Sourdough Starter Recipe

I have always been interested in bread making but, frankly, have been intimidated.  It goes way past the fact that ingredients need to be measure accurately.  Time and temperature are just as important a factor to making great bread.  What temperature is the water that was used to make the dough?  What then is the temperature of the resultant dough?  What’s the temperature of the kitchen?  And all of these questions lead to further questions.  How long will it take to ferment?  How do I know when its done fermenting?  How long is the final proof?  Hell, do I have to work late tomorrow? Because I need to be home when the dough is ready.

The best results come from planning ahead and being methodical.  This is extremely different from what I do on a regular basis which usually ends with someone saying something to the extent of – just make it taste good.

But recently, I’ve gotten the itch to start making bread.  I have a friend who worked at an iconic New York bakery who taught me a lot about doughs.  I had a chance to make pizza dough and plenty of pizzas at my last job.  And I’ve been on a fermentation kick lately.  Plus it is starting to get cold out so its nice to have an excuse to turn the oven on.  All this is to say that I picked up a few break books and went at it.

It would not be fair for anyone if I just posted a bread recipe from a book.  The recipes in a good bread book are simple, but require good technique.  I’d rather not plagiarize whole sections of books where they discuss technique.  Its a lot of work for me, I’m sure its not legal, and I’d much rather just recommend a book to read (Ken Forkish’s, “Flour Water Salt Yeast”)

Better to discuss is how to make a sourdough starter, or levain.  The starter is a mixture of flour and water that has been left out to pick up the wild yeasts that are in the air all the time.  It also develops the lacto-bacteria that gives a sourdough it’s acidity.  With a starter, you can follow any sourdough bread recipe and you’ll have the main ingredient.  I have a pared down version of the levain discussed in “Flour Water Salt Yeast”.  I also incorporate tidbits from other books so Ken Forkish purists need not troll me about things I mention that aren’t in the book.

Important points before you get started – you’re want a probe thermometer and a scale.  I’m a big fan of weighing things out because measuring by volume can be wildly imprecise.  The thermometer is great to have because the starting temperature of your starter dictates how fast the yeast and bacteria grow.  If you don’t have a thermometer, use comfortably warm water.  You’ll also want to weigh the container that you will be developing the starter in.

One last notes – ignore the color of the starter in the pictures.  The lighting was different when each photo was taken.

Day 1

200 g whole wheat flour
200 g water (90°F)

Mix by hand in in clean container.  I used a 6 qt Cambro.  Let sit uncovered for 1 to 2 hours.  Cover and let sit for 24 hours.

Day 1 Start

Day 2

Start of day– Not much has changed.  I’m afraid I messed up.  I realized that my 5 year old digital probe thermometer is wildly inaccurate.  My anxiety about bread making starts to manifest.  I’m afraid I killed all life in my dough with water that’s too hot.  I run out to get a new thermometer and soldier on.

Day 2 Start

200 g whole wheat flour
200 g water (90°F)

Remove all but a quarter of your mixture.  Throw the rest away.  You don’t have to be too accurate at this point.  Don’t think of it as wasting product.  Rather, consider that you’re getting rid of spent fuel.  Add flour and water and mix by hand until incorporated.  Leave uncovered for 1 to 2 hours and then leave covered for another day.

Day 3

Start of day – I’m not a complete failure.  At the start of Day 2 the starter looked and smelled like what it was – flour and water.  But today I see some bubbles and its almost doubled in size from the gases that have built up.  Flour and water more like a cohesive structure.  A web of gluten that traps the gases. It also passes the sniff test.  A pungent aroma has started to develop.

Day 3 Start

200 g whole wheat flour
200 g water (90°F)

Remove all but a quarter of your mixture.  Throw the rest away.  You still don’t have to be too accurate at this point.  Add flour and water and mix by hand until incorporated.  Leave uncovered for 1 to 2 hours and then leave covered for another day.

Day 4

Start of day – More activity.  Again, the starter rose to double it size.  It looked almost the same as the start of Day 3.  Maybe a bit more gas and gluten but that may be all in my mind.  The smell is definitely stronger.  Unsurprisingly, it smells like sourdough bread but without all the smells of baked bread.

Day 4 Start

250 g whole wheat flour
250 g water (90°F)

Remove all but 100 grams of starter from the mix.  Use a scale.  The scale should read the weight of the container plus 100 grams.  Add in the flour and water and mix by hand until incorporated.  Cover and rest for another 24 hours.

Day 5

Start of day – The starter has doubled in size again.  It smells lovely.  I am now the owner of a living community of bacteria and yeast.  I feed it once more but this time with a combination of all purpose flour and whole wheat flour.  This will be how the levain is maintained going forward.  About 6 hours after this feeding, the starter is ready to be used.

Starter - Final

200 g all purpose flour
50 g whole wheat flour
200 g water

Remove all but 50 grams of starter from the mix.  50 grams looks like a smudge in the container but this is enough to get things rolling.  Add the two flours and water and incorporate fully.  Let rest for 6 hours and then either use or store away.

Starter Storage

Yeast slows down as the temperature gets colder.  In fact its almost completely dormant in a cool refrigerator and requires fewer feedings.  Feed the starter once every two months to keep it alive by repeating Day 5.  However, check the starter at the one month mark.  If it is losing its gluten structure and starting to get soupy, it needs to be refreshed sooner.

Starter Restoration

A refrigerated starter needs to be woken up before it is used.  This process starts two days before you plan on baking.

Restoration – Day 1 

Remove all but 100 grams of starter and incorporate the ingredients from Day 5.  Cover and let rest overnight.

Restoration – Day 2

Remove all but 50 grams of starter and incorporate the ingredients from Day 5.  Cover and let rest for about six hours.

 

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