Feed The Baby: Sourdough Starter

August 18, 2010

A baby, a beast, a burden. All are appropriate names for a sourdough culture. It has a strong aroma, it’s reputation precedes it, and it demands being cared for…but if you can put up with the culture’s strong personality, you will be rewarded.

As with anything in life—“there is more than one way to skin a cat”—and there is certainly more than one way to raise and sustain a sourdough. This is simply the method that worked for me in the middle of Iowa, during the hellish heat and humidity we call summer. (<— Look, alliteration!) This starter should be ready and very active in one weeks time.

For those of you who don’t know, a sourdough culture is simply flour and water mixed together and allowed to ferment, at room temperature. This encourages specific microorganisms (good bacteria and wild yeast) to propagate, bringing what was once just flour and water to life, with delightful consequences. I have worked with methods that called for feeding the starter every 12 hours, even every 8 hours, but this method (thank heavens) only calls for feeding every 24 hours. Now, just because this starter isn’t as demanding as some, doesn’t mean you can treat it however you like. Make sure that you are relatively consistent with your daily feeding time. This will help you raise a healthy baby. If you have to feed it an hour or two early, or an hour or two late, that should be fine…just don’t stretch it to 12 hours. This culture formula/recipe I am sharing with you will raise what is referred to as a “stiff” starter, and is only 50% hydrated. This means once your starter is up and running, there will be twice as much flour than water in the starter. Confused? Good, let’s get started!

To begin your sourdough starter, select a decent sized bowl (I used a medium-sized, plastic, clear, lidded bowl). Next, collect your ingredients. For this project, you will need room temperature water, whole rye flour, artisan flour, and eventually medium rye. What do all these flours look like, you may ask. Ah, I will show you, because that’s just the kind of lady I am.

Whole Rye Flour

Above is whole rye flour. To find this flour, look at your local health food store or bakery. If you are in Des Moines, I found this at Great Harvest Bread. Rye flour is helpful when starting a sourdough culture because it has high amounts of the microflora we are trying to grow in our starter.

Artisan Flour

You should be able to find artisan flour at any grocery store. The brand I used for this bread was Gold Medal: Better For Bread Flour. But any artisan flour will be fine. This is simply the brand my local grocer carries.

Medium Rye Flour

Again, look at your local health store, or bakery for this flour. I picked this flour up again at Great Harvest Bread here in Des Moines. You will not need this flour until the night before bread baking, but get it in your arsenal so you’re ready to go.

Here’s how it works:

Day 1:

Mix together (in your medium-sized bowl) with a spoon or spatula:

4 oz Whole Rye Flour (a scant cup)

4 oz Artisan Flour (a scant cup)

6 oz Water (70 degrees F, 3/4 cup)

Put a lid on your container, or cover with plastic wrap, and allow to sit on your counter or table at room temperature for 24 hours.

Day 2, 3, 4, & 5:

Every 24 hours, discard (throw in the trash) roughly half the dough in your bowl. Then stir in the water first to form a slurry, then add the flour. Each day you will add the following amount of water and flour:

4 oz Artisan Flour (a scant cup)

2 oz Water (70 degrees F, 1/4 cup)

The dough will seem shaggy and should form a into a ball. Between feedings, the flour will be absorbed by the moisture and should relax into a slack and bubbly “batter” like consistency.

Complete this process daily (days 2 through 5), discarding half the previous days dough, and adding that days ration of water and flour. As you proceed daily, the starter should become more and more active and bubbly. Each day, before discarding half and feeding your starter, observe the bubbles and growth (and strong aroma!).

Day 6:

This day is referred to as your “Final Build”. You will be feeding your baby more than usual in order to prepare for bread baking* the next day.  Your final build will include:

11 3/4 oz Artisan Flour

3/4 oz Medium Rye Flour

8 oz Water

4 oz Starter (4 oz of your previous days dough, discard the rest)

Again, mix your starter and water first to form a slurry, then add the flours to form a stiff dough. Cover your starter, and again leave at room temperature.

*In my schedule, I feed my starter its final build around 7 or 8 PM, and then begin making bread around 7 or 8 AM the next morning. At this point, the culture has digested the previous days feeding and is prime for baking.

Day 7:

Bake Day!  When you are ready to bake, use the formula/recipe I posted yesterday, or any other you find which works for you.

Good luck!

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