How to Make Sourdough Starter

by Pat Veretto

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San Francisco sourdough is famous because of its flavor, but don't expect to be able to keep a starter of it, because the flavor (and smell) of the sourdough will change. That's because wild yeasts are different everywhere, and even vary from house to house on the same block. You cannot keep a batch of sourdough completely safe from other wild yeasts and the ones that grow where you are will eventually overpower any imported ones.

You might know someone who has sourdough starter to share, but if not, you can make your own. Whichever way you obtain yours, you'll need a volume of at least one and 1/3 cups.

There are several ingredient combinations for making wild yeast sourdough:

  • One is to grate a raw potato. Then add enough water to cover and enough flour to make a thin batter of about a cup and a third in volume.
  • Another method is to use water that you've boiled potatoes in instead of the grated potato and water combination.
  • You can also use flour, sugar and water. Use one cup of flour, a tablespoon of sugar and enough water to make a pancake consistency batter.
  • Yet another is to simply mix together equal amounts of water and flour (whole wheat is best for this).

Anything that provides food for the yeast and a good growing environment will work. Yeast needs sugar or carbohydrates (which it converts to sugar), and clear liquid.

Make your choice based on what you have handy and just because that's what you'd like to try. Don't worry about whether or not one set of ingredients will work better than another, because the chances are that they will all be equally efficient in attracting wild (sour) yeast. There is no exact recipe because there are so many other variables in each house that will invite or dissuade wild yeasts from entering the mixture. If at first you don't succeed, try, try again. The most important thing is the method.

When you have decided on the ingredients you want, put them in a glass container that will hold at least three times the volume of the ingredients. Mix lightly with a wooden or plastic spoon as some metals will react to it. The working of the starter will mix itself.

Leave the mixture undisturbed and loosely covered with a cloth or perforated plastic (to allow gases to escape) at warm room temperature until it begins to froth or "work" and expand. This is a sign that wild yeasts have made themselves at home and that's what you're after. The new starter will rise up in the container, then fall again. When it has, it's ready for use. (Note: It will smell sour!)

When you use it, always leave some in the container and add flour and water back to equal what you've taken out. Most recipes call for a cup of starter, so replace it with a half cup of flour and a half cup of water and set it in a warm place to work again.

You will probably see a liquid covering the top at one time or another. This is called "hooch," and it's exactly what it sounds like, but don't drink it! Actually, it's harmless, so stir it back into the starter if the starter is thick, or if it's thin, just pour the hooch off. It's nothing to worry much about either way.

Keep sourdough in the refrigerator unless you use it at least every third day. If you use it that often, you can leave it on the counter or any place where it's safe. If you can't refrigerate it, you can keep it fresh by throwing out a cup of it every second or third day and then replenish with flour and water. Wait until it "works" again before counting days.

A properly cared for starter can live indefinitely, but if you leave it out without using it for too long, the yeast can literally suffocate in its own waste products. If the starter looks off color (grayish is normal) or turns pink, toss it and start fresh.

What can you make with sourdough? Besides the traditional bread, you can make biscuits, pancakes, pretzels, bagels, muffins, cornbread and even cookies! Once you're comfortable using it, you can experiment with your favorite yeast or baking powder recipes. Simply put, you substitute sourdough for leavening and part or all of the liquid.

The basic recipe for plain sourdough bread:

1 cup starter
1 Tbsp. of fat (margarine, butter, vegetable oil or olive oil)
1 Tbsp. sugar
1 tsp. salt
Enough flour to make a dough that can be handled without sticking, but is still pliable

Knead by hand or machine until it's smooth, then cover and let it rise until it's doubled in bulk. This will take longer (sometimes over an hour longer) than yeast leavened bread, so don't give up and throw it out! Make sure you keep it warm, but not hot, while it's rising.

Again, there is no hard and fast rule because circumstances are so variable. Your starter might be more or less robust, or thinner or thicker, or your kitchen may be warmer or cooler.

After it's risen, punch it down and knead enough to remove all the bubbles, then form it into a loaf shape and put it in a lightly greased bread pan. You can sprinkle a little corn meal in the pan and on top of the loaf if you like. Let it rise in the pan, then bake at 350 for about 45 minutes.

Baking sourdough bread is a learned skill and one that takes practice, but even if your first loaf doesn't meet your expectations, it will be edible. Once you become familiar with the process, you can experiment on making just about anything that is leavened. Biscuits, cookies, pancakes, cornbread, specialty breads and even cakes can be made using sourdough starter instead of yeast or baking powder.

Besides creating incredibly delicious baked goods, you'll save a bundle of money over time by not buying yeast!

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