The truth is, sourdough purists sniff at those who build their starters using yeast. But unless you know that the air inside your home is teeming with wild yeast spores yearning for a home, take the surefire path and use yeast from a packet.
Even if you do, dangers lurk. Yeast is a living organism, and you can kill it in any number of ways: too much heat, too little heat, not enough nourishment, chemicals in your tap water, murderous bacteria cells staging a coup. But if you follow this recipe, chances are you'll be all right. Once you have the starter going, you can store it in the refrigerator indefinitely, feeding it regularly and enjoying the tangy fruits of your labors.
Adding a little sugar will help jump-start the yeast process because yeast feeds on sugar; just don't use too much. Two teaspoons is about right.
Many recipes for sourdough products require you to bring the starter to room temperature and feed the yeast cells anywhere from an hour to a day in advance. So keep in mind that a sourdough dish isn't something you can pull off on the spur of the moment.
Make Ahead: The starter must ferment at room temperature for 2 to 5 days. While sitting on the counter, it should be fed daily once it has started bubbling. To feed, remove 1 cup of the starter (use, give away or discard) and replace with 1 cup flour and 1 cup warm (105 to 115 degrees) water. Once the starter has become established, cover and refrigerate it if you don't want to have to continue feeding it daily; once every 2 or 3 months, bring it to room temperature and feed it, then return to the refrigerator.
Servings: 2.5 cups
- 2 cups flour
- 2 teaspoons sugar (optional)
- 2 1/4 teaspoons (1 packet) active dry yeast
- 2 cups bottled (not distilled) water, warmed (105 to 115 degrees)
Combine the flour, the sugar if using, and yeast in a sterile 2-quart nonreactive container; do not use metal or plastic. Gradually add the water and mix to form a paste. Do not worry about lumps; they will eventually disappear.
Cover the container with a clean, dry dish towel and let it sit in a warm (70- to 80-degree), draft-free spot for 2 to 5 days, stirring it thoroughly once a day. Do not allow the temperature to exceed 100 degrees during this time or the yeast may die. When the starter has developed a pleasant sour smell and appears bubbly, it is ready. Stir, cover loosely with plastic wrap and refrigerate. Once a month or so, remove it from the refrigerator, bring to room temperature and feed; about an hour after feeding, return it to the refrigerator.
Adapted from a recipe by Linda Stradley at www.whatscookingamerica.net.
Tested by Jane Touzalin.
E-mail questions to the Food Section at firstname.lastname@example.org.