Why you should make your own sourdough
When you create sourdough, you wake something primal; the act is exhilarating, ruffling a faint instinct or memory of a time when we had a working relationship with nature.
When you pull that loaf out of the oven, the house will smell of hearty, sweet perfume touched by tartness. You will not resist its temptation.
Sourdough baking comes with the sensation of accomplishment, much like the satisfaction of sewing your own clothes or hunting your own food. Each of these practices is a survival skill. Knowing even one of them can make you feel confident in yourself. And survival aside, sourdough is decadent as it is nutritious.
What is Sourdough?
In a nutshell, sourdough is a germaphobe’s worst nightmare! It is bread traditionally leavened by a sourdough starter, a lumpy mixture of water and flour that contains a harmonious culture of wild microbes: an average of 3 wild yeast strains of or related to saccharomyces exiges, and 10 strains of the bacteria lactobacilli.
These microbes feed off of the sugars and carbohydrates of the flour mixture. In return, the yeast produces carbon dioxide (the gas that makes the bread rise) and ethanol. The bacteria metabolize the ethanol to create lactic acid, which preserves the bread and influences its characteristic flavor.
The yeast and bacteria soil their environment to the point where the conditions become too toxic for harmful microbes. This makes the sourdough starter culture a perfect ecosystem for them to thrive in so long as the baker continues to feed them regularly with water and flour.
What makes Sourdough Special?
Most of us know that we need yeast to raise bread. However, commercial bread products use only one strain of yeast, saccharomyces cerevisiae. A sourdough culture is much more complex, containing multiple strains of yeasts and lactobacilli along with varying microbes that may have come from the air, the regional soil, the baker’s hands, the skin of the people you live with, and even the insects that pollinate your yard.
The unique ecosystem of the sourdough starter breaks down the carbohydrates, sugars, and the proteins of gluten in a way that makes it easier to digest and more nutritious for humans. In fact, some individuals with gluten and sugar sensitivities can tolerate sourdough for this very reason.
Also, because the sourdough culture has already partially digested the wheat, the nutrients which would otherwise be difficult for our bodies to metabolize are now available to us.
Most commercial breads (often laden with additives, dough conditioners, sugars, and artificial flavors) have effectively scared us away from real bread, which is nutritious and should be the simplest food we can afford and make. It should just be water, flour, and salt. Even bread that is not sourdough is simply water, flour, salt, and yeast.
The following outline will take you through the conception of a sourdough starter to the end bread.
Tools You’ll Need:
32oz Glass or Ceramic Jar (Non-reactive food-grade metal and plastic containers will work as well).
Scale (Recommended for accurate measurements. Reduces likelihood of mistakes and inconsistencies. Cup and tablespoon measurements have been provided, however, for your convenience).
Whole Wheat Flour
Filtered or Bottled Water
- I recommend organic flour and filtered or bottled water because they have fewer contaminants that may inhibit microbial development.
- This starter begins at 50% hydration.
- All feedings afterward alternate between 50% and 100% hydration (1:2 water to flour ratio and 1:1 water to flour ratio).
- P.S., sorry; I forgot to mention some mathing is involved……
By day five, you should experience some bubbly activity. If not, repeat the steps outlined in Day Three.
If you’ve never attempted sourdough before, expect your starter to smell… different. The most common scents are: vinegar, acetone, sweaty socks, (ew, ew, and ew), and beer (somewhat more pleasant).
The scents, however, can also be none of these! It really depends on the critters that live in your starter. Most new starters will smell worse before they smell better, so don’t assume you did anything wrong. As you get to know your starter, you will know what smells normal and what smells off, which will often indicate its health.
Feed and Care for your Starter
My starter (I named her Winnie) most often smells strongly of Rolling Rock beer with sweet berries mixed in; this is how I prefer her to smell; any other questionable scent, and I know I have to either feed her, wash her jar, or both.
By the time your starter begins to show massive amounts of activity, you can begin maintaining it in the refrigerator and start feeding it weekly as opposed to twice daily. This makes it easier to maintain, especially if you don’t plan on making bread several times a week.
Add the discarded starter to other baked goods such as muffins, cookies, quick breads, and even an easy yeast bread recipe for an extra boost of flavor without throwing out perfectly good flour.
Let your starter “mature” by finding and maintaining a reliable feeding schedule for at least 10 days after it becomes active. Personally, I didn’t start baking sourdough with my starter until a month after I cultivated it.
I prefer a starter that has the consistency of pancake batter. I achieve this by keeping it in the refrigerator and feeding it in alternating weekly in ratios of 1:1 water to flour (1/2 or 1 cup/each) and ratios of 1:2 water to flour. Once or twice a month, the feeding will include whole wheat flour.
The starter is kept in a glass jar with a loose fitting lid so that the starter can breathe. I usually wash the jar monthly.
I bake with the starter weekly to bi-weekly, so there’s no need for me to discard portions of the starter. If you go over a month without feeding, you may want to discard ¼ to ½ of the starter and feed it.
How to Use your Starter
Starter that has been in the refrigerator or not yet fed is called unfed starter. Starter that has been taken out of the refrigerator, fed, has risen, and is bubbly and vigorous is called fed starter.
When you’re ready to bake with it, take it out of the refrigerator either the night before or early in the morning and feed it a 1:1 ratio of flour and water (typically ½ cup of flour and ½ cup of water per 2 cups of starter). Depending on the room temperature, it may take 4 to 10 hours for the starter to double or triple in size; this varies based on the temperature and humidity of your house. The warmer and wetter your home, the faster the rise. Once it does this, it is ready to use for leavening.
When your starter is fed, bubbly, and vigorous, don’t mix it; this will deflate it and you’ll have to start the feeding over. Think of it as shaking the bubbles out of your soda.
Test your starter for leavening power by conducting a “float test”. Put 2 cups of water into a small bowl place ¼ cup of starter into it. If the starter floats, then it is ready to leaven bread.
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