So on request, I decided to post about making and caring for a sourdough starter. I love having a starter because it makes bread flavor very complex. You can easily prove this by making two doughs using a simple bread recipe like NYT’s no-knead bread. One dough is the “control” with commercial yeast, and in the other you use sourdough starter instead. Once you get used to the flavor of the sourdough, breads made with commercial yeast taste bland. Good, but bland.
How to start a starter
Here’s the problem. I cheated when I started mine. After trying and failing using Peter Reinhart’s method (flour, water, and pineapple juice), I took some of Mr. Bread Maiden’s yeast after he made beer and have been feeding it flour and water ever since. If you really want to know how to make a starter really from scratch, this is a great tutorial: http://www.thefreshloaf.com/node/233. Make sure you follow the author’s instructions about getting freshly-milled flour (or do it yourself from wheat berries) when you first start. You need the natural yeasties in the flour so you can’t use plain store-bought bread or all-purpose flour with all the good stuff removed.
This is what Mr. Bread Maiden buys at the store when he wants to make beer.
He makes a mash using hops and then adds the liquid yeast to it and lets it eat away at the sugars for a few weeks.
Then he bottles it and throws away the yeast. One time I asked him for a few cups and he was happy to oblige. The reason you can do this is because beer yeast and bread yeast are the same strain: S. Cerevisiae. Here is what it looks like:
You want to use a glass jar with a tight-fitting lid. Open it to feed the starter but otherwise keep it closed. You can have a bigger jar but I wouldn’t go any smaller than the one I have. The problem with a small jar of starter is that you have to build it back up each time you use it because your starter is only about two cups.
I started by feeding it equal weights of water and all-purpose flour. At first it is really bubbly but then activity dies down for a few days because you have to build up a culture and wait for non-yeast bacteria to die off. Just keep feeding it and it will either revive from the feedings or will take on some of the wild yeast floating around your kitchen and start a culture from that. This is why everyone’s starter is unique- it develops from the natural yeast in its environment.
Once I had my 100% hydration starter going, I divided it into two glass jars. One I continued feeding equal weights of flour and water, and the other I fed at 75% hydration. The only reason is that Peter Reinhart likes to use bigas, which are firm pre-ferments, and French breads tend to call for poolishes, which are more watery. I probably use the 75% hydration starter more often.
The more I refresh my starter, the lighter in color it gets. Remember at first it was brown?
Managing Your Starter
Once you get your starter going and it gets bubbly, you can start using it right away. I usually keep my starters in the fridge and then take them out and feed them the night before or in the morning if I want to bake in the afternoon so they can get up to room temperature and the yeast can start working. I feed mine every time I bake so it’s usually once a week. If you go longer than that without baking, sometimes your starter will develop a dark, alcoholic-smelling liquid on top. Don’t worry about it; when you want to use it just pour the liquid off. The starter should be just fine underneath.
Using your starter
In a given bread, you will want to add more starter than commercial yeast. Don’t worry about adding a cup or more into a dough: the amount of starter does not make the bread taste more sour. The way to get a more sour taste is to let it sit and ferment for a long time.
My favorite bread in the whole world calls for weights equivalent to 1 part starter, 2 parts water, and 3 parts flour (also some salt, which I always forget until the last minute). I can choose how sour I want it by letting it ferment for longer or shorter.
Hope this helps! The easiest way though is probably to make friends with someone who uses a starter and ask them for a little bit. You only need about a tablespoon to build up a good starter.