How to Make Sourdough Starter

There is a lot of misinformation on the Internet on the subject of making a sourdough starter. This is ironic because sourdough starter is one of the simplest recipes in existence. It has just two ingredients: flour and water. This article describes how to make sourdough starter without the misinformation.

In approaching sourdough starter, I like to imagine myself as a 19th-century Basque baker in the Pyrenees mountains, whose ancestors have been baking sourdough for centuries. They used no pineapple juice as is the vogue nowadays, as there is not a ready supply of pineapples in the Pyrenees.

It will take about a week, maybe 9 or 10 days, to get a bakeable starter. One of the first things you will learn is that there is no such thing as "hurry-up" in sourdough baking, so relax.

There are two broad classifications of starter: liquid and stiff. A liquid starter has the consistency of a thick batter, or a milkshake. A stiff starter has the consistency of dough. In this tutorial we will make a liquid starter. I will give the measurements in both cups and grams. As a casual, infrequent baker, I prefer liquid starter. I find it easier to make and maintain. Big bakeries which bake one or more times every day, tend to use stiff starters, known as a sponge.

First, let's gather the ingredients. To make a wheat starter, use white flour, either all-purpose or bread flour, not whole wheat. If you check the ingredient label you will probably see the ingredient "malted barley flour" or something called "enzyme". This is essential for making your first starter. The enzymes break down the starch in the flour to simple sugars. This is what we want.

OPTIONAL: Rather than using pineapple juice, I have found it more efficacious to add 1/2 tsp of diastatic malt powder to help start your starter. Diastatic malt is another name for malted barley flour and can be found in many places on the Internet. As stated above, it helps break down the starch in the flour into simple sugars.

Next, make sure you use a CLEAN container, such as a bowl, a repurposed jar, a plastic container, whatever. It is important that this container be CLEAN. It is advisable to thoroughly wash the container with an antibacterial detergent. The reason for this is to get rid of any mold spores which may be present. Wash, rinse thoroughly and dry thoroughly.

In your container, combine 100 grams flour with 133 grams water. If you prefer cup measurements, combine 3/4 cup flour with 1/2 cup water. The mixture should be milkshake-thick. Add more flour or water if necessary to achieve this consistency.

That's it. Cover loosely and let it sit in a warm place. Some people like to put their starters on top of the refrigerator, or inside an oven with the light on. Walk away and leave it alone until the next day.

The next day, and once per day thereafter, stir your starter to keep the ingredients dispersed — no pouring down the drain and no adding flour or water.

At first, and at various times throughout this process, you may see no activity and it seems like nothing is happening. Within the first day or two, the starter may take on an unpleasant aroma, kind of cheesy or like spoiled milk. This is to be expected as the microbes we are trying to cultivate wage war with one another on their microscopic battlefield. Stick to the plan, stirring once per day, and ride it out.

After several days you may see some surface bubbles. This is a good sign, as the wild yeast and lactobacillus we are trying to cultivate become active. Inasmuch as we are trying to cultivate yeast, your sense of smell is an important tool. After the starter passes the foul-odor stage, it may seem to go dormant. Stick with the regimen. We ultimately want the starter to take on a yeasty aroma. After anywhere from 7 to 10 days, you should have a starter that is ready to make bread. You can keep it in the refrigerator until you are ready to use it in a bread recipe.

One of the byproducts of all this microbial activity is ethanol, a.k.a.hooch. Chances are your starter will develop a layer of ethanol when it sits in storage for extended periods. The aroma of alcohol will give it away. My preference is to stir the hooch back into the starter; the alcohol will evaporate at oven temperature. However, some people prefer to pour it off.

Copyright Chris Clementson