When the sourdough craze arrived in the spring at the start of our pandemic life at home, I took to this very space to say sourdough was not for me, for now. At a time of unprecedented challenge — personally, professionally and globally — I didn’t have the bandwidth to pick up a new hobby that might not shake out.
In typical fashion for me (ask how long it took me to listen to “Hamilton,” let alone become a lyric-quoting fan), it was months before I came around to experimenting with sourdough. My family had settled into a homebound routine, such as it was. I had plenty of flour and, finally, a little extra time. I wanted a challenge in my wheelhouse. I’d also developed a habit of buying two loaves of sourdough a week, so why not try? Here’s what I wish I’d known at the start.
There is no singular road map. Saying I had zero experience with sourdough would not be an understatement. More than two months in, I’m finding my groove, and my starter is still alive, though I haven’t named it/him/her. To get here, I pored over many resources, but no single one answered everything. I found myself stuck between wanting both more and less information. I needed the hand-holding of a beginner without getting stuck in the weeds.
If a source is adamant their way is the only way, it’s time to move on, or at least pick and choose what works best for you. I recommend casting a wide net, as each resource may satisfy a different need, whether it’s approachable recipes or accessible science and equipment advice.
So far my favorite experts have been Maurizio Leo of the Perfect Loaf blog; King Arthur Baking, where he has written excellent posts, too; Martin Philip, King Arthur’s head baker and the author of the truly excellent memoir/cookbook “Breaking Bread”; Bryan Ford, blogger and author of the recently published “New World Sourdough”; and Andrew Janjigian, a former longtime cook at America’s Test Kitchen who just launched a newsletter about bread baking.
Creating a starter is not that hard. The process of creating a starter full of the yeast and bacteria that gives rise and flavor to bread is straightforward. Mix equal amounts of water and flour over the course of a week or so, replacing portions of the blend with a fresh feeding of flour and water daily.
It’s a lot better if you don’t reverse the amounts you’re supposed to keep and discard, as I did in my first attempt. My second time, I didn’t mess things up. I initiated my starter with rye flour, as whole grains such as rye and regular whole-wheat flour retain more parts of the grains where those yeast and bacteria you want to cultivate tend to hang out. Getting those flours in the mix can help jump-start the process, and you can always switch over to a white flour (all-purpose or bread) or a blend once the starter is active.
Maintaining it is another matter. The starter creation process follows a simple formula, but once your starter gets going? That’s a whole different equation. My rye starter was so active it was eating through its feeding too quickly, and by the time I woke up ready to assemble a dough, it was soupy and spent. Unfortunately, I didn’t realize that and let’s just say the results were not pretty.
The type of flour you use, the temperature of your house and water, and the amount of starter you carry over from feeding to feeding can affect the speed at which your starter progresses to peak, which is when you want to use it. Some experts say peak is at approximately the point the starter doubles in size (a clear container makes it easy to track). I found this wasn’t strong enough to get my breads to rise. Feeding the starter and getting it to triple in volume has led to better, less dense bread.
Make it work for you. You need to find the right balance between starter and food (the flour and water) to fit your lifestyle and cooking plans. Tweak until you get the timing just right, whether you want to feed before you go to bed and have the starter ready in the morning, or feed in the morning and be able to start a levain (an offshoot of a starter, formulated for a specific recipe) by the afternoon or evening.
It will take experimentation and it may vary depending on your schedule or even the weather, but here’s something not everyone tells you either — starters are pretty resilient. If it goes too fast, just do a feeding with a higher ratio of fresh flour and water to starter, by increasing the flour and water or reducing the amount of starter carried over. Try cooler water, or reduce the whole grains in favor of white flour. Too slow? Increase the whole grains, warm the water, retain more starter and find a warmer spot to place your jar. Mine is the closet in the master bedroom, where a shelf is very close to the roof.
Starter size doesn’t matter. The typical instructions suggest using about 100 grams each of flour, water and starter, although I’ve seen up to 500 grams (!). That can quickly gobble up your flour stash and leave you with more discard than even a sourdough waffle lover like me can use. (Fun fact, which I can confirm: Too much discard, left for too long in your fridge without being opened, can literally blow the top off your container.)
Janjigian set off a viral wave of sourdough beginners with his Quarantiny starter plan, which used 10 grams of flour for each feeding. After I realized I had too much starter and that I’d probably only be baking once a week, I dropped my mix down to 20 grams of starter, flour and water per feeding. It’s manageable for me, and you can do whatever size works best for you. Need more starter for a recipe? It’s easy to increase, assuming you scale up in the same proportions as you’d been using for predictability, i.e. retain 50 grams of starter, feeding with 50 grams each of flour and water.
There really is a learning curve. Look, I love to tell people that success is within reach. But you shouldn’t expect perfection right away with sourdough, though if you happen to get it, well, you’ve got me beat. My first loaf was so disastrous that it looked like a cross between a ciabatta and a pita. In fact, “loaf” would have been a generous term. Still, don’t get obsessed with trying to achieve the ethereal honeycomb structure you often see on social media. It’s not the be all, end all, and your bread will taste great even without it.
Enjoy your efforts, and remember that each loaf is another opportunity to improve.
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