Want to make Sourdough Bread
December 16, 2009 11:33 PM   Subscribe

Help from our sourdough bread experts.I want to get my wife a sourdough bread starter and whatever goodies to help in baking a tasty sourdough. Please pass along any tips, books, or info available to get the dough rolling.. By the way can you make a starter at home or is there a really good place to order a starter. Thanks!
posted by Upon Further Review to Food & Drink (23 answers total) 29 users marked this as a favorite
I've made a starter at home... it's very easy. I just combined flour and water in a 1:1 ratio. (I also added a bit of honey, but that it optional.) You leave the mixture out in the open, uncovered, for a few days to let the yeasts in the air get started, then it should be good to go. After that I keep it covered in the fridge. I make a loaf of bread once a week, and I replace the starter I use with the same amount of flour and water (that is, if I use 2 cups of starter for my bread, I add 2 cups flour and 2 cups water back to the starter.) I made a starter this way almost a year ago and it's still going strong, making plenty of tasty bread.
posted by Yiggs at 12:01 AM on December 17, 2009

Yep, no need to order starter. Part of what makes sourdough so cool is that you're enlisting local bacteria to work for you and every local strain has its own distinct flavor. Even if you order some fancy San Francisco, it'll eventually get out colonized by your local stuff anyway. So I've been told, anyway.

Get some unglazed saltillo tiles from home depot to line your oven rack and invest in a spray bottle. Spray the walls of your oven when you put the loaf in. Between the heat retention of the homemade baking stone and the steam you'll get way better oven spring and much more authentically rustic sourdough loaves.

Have fun!
posted by maniactown at 12:33 AM on December 17, 2009

See my post here.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 12:48 AM on December 17, 2009

...and then head over to Youtube and search for 'artisan bread in five', or watch this video.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 12:51 AM on December 17, 2009

It's possible to buy dried starter. It's kind of like dried yeast, except that it contains the proper kind of lactobacillus.

But it's pretty much a specialty item. I've seen it in tourist stores in San Francisco.

It's possible to do what the others here have said and rely on whatever happens to be in your house, but you might not get the right thing, so don't be too surprised if you have to try it again. And you may not get one of the best strains, so even if it is lactobacillus the taste may be a little off.

What you really want to do is find someone with a good strain and beg them for a few spoonfuls of it. If they're really into it, they'll be glad to do so. Real sourdough fans can provide a genealogy of their particular starter, usually going back to the California gold rush.

Or maybe buy it mailorder. (I just found that by googling; I don't know anything about them. Anyway, looks like it's $10 plus shipping.)
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 12:55 AM on December 17, 2009

An easy-to-follow step-guide here, courtesy of the Independent.
Mmmmm, now I have a craving for mushrooms on sourdough, and it' just 10 am here, damn you all.
posted by MessageInABottle at 2:15 AM on December 17, 2009

I have found that making starter from scratch is a very random affair -- maybe you need to live in the right place to have the correct microbes hanging around. If you can get a working culture from someone else, there's no shame in doing that. In fact it's a good thing to preserve it and multiply it.

Sourdough dough will take longer to rise.

You need to experiment with time and temperature to get the balance between rising and sourness right.

Sourdough is awesome for breads with more rye flour in them because rye gluten needs acid to really do its thing.

Sourdough crust will not go as brown as the same dough yeasted.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 2:29 AM on December 17, 2009

I created a nice starter using Gold Rush sourdough starter (sorry, the link is to a 24-pack, but you really just need one packet). It takes a few feeding cycles to really get going, but I now have a very healthy starter. Another place to get sourdough starters is Sourdoughs International. They've been around for many years and have a good reputation, and they have several different starters available.

If you want to make your own starter, you can google up instructions for that (sorry, I don't have any references handy). Most people recommend that for a new starter, you start with rye flour and then slowly transition to regular wheat flour over several feedings once it's started to ferment nicely (unless, of course, you're planning to make sourdough rye bread, in which case you can just keep it as an all-rye starter).
posted by klausness at 3:45 AM on December 17, 2009

When I made my sourdough starter I found the resources over at Breadtopia to be of great help. Here's a link to a video that is very useful. In general I found the Breadtopia resources and recipes very good, just be a bit careful of diving too deep into the forums, there's a lot of conflicting information in there from forum contributors, I found it paralyzing after a while.

The Wild Yeast blog is also amazing, once you get the starter the Sourdough Ciabatta recipe makes some of the best rolls I've ever had, just be sure to set aside an entire weekend for it! Here are my top three takeaways from the whole process:
  • If you're in a hurry to make good sourdough then buy pre-made starter. When you make your own it takes some long-term tending (perhaps a month or so) to get a good cultivation going, especially if you're looking for a stronger sour taste.
  • Buy a good kitchen scale that is able to display weight as grams. Lots of the best bread recipes you'll find use weight as measure, rather than cups, teaspoons, etc.
  • Making your own starter is definitely fun and worth it, as noted above you should kickstart the process using rye flour: the fresher the better.

posted by jeremias at 5:07 AM on December 17, 2009

By the way, if you want your sourdough bread nice and tart, instead of letting it rise for a couple of hours at room temperature, make it at night and let it rise overnight in the fridge. This gives the lactobacilli a head start on the yeast.

Also, if you want a crusty bread, put a pan of water in the oven.
posted by musofire at 5:11 AM on December 17, 2009

Here's the sourdough primer from King Arthur's Flour. They also sell their sourdough starter as well as the dried sourdough starters mentioned above. They also have a page about how to care for your starter.

Peter Reinhart talks about making a sourdough starter in his book The Bread Baker's Apprentice. I tried it once but wasn't very successful. I'm going to give it another shot soon.

I've also heard that if you continually use your starter (as opposed to buying it and growing it up for one batch of baking) no matter where it came from it is going to taste like your local yeasts. And that isn't a bad thing, just don't expect San Francisco sour dough in NJ.
posted by bDiddy at 5:19 AM on December 17, 2009

when I tried this I went to Whole Foods and asked if I could buy some starter. The guy gave me some, explained its provenance and didn't charge me.

That said it was a total failure and a complete waste of time. It was too much pain in the ass to deal with.
posted by sully75 at 5:58 AM on December 17, 2009

I made sourdough starter using this recipe and had good success. If you want authentic (and old) starter you can try sending for this starter.
posted by violette at 6:28 AM on December 17, 2009

Ran Prieur is to Sourdough what Sheldon Brown is to bicycles. All purpose informational page and howto.
posted by saxamo at 7:06 AM on December 17, 2009

While you are waiting for your starter to take off, you could try another wild-fermented bread, salt-rising bread, that doesn't take long at all to get going. There was an FPP about it a while back that inspired me to try some with pretty good results, but all the links seem to be broken now.
posted by TedW at 7:15 AM on December 17, 2009

I made sourdough starter using organic grapes from our CSA, which is out on Long Island. The white powdery stuff you see on grapes before they're washed? Yeast.

So, 10 grapes, a cup of flour and a cup of water, put in a mason jar with cheesecloth over the top.
I added a spoonful or two of flour each day and stirred, and after a week fished out the grapes. It makes an excellent tart-tasting sourdough, which i have been eating weekly for over a month now.

Note: I have found that my starter doesn't provide as much loft to the loaf as dried yeast, which means that the bread can be kinda dense. Rather than making large round rustic-style loaves, which tended not to cook through, I have made long baguette-like loaves, which have fared much better. I put them on a baking stone and put a cookie sheet full of water in the oven to create steam.
posted by dubold at 8:39 AM on December 17, 2009

Dubold, sourdough starter isn't yeast. That's what's interesting about it.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 9:06 AM on December 17, 2009

King Authur Flour has a great baking website, and their sourdough starter is really good. If you don't want to deal with care and feeding of a starter, they also have a dry French sourdough starter that I have never tried.
posted by rtimmel at 9:40 AM on December 17, 2009

Also, if you want a crusty bread, put a pan of water in the oven.

Actually, just putting a pan of water in the oven won't give you very much steam. Peter Reinhart has a good trick for getting plenty of steam: Put a heavy pan (one that won't buckle with changes of temperature) into the oven before you start heating it. When it's time to put the bread into the oven, the pan will have gotten very hot. Right after you put the bread in (on a different shelf from the pan, ideally on something like a heated pizza stone), pour boiling water into the empty pan. This will create a nice burst of steam as the water hits the superheated pan. Close the oven door right away to keep the steam in.

Also, you want the bread to finish baking in a dry oven, so about halfway through the baking time, take out the steam pan and let the remaining steam escape.
posted by klausness at 10:56 AM on December 17, 2009

Are you anywhere near San Francisco? I'll give you some of mine, which I originally got from a bakery called Boulette's Larder (or something like that) in the Ferry Building. You can buy it there (you have to ask for it - it's not displayed anywhere) if you prefer to go right to the source.
posted by Quietgal at 10:58 AM on December 17, 2009

I've been baking sourdough from the Friends of Carl for a few years now and it's a fabulous starter - it's very quick, which is nice if you don't want to wait 6 hours for the final rise, but it's resilient and deals with rising in the fridge well.

As for tips, here's the tip section of the info sheet I give out when I give friends some of my starter:

- To wake powdered starter, add about 1/4 cup lukewarm (under 90 degrees) water and enough flour to make a paste. Let sit in a warm place (again, under 90 degrees) until bubbles form and starter begins to rise.
- Discard all but a couple of tablespoons of starter (or use in pancakes or other quick bread), add lukewarm water and flour, and let sit again. Continue cycle until the starter is able to double in volume in a consistent amount of time. When it reaches this point, it's active and ready to go!

- Store in a glass jar in the refrigerator with the lid loosely screwed on.
- Starter can go for weeks or more in the fridge without being fed. Just make sure to put it through a couple of feeding cycles before using it in a bread recipe if it's been sitting for a while. (Pancakes or recipes using baking soda should be okay, though.)
- You can dry starter by spreading it on a pie plate or wax/parchment paper in a thin layer and setting on the countertop; when it's completely dry, powder it in the blender and store in the pantry. Good if you want to take a break from sourdough for a while or to keep some in reserve in case of contamination. Reactivate by adding powder to water, then add flour.
- You only need to reserve half a cup or so in the fridge. You can feed it to make as much starter as you need for your recipe.

- Remove from the fridge and stir in the hooch (dark liquid on the top).
- Add about 1 cup bottled or unchlorinated water to starter and stir well, then add 1.5 cups flour (or any amount flour/water in approx. that ratio). The consistency should be like a thick batter or mud. You can experiment with your starter once it's established to see if it will thrive on tap water rather than bottled - just remember to save some back in case the chlorine kills it!
- Allow mixture to sit at anywhere from room temperature to 90 degrees until doubled; the warmer it is, the faster it will rise. The longer it takes to rise, the more sour flavor it will develop.
- When doubled, starter is ready. Reserve half a cup for the fridge, then use the rest for cooking.
- If you use too much starter for a recipe, you can even scrape down the sides of the jar it was in and use that for your fridge culture. Feed it normally to bulk it up, then reserve in the fridge.
- You only need a small amount of starter to begin with; as small as a teaspoon will activate 1.5 cups of flour/1 cup water. If you need to re-feed your starter, pour out most of it and only reserve a couple of spoonfuls, then feed. This will also make the starter healthier.
- Active starter should smell like beer, wine, bread, or other similarly pleasant aromas.
- If your hooch becomes pink or red or the starter smells bad, it might be sick. Take a very tiny (pea-sized) amount and mix with 1 cup water/1.5 cups flour to "wash" it. You can repeat this several times. It's very rare for starter to suffer a catastrophic failure, and this washing procedure can bring most anything back from the brink of extinction. This also helps to perk up a non-producing starter.

- Sourdough takes longer than commercial yeast for rising.
- The longer the proofing and rising, the more sour flavor develops.
posted by Addlepated at 11:26 AM on December 17, 2009 [2 favorites]


I know sourdough isn't yeast. it's a lactobacillus culture, similar to some belgian beers or saurkraut, kimchi, yogurt, and other awesome fermented foods.

My starter was based off the method suggested by Sandor Katz in Wild Fermentation. Originally I was going to type something much longer, but felt that there was already a lot of good info in the thread and I felt another long answer might not be that helpful for the OP.

thanks to Chocolate Pickle for pointing out potential confusion.
posted by dubold at 5:04 PM on December 17, 2009

I know sourdough isn't yeast. it's a lactobacillus culture

My understanding of it is that a sourdough culture is a symbiotic mix of bacteria (generally, as you say, some form of lactobacillus) and wild yeasts.
posted by klausness at 5:56 AM on December 18, 2009

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