Starting and Maintaining a Healthy Sourdough Starter

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baking / bread / breakfast / egg free / fermented / sourdough / vegan / vegetarian

Sourdough Dough_

Sourdough Dough_-2

This is Part 1 of the Sourdough Post that will be up within the week. I figured I should break up the post into two parts as it was getting rather long and some of you may already have a sourdough starter going. For those of you who don’t, you can either follow the instructions in this post for starting your own, or you can try to hunt one down from a friend or a friendly baker or purchase a sourdough culture online or from a health food shop.

A good sourdough starter is very basic. It includes a grain flour and water. No need to muck around with adding kefir, vinegar, yeast etc. The natural wild yeasts and bacteria present in the flour and in our environment are what turn this flour and water into a living culture made up of yeasts, lactic acid, acetic acid and alcohol. Maintaining a proper balance of these acids and yeasts in the starter will help to create a sourdough bread that rises well and has the perfect sweetly sour flavour which is not overly acidic.

Here are a few tips I have learned along the way to help start and maintain a vigorous sourdough starter, which is not too sour and has a great rise ability to it.

Use filtered water:

When starting and maintaining a sourdough starter, the main goal is to encourage the wild yeasts and bacteria to thrive and create a healthy balanced culture. Using chlorinated tap water or collected water can introduce unwanted chemicals, pesticides and foreign bacteria into the starter culture. Chemicals and pesticides can kill the beneficial bacteria and yeasts and encourage mould, while foreign bacteria can grow and multiply and contaminate the starter. Using filtered water is ideal, but if it isn’t an option, use cooled boiled water instead.

Use high grade white flour (AP flour) or bread flour (not whole grains):

White all-purpose flour (high grade flour in NZ) or bread flour will behave more predictably than whole grain flours as the whole grains tend to carry more wild yeasts on them. The flavour also tends to be more balanced with a white flour, while a starter fed on whole grains can develop a strong, pungent flavour over time. You can start your starter on any type of grain flour you like, but my preference is to maintain my established starter on white wheat flour.

Store a mother starter in a jar in the fridge and feed once per week:

I keep my main (mother) starter in a glass jar in the fridge in-between baking and feed it once a week or each time I use it. This mother starter is well-established and very easy to maintain in this way. It is best stored in a clean glass jar and loosely sealed in the fridge to allow the carbon dioxide and alcohol to escape. Using a wide-mouth jar makes mixing easiest, but you can use whatever jar you have on hand, so long as it is twice as big as your starter volume and you give it a good, vigorous mix to get as much air into it as possible. I use the plastic container pictured above for my pre-ferment, or poolish, for one of the types of bread I make, but otherwise always store my ferments in glass.

Feed regularly and feed 12 hours before baking with it:

If you leave your starter in the fridge it should only need feeding once a week (and can even be left up to 2-3 weeks every once in a while if need be). If you leave it on the bench it will need feeding every 24 hours. I bake a loaf of bread once or twice a week and find it best to store my starter in the fridge, but if you bake almost daily, you may want to leave your starter out. One of the biggest tips I can give is to regularly feed your starter and to bring it out of the fridge the day or night before baking and feed it 12 hours before using it in baking.

Use an established starter if possible:

If you can, get a healthy established starter from a friend or from your local friendly baker (my first starter came from a local baker here in Wellington and they were more than happy to give me a 1/4 cup, which is plenty). Otherwise you should be able to easily buy a dried one online or from a health food store and it will come with instructions on how to get it going. If none of these are an option, it really is simple to make your own, and here is how:

How to make your own sourdough starter:

Just over 3/4 cup of high grade white flour (or AP white flour)

1/2 cup filtered water – room temp (or cooled, boiled water if you can’t get filtered)

In a large glass jar or a glass mixing bowl mix together the flour and water, whisking vigorously to get as much air into it as possible. Air is important for a healthy balance of acid and yeasts without too much alcohol. The mixture will be sticky and thicker than a cake batter. Scrape down the sides and cover loosely with a lid or tea towel and leave on top of the fridge or on the bench (or in the warmest spot in your house).

Over the next 4-10 days feed the mix every 12 hours by adding 1/2 cup flour + 1/3 cup filtered water and, again, whisking well to aerate the mixture. I do this first thing in the morning and before bed. Within that 4-10 days of 12 hourly feeding, you should start to see bubbles appearing and the mixture should start to smell yeasty and sweetly sour. Continue to feed 12 hourly until the starter is very bubbly and active and rising in volume (see images above). You can also taste the starter and it should be obviously tangy but with a nice sweetly sour flavour (more like yogurt and less like vinegar).

At this point you can discard half of the starter or use the excess for sourdough baking (or give it away to other people keen for an established starter). Continue to feed the starter with 1/2 cup flour and 1/3 cup filtered water every 24 hours over the next few days or week in order to get it well established. Your first few loaves of sourdough may not be overwhelmingly amazing, and this is because it does take a few weeks for the starter to become fully active, but don’t be discouraged. Bread-baking is an adventure, and well worth the perseverance! And now you are on to maintaining your starter!

Maintaining an established Sourdough Starter:

If you bake frequently you may want to leave your starter on the bench and feed it daily. If you only bake once or twice per week you can leave the starter in the fridge and feed it every 7 days. I prefer to weigh my ingredients with a digital scale for more consistent results but you can use volume measurements too if you prefer. Here is the ratio I use for my mother starter (although you can use a 1:1:1 weight ratio as well – ie 50gms starter, 50gms filtered water and 50gms flour).

50gms hungry starter

100gms filtered water

70gms high grade white flour or bread flour (or AP flour)

*For the volume measurements use 1/4 cup starter, 1/3 cup water and 1/2 cup flour.

Remove the starter from the fridge and allow it to come to room temperature if possible (about an hour or two). Place 50gms of hungry starter into a clean jar and add 100gms filtered water. Mix into a slurry. Add 7ogms of flour and mix well to add air into the mixture. Scrape down the sides and seal loosely with a lid (it is important to loosely fix the lid in order to allow the carbon dioxide to escape, otherwise the bacteria and yeast balance starts to get unhappy). Allow the starter to sit at room temp for 1-2 hours if possible before placing in the fridge (but just put straight into the fridge if necessary). Feed once per week or after using the ripe starter. Excess starter can be given away, discarded or used in other baking.

And now you are ready for making a loaf of sourdough bread!

Sourdough version 1-3

The Author

Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.

8 Comments

  1. Pingback: Slow Fermented Wheat Sourdough: No-Knead Method | The Rusty Skillet

  2. Sylvia says

    Kia ora Rusty. I agree with most of what you have written about sourdough starters. I avoid plastic containers and was told to avoid metal spoons too. I use brown rice flour to provide a GF starter. Another potential source of an established starter is good old Freecycle! Happy baking!

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    • Oh Freecycle! What a great suggestion. And I also maintain my GF starter on brown rice. I have tried other flours, but for the GF, brown rice seems to maintain the best starter for that. Sourdough is one of those things where there are SO many different ways of doing things, and I don’t think there is a completely right or a wrong way, just many different ways depending on how people prefer to do it. Thanks for the Freecycle suggestion. I will put that out there for others who are looking for an established starter.

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  3. Sarah says

    Does anyone know whether buckwheat flour would work? I need a gluten free option and we already enjoy buckwheat. Thanks

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    • You can use brown rice flour for a sourdough starter. Nicola Galloway has a great recipe for gluten free sourdough on her blog Homegrown Kitchen which uses brown rice flour for the starter and buckwheat in the actual bread recipe.

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