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.
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.
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.
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.