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A Starter By Any Other Name
Natural yeast, sourdough starter, levain are all names that mean essentially the same thing: A natural yeast product that is produced at home using simple ingredients, time, and patience. Natural yeast is used to leaven or “raise” baked goods either in place of, or in addition to, the baker’s/commercial yeast purchased at the grocery store. Natural yeast was the method used by our ancestors long before commercial yeast was produced and supplied (in the 1940s) to the home baker.
Sourdough starters work by activating the yeast bacteria already present in flour, water, the air, etc. These beneficial bacteria feed on the gluten (sugar) in flour and break it down. This process is what creates the glutenous structure to baked goods. This pre-digestion often makes baked goods more tolerable and easily digested. The feeding bacteria also produces gasses that form bubbles and help raise the dough.
While store bought yeast definitely has it’s place, having your own starter on hand, or at least knowing how to make one, can bring a lot of satisfaction and comfort.
Start with a clean pint or quart jar that has a lid. I use canning jars and plastic lids, but there are lots of options. Just be sure your jar has a wide mouth to make it easier to work with. You’ll also need something to stir with. I use a straight silicone spatula, but you can also use the handle end of a wooden spoon, etc. There is some belief that using metal to stir your starter will have a negative effect on it, but I’ve seen people use metal spoons with no issues.
A word about ingredients: Technically, the higher quality flour you use, the stronger your starter will be. If you have access to a high-quality organic flour, I would recommend it. It gives your starter a better fighting chance, so to speak. But use what you have; in the long run, what you have is better than what you don’t.
Also, the amount of flour isn’t necessarily important. I’ve seen people create starters with as little as one teaspoon flour or as much as 3/4 cup. I’ve developed a method that works for me and that’s what I’m sharing with you. I add two tablespoons at a time because I don’t like the waste that comes with larger quantities. There is a way to use larger quantities and make what is called “discard”, but for just getting started, I like to start small.
You’ll also use water to create the starter. Try to use filtered water. If you want or need to use tap water, just be sure to leave it on the counter for at least 20 minutes before using it. The chlorine in most tap water can have a negative effect on the starter’s development.
Now For the Good Part…
Take a clean jar and add two tablespoons flour to it. Then add about 1 1/2 tablespoons water and give it a good stir. Make sure there is no dry flour left. The starter will look similar to thick pancake batter; a little lumpy but not too wet. If you need to add a little water or a little flour to get that consistency, just take it very slowly. At this point, drops will go far. This is called a “feed”; we are “feeding” the starter so it can activate.
After incorporating the flour into the water, scrape the sides of the jar and mound the starter up in the center of the jar bottom (see photo). Then put the lid on, tighten it, and then back the lid off about half a turn; just enough to let the starter breath as it creates the gases that form the bubbly starter. You can also lay a light plate on top. If you have a jar with a glass lid and metal clamps, you can lay the glass lid on top and not use the clamps. Then leave the starter on the kitchen counter.
For the next three days, give the starter some extra attention. If you created your sourdough starter in the morning, the schedule would look like this:
- 1st morning: Create starter
- Before bed: Feed and stir well (same quantities/method as above)
- 2nd morning: Feed again and stir well
- Before bed: Feed again and stir well
- 3rd morning: Feed and stir
- Before bed: Stir only
- 4th morning: Feed and stir
- Before bed: Stir only
- 5th morning: Feed and stir
- Before bed: Stir only
- And so on until about the 10th day
What to Expect from Natural Yeast
You should see bubbling and growth by the fifth through tenth day. After the fifth day, the starter may start growing after you feed it. When you feed your starter and notice a few hours later that it has doubled in size, this is considered an “active” starter. This is the point you want to use it for baking. If you’re looking for a simple sourdough bread to get started with, check out my Simple, Classic Sourdough Bread recipe. Once your starter reaches full peak, if you don’t use it, the starter will start to die down again. That’s ok! It’s just resting until you feed it again.
Once your sourdough starter or natural yeast is active, you can use it to make bread and other baked goods. Know that the best breads come from mature starters. Meaning, the longer you have your starter, the stronger it will get. Your first few loaves may not rise very high or develop a great crumb, but it should still taste great and, with each feed, your starter gets stronger.
After about the fifth day, you may be starting to run out of room in the jar for your starter to double. If you’re not ready to bake with it, you can either discard the “extra” (literally throw it away), or you may want to create a discard jar and save it for other uses. Either way, just discard all but about a quarter cup of starter and then feed as normal. I’ll talk more about discards in another post, but you’ll want to use discard up within a couple of weeks. There are a ton of great recipes online for using discard.
Maintaining Your Sourdough Starter
Finally, it may seem overwhelming to maintain a starter every day. You don’t have to! Once you’ve got an active starter, depending on how often you bake, you can store your starter in the fridge and only feed it once a week. The general rule of thumb is if you bake twice or more per week, then store it on the counter. If you bake once a week or less, store it in the fridge. I keep mine in the fridge and take it out once a week or twenty-four hours before I want to bake with it. I let it come to room temperature for about an hour, then feed it. Sometimes, it wants two feeds after it’s been in the fridge, but it’s still strong and active. This also works if you go on vacation or just need a break. I’ve kept mine in the fridge without any attention for several months and been able to reactivate it within a few days.
I know sourdough can feel overwhelming, but it’s really a super simple process once you get used to it. Feel free to ask any questions either here or on my Instagram. I love to help!