Baking carries me through all of times and I hope that it can do the same for you. Create a sourdough starter by mixing flour and water, and then creating and allowing for the environment in which the microorganisms — wild yeasts and bacteria — that live in the flour and air to thrive and multiply. The microorganisms perform fermentation reactions, producing the gas that makes the dough rise and the molecules that give it flavor. These flavor molecules are different than those produced by commercial yeast. Here’s to navigating the journey of creating and caring for your own sourdough starter and the existential musings that come with it.

 

Before beginning

Look inside the kitchen. Take a breath. Notice. Anything missing, anything needing to be put away, anything needing to be cleaned? Make space for this sacred process. Take care of her and she will take care of you and more. Starters have the ability to transform space, unlock nutrients, leaven dough, add subtleties to a pastry, create memories, rebirth daily.

Materials

– On buying grains and flours from a local farmer and miller, here are some recommendations.
– A glass or clear container makes it easier to monitor how much the starter has risen, a view into the fermentation progress.
– Use non-chlorinated water. To remove chlorine, filter water or let sit on counter 24 hours to allow for evaporation of chlorine.
– Gram scale. Measuring cups and spoons will not give consistently accurate amounts.

Day 1: In a glass or clear food grade container, large enough to hold the starter as it will double in size, combine 100g organic whole wheat or rye flour with 100g non-chlorinated water. Whole grain flours contain more nutrients and microorganisms to assist the starter in getting established. If the kitchen is warm, use cool water and if it’s cool, use warm water. Stir until combined. There should be no dry bits of flour in the bottom or the edges.

Use sharpie or tape to mark the top of the starter. Use this line to gauge how much the starter rises. Cover with a dish towel, cheese cloth, or a lightly fitting on top and rest at room temperature (70-75F) for 24 hours.

Day 2: Begin the refreshment cycle. (A refreshment cycle is saving a small portion of the original mixture, discarding the rest, and feeding the held back portion some flour and water.) To refresh, discard all but 50g of the starter. To the remaining 50g, add 100g whole wheat or bread flour (or a 50/50 mix) and 100g water. Stir vigorously. Mark the top of the starter and label Day 2. Cover and rest 24 hours.

Day 3 through 6: Repeat refreshment steps from Day 2, marking and dating each refreshment. You may begin to smell a fresh, fruity aroma. Use marks to indicate how or if the starter is rising. Once it begins to rise predictably, within 4 to 6 hours after refreshing, give this live, active starter a name and begin baking! (My starter’s name is Daisy, Freya’s sacred flower. Freya is the Norse goddess of love, beauty, and fertility, and as such the daisy flower came to symbolize childbirth, motherhood, and new beginnings. The daisy does not just bud, blossom, and die like other flowers. Its daily routine of “sleeping” at night by closing and “waking” at sunlight by opening up again can be expressed by the Old English name dægeseage, or “day’s eye.”)

Day 7: Refresh. At this point the starter should be bubbly, rise predictably several hours after being fed and smell like young yogurt. Perform a Float Test: place a portion of the starter into a glass of water. It should float, which shows that the starter is full of gas and the yeast is established.

Day 7-13: Continue refreshing as directed on day two. You can reduce the amount of saved portion to 20g from 50g, depending on your preferred refresh cycle. Make bread!

Day 14: As the starter matures, the aroma will move from its fresh and fruity to a slight tang, pleasingly acidic! At this point, the wild yeast and bacteria will be strong enough to undergo storage in cold temperatures.

How to store your starter in the cooler.

You can reduce the frequency of feedings by storing your starter in the fridge. However, you’ll want to revive and raise its activity before using. You can do this by giving it a series of feedings at room temperature—two feedings a day for several days, depending on how healthy it is until it establishes a predictable .

 

Common Questions

Why must I discard?
Discarding starter is a part of the process and cannot be avoided. In baking every day, the discard goes into making bread and the remaining portion is fed for the following day’s dough. Discarding keeps the starter at a reasonable size, controls the acidity (which affects growth and flavor), and provides the colony of yeast and bacteria enough fresh input to multiply happily, create flavor, and rise.

How do I store and use the “discard” levain?

Save it in a container and add to muffins, other quick breads, biscuit dough, pancakes, scones, waffles, cookies, cakes, or anything else that could benefit from a touch of acidity. The discard stores well in the freezer until ready for use. This prevents further fermentation/acidity and additional loss of structure. Try a few ideas for discarded levain with these recipes.

The starter doubled in size early on, but now it is not rising as much or as bubbly. What happened?

When the starter is establishing (young and not yet mature), the first few days into the second week, there isn’t enough acidity built up to fight off random yeasts and bacteria that also want to live in the rich environment of food and water. Some of these unwanted-for-bread-baking guests are responsible for creating gas and giving that initial, visual burst of activity. As the starter lowers in ph, only the acid tolerant yeast and lactobacilli thrive. The starter becomes stable and will rise again.

Every yeast and bacteria contributes to the smells, textures and tastes of the overall starter. As the initial flour is discarded from the mixture through refreshments, the microbes adjust to the feedings. This adjustment can cause a lag in activity, but will eventually follow a patterning. It’s helpful to record information such as flour, water, and room temperature and feeding time to learn the patterning of your wild, new, countertop friend.

If you’re wanting to move the starter along, try an every twelve hour refresh cycle. Is the room temperature between 70 and 75 F? Does the temperature drop in the evenings? Have you switched flours? Changes can recalibrate how long it takes for the starter to become predicable.

The starter smells like vinegar and maybe even acetone!

In some conditions, the lactic acid bacteria in the starter produces large amounts of acetic acid which gives the familiar vinegar smell and even the stronger acetone smell, but do not worry. When the starter is refreshed with flour and water, the smell will become sweet like wheat. When the ambient temperature where the starter is stored gets warm in the summer, this can be a common experience. Stiffen the starter slightly to slow down the fermentation or feed more often.

Why did the starter deflate, thin out, or separate?
The yeast eats the starch that has been converted to sugar and produces gas. The matrix or webbing of gluten traps the gas and this is visualized in the expansion and creation of bubbles. The bubbles increase and grow, as measured by how “high” the starter rises. When little or no more sugar is present for the yeast to eat, they tire and slow down. The bubbles begin to pop and the starter falls in on itself after reaching it’s “maximum.” (You can see where or how much it fell by looking at the ring the starter’s peak left on the walls of the container.) It may eventually collapse and become flat and thin. There is still plenty of yeast in the starter, just not at optimal capacity. Refresh to inject life. (Until I get my pen to paper, refer to SFBI’s drawing of starter maturation and curve. )

The starter could be moving too quickly and may benefit from multiple feedings at your current room temperature. Either move to a cooler spot, refresh with cooler water, or change feeding to every twelve hours. Every kitchen environment is different. Some starters will be great with once a day feedings, while others will over ferment—deflate, thin out and separate. In the summer, a starter can be fed up to three times a day.

Why is there separation, a liquid on top?
A little separation is normal over the first two weeks. Every flour has a different absorption, or hydration rate. Some flours may require a different ratio of water. Make sure to stir the mixture well when refreshing. There should be no dry bits of flour in the bottom or the edges.

The mixture could be over fermenting. Over fermenting occurs when all sugars have been consumed in the starter and it collapses on itself, causing anything lighter than the starter to rise to the top. The water is not harmful and does not mean the starter is dead. Pour it off and refresh. You might need to adjust where you store the starter, the temperature of the water you feed your starter with, or adjust how many times you feed the starter a day.

Hooch is the name of the alcohol that separates from the starter when it over ferments or is left in the cooler for a long period time without regular feedings. Hooch can be clear, yellowish, or gray. Hooch is like the whey you might find the day after you have enjoyed that quart of yogurt. Pour off the hooch and refresh as usual.

Where should I store the starter?
Find a spot on the kitchen counter and check the progress throughout the day. A starter should be kept between 70-75F during the establishing phase and I prefer a little cooler at 68-70F after. lf where you are storing the starter is too cool, creative home warm spots include: laundry room above the dryer, on top of the fridge, on a high shelf on a bookcase, near a radiator.

In warmer months find a cool spot, away from direct sunlight: a low shelf in the kitchen, a cool room in the home, a basement or cellar. Remember the starter’s preference to warm. If the cool spots waver on the warmer side,  feed the starter with cold water to control the fermentation time. (In the summer months, I refrigerate water to mix with tap water.)

What if there’s mold?
Sourdough starters are hearty, and easily resist spoilage due to their acidic nature. The pH of a sourdough starter discourages the proliferation of harmful microorganisms.

If there is anything orange, or pink, or red, or smells decidedly putrid, discard the starter and begin the process again. If there’s only discoloration on the surface of the starter, skim it off and refresh. Use a clean container each time you feed the starter.

What flour should I use for feedings?
Different types of flour can be used to create a starter: white, whole-wheat, rye, and others. Feed the starter with a high quality, organic unbleached flour. The type of flour depends on what kind of bread you plan to make: a rye starter for a rye bread.

When using whole grains and experimenting with a local mill’s grains, each grain has a different absorption capacity. Experiment with blending flours for feedings. A low protein flour or higher bran content could cause the starter to have a thinner gluten matrix/texture and it may not rise as much as a white flour starter since it has a different strength potential. I typically sacrifice the weaker/lower gluten flour in the starter and adjust the formula in the final dough with the stronger dough.

I want to make a rye, einkorn, or spelt bread. How do I convert the starter?

Simply feed with the flour you would like to make your bread with. No need to keep many different starters in the home if making one or two loaves at a time. One dough, one starter. If you want to make a wheat bread one day then feed the mama with wheat. If you desire a rye bread the next day, feed the mama with rye flour. If you want to make a rye and wheat bread, feed the starter with the grain that has the lowest amount of gluten since the starter will degrade most of the protein strength during the fermentation process (see pH) and you may prefer to save the stronger flour for the final dough. In other words, the grain in the starter is to be “sacrificed”. The way the starter “bubbles” or gives indication of its “readiness” for being added to the final dough will differ between grains. The more gluten a grain has, the more potential it can rise, and likewise, visually from the side of the container holding the mama.

Bakeries often have multiple starters because they are making multiple doughs. Maybe in your home this is possible. If so, feel free to have multiple mamas.

What are the options for ratio of water to flour when feeding?
Wet vs. Dry: Different starter consistencies can be used. A wetter starter, which has the texture more like batter than dough, is more reactive, while a drier, stiffer starter is better for storing for longer periods in the refrigerator, for slowing down the time the starter reaches its “peak,” or evoking a different flavor and strength in the dough. A wetter starter can more easily evenly be mixed into dough.