The first recorded use of sourdough bread was from the Ancient Egyptian civilizations dating back to 1500 B.C. It was probably discovered by accident when bread dough was left out, and wild yeast spores from the air drifted into the mix.
The resulting bread had a lighter texture than the usual flat breads. In time, they discovered that by keeping a bit of the dough for the next batch, one could reliably produce loaves of bread.
The Term Sourdough
The term “sourdough” came into use during the California Gold Rush days of the late 1800’s. Gold miners obtained provisions, including bread starter, in the booming town of San Francisco before heading up into the mountains. Starters from that area produced bread with a unique sour tang. Thus the starters and bread from that area became known as “sourdough.” The term has since been generalized to mean any natural bread starter. Since California’s gold-mining days, sourdough has been a staple, passed down and savored by many generations.
How to Start Yours
Wondering how to make your own sourdough starter? It’s easy! While the Internet is full of sourdough starter recipes that call for unusual ingredients like pineapple or orange juice, fruit, potato, or sweetener, to make a good sourdough starter you need just three things: flour, water, and time.
Start with Quality Ingredients
With so few ingredients used in a sourdough starter, it’s crucial that the ingredients be of the highest quality. Use filtered or bottled water since most municipalities treat water with chlorine, which kills the microorganisms. Any grain-based flour will work for making a sourdough starter. Unbleached all-purpose flour, rice flour, rye flour, spelt flour, whole-wheat flour, barley flour, sprouted flour, einkorn flour, bread flour – they all work.
Getting a boost in beneficial bacteria and yeasts from an established starter is always helpful, particularly for first-time sourdough bakers whose technique and knowledge are limited by inexperience. Established sourdough starters, usually sold fresh or dried, give the sourdough starter a boost to make sure your starter starts reliably bubbling. You can find a sourdough starter through bakeries, online specialty shops, or sourdough-baking friends. Once acquired, use one-quarter cup of it to help your starter take off.
The container for storing the starter should not be metal and not be kept airtight as it thrives on circulating air. The process of fermentation releases carbon dioxide which can build up so set a lid loosely on top of it, or cover the opening with a lint-free kitchen towel or cheesecloth. Remember: the starter will expand and rise to twice its volume after a feeding, so the container should have double the capacity of an un-fed starter.
To make a sourdough starter, combine 1/4 cup of flour and with 1/4 cup of warm water in 4 cup glass or ceramic container. Stir it vigorously with a non-metal utensil. Be sure to stir briskly enough that you are incorporating air because yeast needs oxygen to thrive. Cover the container. Repeat the feeding and stirring every 12 hours, morning and evening, for three days. To proceed, move all but 1/2 cups of the starter. Now feed it 1/2 cup flour and 1/2 cup water. Stir briskly, cover, and keep at room temperature for 12 hours once again. Repeat the process of removing, feeding, stirring, and fermenting every 12 hours until a vigorous starter is formed. Within five to ten days, the starter will develop bubbles throughout, a puffy or spongy texture, and a pleasant sour or yeast smell. When the starter doubles in size and develops a bubbly froth, it is done. The starter should be the consistency of thick waffle batter; if needed, to add a little more water.
If you regularly bake with starter, keep it on the kitchen counter at room temperature. This means feeding it twice a day so it will be ready to bake with at any time. If you bake infrequently, store the starter in the refrigerator. Once the starter is chilled, it needs to be fed every 7 (recommended) to 30 days. A layer of watery liquid containing alcohol, known as hooch, may develop. Stir it into the starter if you plan to use it in a day or two; otherwise, periodically pour off some of the hooch, feed the starter, and return it to the fridge.
Several hours before you plan to make dough, you need to make a “sponge” or fermented batter. To make the sponge, take the starter out of the fridge. Reserve at least 1/2 cup of the starter and then pour the rest of it into a large non-metal bowl. Add one cup of warm water and one cup of flour to the bowl or more as needed for the recipe. Stir well, and set it in a warm place for several hours. This is called “proofing” or “fermenting.” When it is bubbly, frothy, and it smells slightly sour, it is ready. Some starters can proof in one hour while others take more than eight.
Plan for Proper Rising
Plan to allow bread to rise for 8-24 hours before baking. Rise times on the longer end will also allow for further fermentation and improve the sourness of the final product. If you are in a time crunch and don’t have enough time to allow the bread to rise naturally, one trick is to add a pinch of instant yeast to the dough. This small amount of commercial yeast will greatly shorten the rise time while still allowing for the complex sourdough flavors.
Do not be discouraged if your first sourdough creation is not perfect. Like with all baking, you need to learn and get to understand your dough. Fresh sourdough starter is a wonderful resource. Keep in mind that sourdough is incredibly versatile. A sourdough starter can be used to make a variety of baked goods such as bread, rolls, pizza dough, biscuits, pancakes, waffles, muffins, cookies, and cakes.