There is something about making bread that is both very satisfying and a little bit magical. A simple mixture of flour, water and yeast – with a little abuse (kneading) and a bit of love (a warm place to rise) – turns into a nutritious, filling, food that has sustained people for centuries. Taking that experience one step further – “making” your own yeast with a sourdough starter from scratch – turns a merely wonderful loaf of homemade bread into a work of art for your taste buds.
Starting your own sourdough from scratch is not a difficult process. You don’t need a degree in chemistry or microbiology, you don’t need to be home every day at the same time to tend to the starter, and you don’t need to order a freeze dried starter and wait for it to arrive with the mail. You do need flour, water, a spoon, a plastic or glass container, and a little bit of patience, because we can’t make our first loaf of bread until the starter has been fermenting for a week.
There are many many different ways to start and feed a sourdough starter. The following method is one I use, and have successfully taught to everyone from high school freshmen to experienced bread bakers.
Day 1: Combine 1/2 cup of non-chlorinated water (use distilled water or water that has been boiled and cooled) and 3/4 cup rye flour in a 2 quart or larger container. You may add 1/8 tsp. of honey to get the starter off to a good start, but it’s not necessary. I usually add honey if I am starting this process in the winter when my house is cold, and leave it out if I am starting this process during warmer weather.
Loosely cover the container and let it sit at room temperature for 24 hours.
Day 2: Stir the mixture and discard half of it. This can be an approximate thing, you don’t have to actually measure it. Add 1/2 cup of water and 3/4 cup of rye flour to the container and stir to mix. Cover and let sit for another 24 hours.
Days 3 – 6: Each day discard half of the starter and add 1/4 cup of water and 1/2 cup of unbleached, all-purpose flour. Stir to combine. You should see bubbles by day 3 or 4, but don’t panic if you don’t. If you don’t see bubbles and your house is cold, move the container to the top of the refrigerator (it’s usually pretty warm there) or near the pilot light on a gas stove to get the fermentation process going.
Day 7: We’ll be baking soon! Stir the starter well. Discard half of the starter and this time add 1 cup of water and 2 cups of unbleached, all-purpose flour. (This amount can be used to make one very large loaf or two regular sized loaves of bread.) Let sit in a warm place for about 6 hours or until quite bubbly. The starter is now ready to use in your favorite sourdough bread recipe.