bread!

  13. turtlemom3 Says:

    Herself Sez: If you Google on the terms “high altitude bread baking” you will find many sites from the various Dept of Agriculture Extension Services from states with high altitude areas – such as Colorado, Utah, Wyoming, and Montana. All of them mention adding an extra Tablespoon or so of flour and an extra Tablespoon or so of liquid while reducing the amount of yeast. For a sourdough recipe, you may have to experiment with removing a small amount of the starter.
    Here are three of the websites you may want to check:

    Here is a website with a recipe for sourdough bread that is supposed to work at high altitudes:

    Another website suggests:
    “When you live in elevations over 5,000 feet, baking adjustments to your liquids, leavening agents, sugar, and oven temperatures are needed for your recipes. For elevations at 5,000 feet or higher, it is recommended that you add an additional one (1) tablespoon of water to your recipes. Also make a note in your recipe book of any adjustments that you do make.”

    Hope this helps!
    “Herself – the Web Search Queen”

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