Doing another little 101 of sorts. Today's post is on how to create your own sourdough starter.
I decided I would let Mr. Humble guest blog for this one, since he is my resident microbe expert and because he thinks he knows a thing or two about bread. After making phenomenal panini with his amazing wild yeast focaccia, I can't do anything but agree with the man...
Ms. Humble asked me to write up a guide on starting your own natural yeast starter and I quickly agreed (I don't want to get into trouble).
Making one is very easy, though you wouldn't know that from reading most of the information about it on the Internet. Not only is there virtually useless information, but there is also exceptionally bad advice. I will cut through all that, explain some possible pitfalls, and give you what you need to know to create your own natural yeast starter.
Why do you want a natural yeast starter? One pretty good reason is that it is cool to say you do. People will be envious. They will ask how you did it and say they wish they could make bread. You can then magnanimously offer them a portion of your starter (you don't have to tell them you toss out gobs of the stuff if they don't take it.)
I do not know if any of the supposed health benefits of using a natural starter are true, as I haven't bothered to do a literature search. It could be pure quackery, simple truth, or a happy medium. It doesn't matter. A real reason to use a natural starter is because of the bacteria Lactobacillus. As the Lactobacillus bacteria grow, they create an acidic environment hostile to many other organisms (the icky ones you don't want), except for strains of acid-tolerant yeast. This helps the bread's texture, shelf life (it won't turn into a hard brick after 12 hours on the counter), and imparts a distinctive flavor.
The Only Natural Starter Recipe You Really Need
(This makes a 100% hydration starter)
100g Whole Wheat Flour
100g Water (roughly room temperature)
You do not need any of those things you occasionally see called for on the internet: sugar, potato/pasta starch water, bits of vegetables, or store bought yeast. Just flour and water. The wheat comes with its own wild yeasts, the nutrients to feed it. All you have to do--as cliche as it sounds--is add water.
Select your container, one that can hold three times the volume of finished mixture (once active, the starter will double in size). I use mason jars for maintenance and larger plastic storage containers for bulking up the starter before making bread. Weigh out the water. Add the flour. Stir until well mixed. Cover with plastic wrap or anything that will keep the moisture loss low and can allow for the escape of gas. Let stand at 20°C (68°F) to 27°C (80.6°F), with an optimum at closer to 26°C (78.8°F). This is the range of temperatures which encourage yeast multiplication, which is what you want. For more detailed information, click here.
The mixture will be thick and a bit lumpy at this point. But don't worry, it will quickly turn into a globby, bubbly mess and stay that way.
At around 12 hours, take a look at how the starter is doing. If it is a little bubbly, nor not bubbly at all, give it a good vigorous stirring to oxygenate the mixture, and let sit for another 12 hours. If it is very bubbly and kind of gooey, then you will want to begin feedings.
For the first couple of days, the Lactobacillus have yet to establish themselves and create the proper acidic environment, so you have a mixture of bacteria and some yeast. So even if your starter is bubbly, it might smell a little off because it isn't ready. But it will get there.
Stir the starter and measure out 50g (discard the remaining starter or find someone else to pawn it off on). Mix the 50g of starter with the 50g of water. When dissolved, add the flour and stir vigorously to mix well.
You will feed your starter every 12 or 24 hours when kept at the temperature ranges above. How often depending on how it grows or how fast you want to get it up to speed. Regardless of how often you feed it, you will not want to use it before 5 or 6 days. Mind you this is 5-6 days of the starter behaving appropriately (i.e. rising to nearly twice its size after each feeding). If your starter cant double itself, it is going to have a very hard time doubling the volume of your dough.
To determine when the starter can be fed, it should have doubled in size (or nearly so) indicating a rapid growth phase. Many suggest feeding it when it collapses or when it begins to collapse. That works OK, but in doing so, you risk a lag of up to a few hours before the yeast get back into a high growth phase. That is fine when you are merely maintaining a starter, but for the initial production, I prefer to feed it before it collapses and the growth rate is still high.
If at 24 hours you still have no bubbles, you might need to start over. There are a variety of reasons why you didn't get anything, or you got something you suspect is very wrong. I suggest simply trying again, but if it doesn't work the second time, try the troubleshooting tips below.
Possible Problem 1: Your flour was bleached or otherwise processed too much. Bread makers tend to go for unbleached, organic flours to get the starter going because they are less likely to have been highly processed and thus still have plenty of natural yeasts. This is easy to fix. Buy organic whole wheat flour. You can switch to all purpose after a few days.
Possible Problem 2: Your water is highly chlorinated. Depending on how chlorinated the water is, the fix is either simple or complicated. If your municipality uses chlorine to treat the water, the chlorine can be removed by letting it sit out for a couple days on the counter. If the water contains chloramines (another form of chlorination), then that will not work, as they are rather stable. If that is the case you can use bottled drinking (not distilled) water. I myself use tap water and haven't had a problem.
Possible Problem 3: It was too cold. Try again, but keep the starter a little warmer.
You should have a pretty happy little starter and the smell should be pretty developed. It should be active and bubbly and routinely double in size several hours after being fed. At this point and you can switch the feedings to all purpose flour to create a white wheat starter.
Maintaining Your Starter:
Well, I haven't been doing this long, but it isn't hard. Take a little, add equal parts flour and water, put it back. When I want to use it, I just increase the amounts of starter, flour, and water I add so that I will have enough for my batch of dough. When the leaven is strong, you can add 2 or 3 times as much flour and water as you do starter, as long as the flour/water ratio stays the same (ex. 100g starter, 200g flour, 200g water).
I keep mine on the counter because we've been using it a lot. If you will not use it frequently, I would feed it, put it in the refrigerator, and then take it out, at most, weekly for feedings. Some say every 2 or even 3 weeks, but I like a strong, capable starter, so I'm not taking any chances.
If you do refrigerate it, you will probably need to feed it normally for a couple of days to make sure it is very active.
Using Your Starter:
Your starter should be ready to use in 5-6 days. As long as the starter dough is fed flour and water daily, the sourdough mixture can stay at room temperature indefinitely and still remain safe and usable.
I'm not going to talk about bread recipes here, but you should know that using a starter requires some planning. You need to stop discarding the starter to build up your supply. You will want to keep the ratios the same (one part starter, one part water, one part flour by weight) for a few days and soon you will have a bucket of starter ready to go. The day you wish to bake with your starter, I advise you use it when it has doubled and before it falls. Meaning you don't want to feed your starter and then immediately use it, you need to give it time to eat and multiply.
Without naming names, I will list two of the more horrifying things I saw being advised on the internet while researching my own starter.
If you discover your starter has mold or black liquid on it. Don't just pour it off and soldier on. Your starter should not contain anything that looks darker or hairier than what you put into it. Flour and water are not dark and hairy. If your container starts to contain dark fluid or fuzz of any kind, discard immediately and begin again. And for the love of all things good in the world, do not use it to make bread.
A starter is not a fish. Do not sprinkle flour on the top of your starter as if little yeasts are going to dart to the surface and gobble it up. The yeast will die off and that creates an environment in which mold can grow (see above). Unfortunately, feeding your starter is more involved than just tossing a few pinches of flour at it.
There you go.
With this you should have all the tools you need to tend your little pot of wild yeast. You can even name it, like our Mr. Stinky.