The first step to making sourdough bread is making a sourdough starter. It’s easy though and takes only two ingredients — water and flour
I made my first sourdough starter two years ago and since then I’ve made it twice more. It’s incredibly easy and the resulting ‘batter’ can be used to make not only bread but also pancakes, biscuits, crackers, pasta, and much more. It’s so versatile and healthy that I can’t help wondering why more people don’t try making it themselves. Perhaps it’s the perceived commitment of having to regularly feed it or maybe it’s the myth that you can’t culture a decent sourdough outside of San Francisco.
Most people who make their own bread use conventional quick yeast because it’s convenient, inexpensive, tastes familiar, and the fermenting process is quick. Sourdough bread on the other hand takes a lot longer to make – in my experience around three times as long.
It’s worth it though since it has a unique tangy flavor and the slow fermenting process can make bread more digestible for those sensitive to gluten. Sourdough bread is also better for you since the process of fermentation unlocks key vitamins and minerals and protects the integrity of B vitamins in the baking process.
If commitment to having to care for your sourdough is an issue then know that it’s easy to start over again or to store your starter in the refrigerator for up to six months. Our house is a bit too cold to conveniently make sourdough bread in the winter so I mix enough wholemeal flour into the starter to make a thick batter then store it at the back of the fridge in a closed container.
There it goes semi-dormant and continues to slowly feed off the flour until you’re ready to bring it back to life. All this involves is taking it out of the fridge, and letting it gradually warm up to room temperature. At that point, you bring it back to a more liquid consistency with fresh water and flour. It’s great to know this if you’re planning to go away on a trip.
Local Wild Yeast
The yeast that we use to make my sourdough are wild yeasts that live in the air and on every surface around you. You’re breathing them in at this moment and touching them every time you touch any surface. Wild yeasts vary from region to region and so sourdough will taste slightly different based on where you are in the world.
The most famous sourdough yeast in the world is the yeast from San Francisco. Though you can order that particular strain online, the wild yeasts in your own home are just as capable and as flavorful, as anything you can buy. Plus they’re free!
Recipe for Making Sourdough Starter
Takes about 2-5 days
One bag of bread flour of your choice
*Chlorinated water may affect the yeast though so if you’re concerned, use purified or filtered water instead of tap.
1. In a ceramic or plastic bowl mix one cup of the bread flour with one cup of lukewarm water. Whisk it together for a couple of minutes to expose the batter to the air and then loosely cover the container with a lid or kitchen towel and place it in a warm place. In the summer you can put it in a warm window but if you’re trying to make a starter during the cool part of the year place the bowl near a heat source such as a fireplace, Rayburn, or even tucked away next to warm computer towers.
2. Now you wait for fermentation to begin. It can take anywhere from a few hours to a couple of days depending on how warm it is, which yeasts are around at the time, the type of flour you’ve used, and how long you whisked. Check every six to twelve hours and if you spot the first signs of fermentation, which are bubbles on the top of your batter, then you’re on your way to sourdough starter success.
3. Let your sourdough starter continue to bubble until there are signs of fermentation peppered across the surface of the batter – it will also begin to smell like sourdough at this point and can remind you of vinegar, old cheese, or sick. This pungent smell is completely normal so if you smell it don’t worry if your starter has gone off. The scent will get a bit stronger as you continue the process but I’ve found that the scent mellows out as the sourdough starter matures. At this point, you feed it with another cup of flour and another cup of lukewarm water. Whisk well and then cover and leave the starter to continue fermenting.
4. When the surface of the batter looks bubbly and frothy take out two cups of the starter and use it to make sourdough pancakes or crackers (don’t waste that flavor!). Then add another cup of flour and another cup of water to the remaining starter and whisk. Move the starter to a permanent place out of the sun and away from direct heat but within sight so you remember to feed it.
5. At this point you have a brand new sourdough starter. Feed it each day with a tablespoon of flour and water or every other day with double that amount. It doesn’t take long and I’ll generally tend to the starter as I’m making my morning coffee. Feeding it this way you can build up enough starter to make bread every week and/or loads of other sourdough recipes.