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Sourdough Starter: Failure to Success!

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Sourdough Starter: Capturing Wild Yeast

I have made sourdough starter and bread off and on for many years, but I always began with a ‘starter recipe’ that a friend of my mother’s gave me many moons ago. This recipe had store-bought yeast added to it; and you also added yeast to the bread when you mixed the dough. Curious, right? As I got older and tasted real sourdough bread, I realized that it’s the wild yeast and the beneficial bacteria present in the starter that give the bread its inherent sour-ish flavor.

Let’s Try Sourdough Starter ‘By the Book’

With that in mind, I purchased a book all about bread making that included a sourdough chapter. It was like a college level science experiment; way too precise in measurements of flour, water, and various natural sweeteners to ‘feed’ the starter. I gave up. I spent years wondering if our ancestors had better measuring tools than I, or were simply smarter.

My Grandmother’s Idea of Sourdough Starter

Along comes an internet search and I discover that all you really need is flour and water, and that the mix was not scientifically precise. You just use equal measures of flour and water to begin. That makes so much sense. I have seen recipes handed down from grandmothers who did not own measuring cups with precise markings on the side. They used a specific coffee cup or anything else they had handy—they were just careful to use the same one each time for consistent results!

Sourdough Starter: The ‘Recipe’ and Process

Now you can follow along with me as I re-learn this essential bread-making skill!

For what it’s worth, this is the recipe I started out with. I spent the next 14 days fiddling with this starter. It looked pretty good about 4 days in, nice and bubbly. It never recovered after that day. First off 1 C of contents each day for 7 days is a LOT of volume, but I had a 1/2 gallon jar. I wasn’t very consistent with the time of day that I fed it. One day I fed before work, the next day I forgot and went to feed it when I got home from work at 9:30 pm. I opened the lid to find a layer of gray mold sitting on top. Sigh, . . . . so give this recipe a shot if you’d like, or continue to scroll and I’ll share what I did that worked better for me.

Tools and ingredients:

  • non-metal container for mixing and holding your starter
  • non-metal spoon for stirring
  • measuring device
  • 1/2 cup unbleached flour (per day X 7 days)—you can use any type you like, just start with the best you can afford
  • 1/2 cup water (per day X 7 days)—non-chlorinated. (*If you’re using tap water, let it sit out for 24 hours and the chlorine will dissipate.)

That’s it. Well, and some patience. The process takes at least 7 days—sometimes longer depending upon air temperature and such.

Let’s dive in!

Tools & Supplies: glass jar, wooden spoon, measuring cup, water, unbleached flour

Mix the flour and water in the jar. Cover with a piece of cloth or paper towel and screw on the band or use a rubber band. Sourdough starter breathes–if you put a tight lid on you’ll starve the yeast and bacteria of oxygen and your jar may explode.

  This is day 1. Now set it in a draft-free spot on the counter and forget about it, . . . until tomorrow.

  This is day 2. The liquid has separated a bit. It smells like raw flour at this point. Add another 1/2 cup of flour and 1/2 cup water.

Day 3: Pretty much the same as day 2. Liquid on top–smells of flour.

This is day 4. Now we’re getting somewhere! A tiny bit of bubbling and it smells faintly of yeast. This one eventually failed, growing a greenish mold.

Day 5: more of the same. And I believe about day 8 is when mine failed.

Begin again–
Never confuse a single defeat with a final defeat. ~F. Scott Fitzgerald

So, I did a bit more research and this is what I did that gave me a success.

I mistakenly thought that yeast was in the air. I discovered that it’s actually on our foods–some more than others. I read several articles stating that there was more yeast on rye flour than wheat, so I started this batch with 1/2 cup organic rye flour and 1/2 cup spring water. After the initial rye flour, I switched to unbleached wheat. I’ve spent 14 days working on this starter. It’s become more of an art than a science. Rather than adding a rigid amount of flour and water, I’ve tried to be more intuitive about it. If it was nice and bubbly and working well, I gave it a couple of tablespoons of flour and just enough water to stir it in. I’ve tried to keep it the consistency of pancake batter.

Some days I fed it twice. How did I decide? Some days it’s nice and bubbly. Some days it would have a kind of foamy layer of bubbles–as if the bubbles had formed long enough ago that they had dissipated. I assumed this meant that the yeast had worked through the available food, so I’d add extra. About every 3 days, I’d also add 1/2 teaspoon of honey to jump-start activity.

Today I had a day off from work to fiddle with it, so I’m trying to make my first loaf with it. This morning it was nice and bubbly and had a very pleasant yeasty scent.

Success! Bubbly and yeasty smelling.

Here is the bread recipe I used (not really much of a recipe). I’m enjoying the intuitive, artsy aspect to sourdough!

Use 3/4 cup sourdough starter mixed with 1 cup warm (not hot) water. Add in 2 cups of flour and mix well to begin the formation of the gluten. Slowly add in more flour until you get that ‘raggy’ appearance. Turn out onto a floured board and knead for 10 minutes. Add in flour as you go to a maximum of 4 cups total (including the original 2 cups). (Don’t forget to feed your starter!)

‘raggy’ dough
develop gluten

 

 

 

 

 

 

Place in lightly oiled bowl in draft-free spot, cover with plastic wrap (or damp towel) and allow to rise until doubled. This takes much longer with sourdough starter. I let mine sit 5 hours. Punch it down, shape it. Place it on parchment paper back in the bowl and cover with plastic wrap for another hour or two. Preheat oven to 450. Place a dutch oven in to preheat as well. Using ends of parchment paper, pull loaf from bowl and place in preheated dutch oven. Lightly spray lid to dutch oven with water and place on pot. Bake with lid on 20 minutes. Remove lid and bake 20-25 minutes more until loaf is nicely browned and hollow-sounding when tapped.

You should end up with a nice crunchy crust and chewy interior. Don’t forget to try my recipe for brioche dough–not sourdough, but yummy!

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