How to Start Sourdough

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starting sourdough starterSourdough bread is making a comeback, and not only because it’s extraordinarily delicious. After years of eating “fast” heavily processed bread from the grocery store, some folks are starting to realize that eating sourdough bread has real health benefits, as well. I love homemade artisan breads, and I have been baking them for years, but it wasn’t until recently that I started to work with sourdough myself. And I have to say:  I’ll never go back.

The primary thing to understand about sourdough is that you aren’t going to rush this. No. It requires some planning to bake sourdough bread, but it’s not any more work than making a loaf from scratch using baker’s yeast. For example, most recipes require that the sourdough be actively fermenting, so this means taking some out of the refrigerator, feeding it, and letting it sit overnight before you can use it. This is easy and takes about 5 minutes, but it does mean that you probably aren’t going to decide to bake bread one morning and have it the same day.
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Sourdough is slow bread, although I have found some recipes that artificially speed it up. For example, King Arthur Flour has a sourdough bread recipe for the bread machine that is quite decent as far as that goes. However, you will never find a sourdough bread machine recipe that doesn’t also ask for baker’s yeast. Redundant? Sure. The sourdough is enough to make the bread rise, but even a bread machine’s long cycle isn’t enough time to do that adequately. So it’s a cheat.

If you decide to make the commitment to sourdough, however, you won’t be sorry. It makes the best bread I have ever made, and possibly the best I’ve ever had. It’s that good. However, note that keeping a sourdough starter is like keeping a pet:  you must feed it at least once a week. And when you feed it, you must remove some of the starter, so you either have to bake with it at least once a week, or you have to throw it away, which would just be so sad.

Homemade Sourdough Starter

The microbes for sourdough are in the air, so in theory all you need is air, water, and flour. And time. This will take a few days.

Instructions for making your own starter abound. You can find good instructions here, here, and here. You can also make a salt-rising starter, which is outlined here.

I have tried to make sourdough starter from scratch, and I have failed miserably. I live in the Pacific Northwest, and it’s hard to keep the ambient temperature in my house stable 24 hours a day. It stays on the cool side. And I’m not willing to leave my oven on for several days. That sort of thing makes me nervous. So I found that the easiest thing to do was to simply buy my starter outright.

Where to Buy Sourdough Starter

You can also buy a packet of Gold Rush San Francisco style starter with handy instructions from Bob’s Red Mill. I tried this, but it didn’t work for me. My starter just never “started.”

In the end, I bought my starter from King Arthur Flour. Their starter dates back to the 1700s, and there’s something to be said for maturity. I also bought the crock you can use to store the starter in the refrigerator. You will definitely need something, and this seemed like an easy thing to manage.

The starter came ready to feed, along with some instructions for doing so and a number of recipes. I followed the directions, and the really nice thing about is that at some point you have to divide the whole thing. Your choice at that point is to throw half of it away (ack!) or share it with a friend. I gave it to a friend, who has been enjoying it immensely. So, buying the starter is definitely a two-fer!

Feeding Your Sourdough Starter

Feeding your starter is easy. Keep it in the refrigerator until you want to use it, which is hopefully when you feed it. Make sure you feed it at least once a week, or it may die. (I put the feeding day on my calendar so I get a reminder—just in case.) To feed it, remove 1 cup of the starter, which you can use to start bread, biscuits, waffles, cakes, or just whatever. Add ½ cup of lukewarm (not hot, but not cool) water and 1 cup of flour. Mix well with a wooden spoon. Sourdough starter is really sticky, but that’s okay! Put the starter back in the fridge.

Sourdough Recipe Books

Since I didn’t know very much about sourdough, I ordered some books to help me out. I really appreciated the recipes that came with my starter from King Arthur Flour, and they have a ton of recipes online. But I also found a couple of good books to get started with:

  • Baking with Sourdough — This is a tiny little book, but what it lacks in size it makes up for in quality. These are good, basic recipes for bread, waffles, biscuits, and cake. I absolutely love it.
  • Wild Bread – Handbaked sourdough artisan breads in your own kitchen — This book provides a wealth of information about sourdough, possibly more than you want to know! It’s a good resource for the serious sourdough aficionado, but if you’re looking for straight simple recipes, you might be better off with another book. It’s going to take me awhile to digest (ahem) the information in this one.

If you find other good recipe books, please share them in the comments!
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Asha Hawkesworth

Asha is passionate about enjoying life and making the most of what she has. She is a writer and painter and enjoys being with her family. She has written children's books and a book about the inner child (www.imaginalovemedia.com), as well as other blogs at brighthill.net and ashahawkesworth.com.

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