Overview

My sourdough starter has no name. I know there is a trend that suggests I should name it, because if everything goes as planned, I can then bequeath the family starter to future generations. But I just can’t make the commitment. After all, I’ve already murdered two sourdough starters, one in the ’70s and another in the ’90s. Naming them did not help their fate and, really, it’s just too much responsibility.

But the Internet is a powerful thing. When everyone I knew began making their own sourdough bread, Instagramming their eye-poppingly bronzed loaves, sporting ears on the surface. I ogled their breads, cut open to expose the classic sourdough’s airy holes.

It wasn’t long before I knew I’d take another plunge into the world of sourdough.

I am clear-eyed this time. I know the pitfalls. I know that my interest may flag and I’m encouraged by a recent Food52 story that tells of a way to dehydrate a starter — like putting my newspaper on vacation-hold.

Find a friend with a starter, or make your own

If you, too, are hearing the siren call of sourdough, the first thing to do is ask a friend who is already well down this rabbit hole to share some of their starter. They will be thrilled. You will, of course, hear the provenance of this blob of off-white bubbling mass housed in a plastic deli tub. There will be discussions of hydration and ratios and when to add the salt. About autolyse and gluten development and long fermentation. The windowpane. So much shaping, folding and slashing. The conversation may even veer to flour mills and building a bread oven.

Scale and get a printer-friendly version of the recipe here.

If you have no access to a starter from a cohort, make one yourself. Sourdough starters are a combination of flour and water and bacteria in the air, the very essence, the terroir, of your home. I wanted to know how my own kitchen space, where I cook daily, bake constantly and ferment pickles, might bloom in a sourdough starter. In a little more than week, I had a bubbly, lively, happy starter and I was off and running with crackers, bread and cinnamon rolls.


(Laura Chase de Formigny for The Washington Post; food styling by Lisa Cherkasky for The Washington Post)

If you are going to take the leap into sourdough baking, invest in a kitchen scale to weigh the ingredients. Grams are precise, but if you only have a scale that registers ounces, it will still be more effective than using measuring cups.

To build a starter, mix equal parts flour and water and let it sit on the counter for a day. Every 24 hours, feed the starter first by discarding all but about a quarter of what you start with, adding back equal parts fresh flour and water. Every day, the ferment grows and transforms the once rough, dense mixture into a bouncy, wheat-scented bowl of hopefulness.

In a few days, the starter is fed every 12 hours and, after a while it will increase in size in just four hours.

Eventually, having a starter is akin to having a Tamagotchi pet. It requires a weekly feeding, and without this attention the bouncy quality that makes sourdough breads full of air holes is harder to achieve. My nameless starter sat happily in my refrigerator and the weekly feeding schedule resulted in two large loaves of bread every seven days. That was all fine and good until it far outpaced our consumption and freezer space, too. I made so much bread that even friends and neighbors began to scatter whenever we held out a round shape nestled in a tea towel.

How to do it

Sourdough starter becomes richer, more flavorful, and more fermented and bubbly with time. It may seem daunting, but creating your own starter is straightforward. All you need is water, flour, time and a bit of instruction, which we’re providing here.

Build a starter, keep it alive with a weekly feeding, and in a surprisingly short period of time the starter becomes a nuanced, rich, flavorful base for bread, rolls, pancakes, waffles, crackers, English muffins and more.

Use all-purpose flour initially to build a bubbly, fermented starter and once it is reliably rising, add any other grain that inspires — whole wheat, rye, spelt, einkorn — when feeding. Plan a week for the fermentation to happen. The temperature in your kitchen can affect how long this takes.

If you’ve been given a sourdough starter, or if you’ve started one yourself, it’s something you must keep alive. Like the Tamagotchi toys of our childhood, with minimal effort, this is not insurmountable.

Scale and get a printer-friendly version of the starter recipe here.

Sourdough starter may be kept on the kitchen counter, which is a good place for it if you are making bread every day. If you are a bake-bread-once-a-week (or less) kind of baker, keep your starter in the refrigerator and feed it weekly. If you are only making bread occasionally, you will still need to feed the starter weekly. It is not unusual for the starter to have some liquid around it.

Stir it well before using it in a recipe or before starting the discard-and-feed cycle.

If the starter languishes for months, it may be possible to reinvigorate it with regular feedings. If it turns pink or smells spoiled, throw it away and start again.

Equipment: You will need a kitchen scale and a 2-quart storage container with a tightfitting lid. Opt for glass, as it’s nonporous and won’t attract/absorb smells.

Notes: The flour used to feed will have a direct influence on the flavor of the bread, so feel free to swap up to half the flour by weight with whole-wheat, rye, spelt, einkorn or any other milled grain. Whatever kind of water you drink — tap, filtered or bottled — use it for your starter.

This process generally takes seven to 10 days. Start the process at a time during the day you are always in the kitchen. The feeding takes no more than 20 minutes. The final day or two will be more demanding, checking on and feeding the starter every few hours.


Ingredients

1,200 grams (about 2 pounds) all-purpose flour, plus more as needed to feed the starter (see NOTES

1,200 grams (about 5 cups) water, plus more as needed to feed the starter (see NOTES)


Steps

Step 1

DAY 1: Into a 2-quart storage container, add 113 grams (4 ounces/scant 1 cup) of flour and 113 grams (4 fl ounces/1/2 cup) water. Stir together: This is your starter. Place the cover but do not seal. Set the container aside for 24 hours, out of the sun and off any cool surface. If the counters are cold, place the container on a wooden cutting board or a stack of towels.

Step 2


A healthy starter will have bubbles on top, when it is ready to be fed. (Photo by Stacy Zarin Goldberg for The Washington Post; food styling by Lisa Cherkasky for The Washington Post)

DAY 2: Stir down the starter. Into a medium bowl, weigh 113 grams (4 ounces) of the starter, discarding the balance, known as discard, castoff or spent starter. Clean the storage container.

Into the starter, stir in 113 grams (4 ounces) of both flour and water. This is feeding. Scrape the fed starter back into the storage container. Place the cover on top, but do not seal. Set the container aside for 24 hours. Repeat on DAYS 3 and 4.

Step 3


As the starter matures, the bubbles will get larger and strands of gluten will be evident. (Photo by Stacy Zarin Goldberg for The Washington Post; food styling by Lisa Cherkasky for The Washington Post)

DAY 5 (Or when the starter is both actively bubbling and increasing in volume): The bubbles will begin to get larger and there will be strands of gluten evident when stirring the starter. Discard all but 113 grams and then feed with 113 grams of both flour and water. Scrape the fed starter back into the storage container and use a piece of tape to indicate it’s level in the container. In 12 hours, evaluate the starter. If it has doubled, feed the starter again (discard all but 113 grams and stir in 113 grams each flour and water.)

Step 4

THE NEXT 2 OR 3 DAYS: Feed the starter every 12 hours until it begins to reliably double in 4 hours. Feed once or twice to reassure yourself that it is indeed doubling in 4 hours. Cover the starter tightly and refrigerate, or use the starter to bake bread or crackers, leaving 113 grams to continue to be fed.

Step 5

Feed the starter once every week or when baking bread. If you’re planning to bake bread and your starter has been ignored for more than 1 week, feed the starter first, letting it ferment on the counter for about 4 hours to confirm the leavening strength (doubled in size and topped with big, lazy bubbles).

If your starter has been ignored for more than a month it may take up to 4 feedings at 12 hour intervals to revive it.

Step 6

TO FEED OR MAINTAIN YOUR STARTER: Stir down the active starter. Into a medium bowl, weigh 113 grams (4 ounces) of the active starter. Clean the storage container.

Into the starter, stir in 113 grams (4 ounces) of both flour and water until fully incorporated — this is feeding. Scrape the fed starter back into the storage container. Place the cover on top, but do not seal. Set the container aside for 4 hours, at which point it should have doubled in size. When ready, the starter should be topped with large bubbles and have a strong wheat scent.

Recipe from food writer Cathy Barrow.

Tested by Ann Maloney; email questions to voraciously@washpost.com.

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