HOW TO MAKE SOURDOUGH STARTER
Starting a culture is simple. Maintaining it is the most difficult part. Once established and refreshed, a culture can live for a lifetime, maybe even several. If forgotten it will not immediately perish or do you harm if ingested. The value of tending a culture lies in the care it needs to stay alive. While we strive to do our best, it should also be a process free of stress.
Standard yeast has one goal: to produce lots of gas relatively fast. Leavening with only commercial yeast cuts out beneficial multiflora from the fermentation process. While a naturally leavened culture takes more time, it unlocks a world of taste, souring the flour and bringing the full flavor forward.
When water and flour combine, enzymatic activity breaks down starches into sugars. Yeast metabolize the sugars, producing carbon dioxide and alcohol. This gas is the primary source of leavening in cultured goods. Bacteria, namely lactobacilli, create lactic acids and very little carbon dioxide or alcohol. A culture is simply a thick batter of flour and water which these yeasts and bacteria call home.
Stone ground, sifted, bread flour from a hard, red, winter wheat is appropriate to begin your starter with. If unavailable, blend whole grain bread flour and all-purpose flour in equal portions.
TOOLS YOU'LL NEED
A 16 oz. Ball jar + lid
A digital scale
4 oz. / 113 g bread flour (I use Carolina Ground Type 75 Bread flour)
4 oz. / 113 g lukewarm water
Day One. Pick a time that will be easy for you to return to over the course of several days. Use the scale to weigh the flour into the jar. Pour in the water. Stir vigorously. Loosely cover. Let rest in a room between 70 and 75 degrees. In general, the kitchen counter is a fine place to begin. Taste it. It will taste wheat-y, paste like and even chalky at first.
Day Two. Check back at roughly the same time. Remove the lid and stir well. Taste. Are flavors developing? What does it look like? Smell like? Any signs of life? Replace the lid. Let rest.
Day Three. Repeat day two.
Day Four. Early signs of fermentation, such as bubbles and a slight acidic smell, will start to appear. Regardless of what you see, it is time to begin refreshment feedings. Trust that activity has been put into motion. Your role is to keep the movement going.
Refreshing around the same time daily will train your culture to predictably ferment.
To Refresh: pour out all but 1 oz. / 28 g from the jar and feed it back 4 oz. / 113 g lukewarm water and 4 oz. / 113 g bread flour. Discarding a high level of culture maintains a low acidity, encouraging a stable environment for the bacteria. It also provides ample food for tired yeast.
Five to six hours after refreshing check for visible surface tension, a domed top and dish soap sized bubbles. In warm temperatures a bubbly mass reaching the top of the jar can occur in within a couple of hours, whereas in the winter the same starter might take 8 to 9 hours to ferment. Just pay attention to it.
At the peak of activity the culture will float. Test this by wetting your fingers and scooping some off the top and dropping it into a glass of water. Try not to degas the culture as you transfer it. If it sinks, repeat the test in thirty minutes. When it floats it isready to use.
Eventually a divot in surface will form and it will begin to collapse on itself, receding down the walls of the jar. The visible bubbles will turn tiny and frothy and it will smell quite sour. As this happens the yeast die off and acidic flavors take hold. The culture is now less active. If you miss the peak, simply refresh again and let sit until it passes the float test.
Within 7 to 10 days from the start date, and with at least four refreshments, you should have a bubbling culture that smells sweet and slightly tangy. There are no hard and fast rules for how long it will take your culture to come to life. Activity depends on the weather, your environment, what kind of flour you feed it and how often you check it.
I recommend keeping a journal near your culture so you can record when you fed it, what flour you fed it with, the room temp, the weather and how long it took to pass the float test. This way you have lived experience against the suggestions laid out here.
If baking infrequently, store the culture in refrigeration. When left dormant for a while allow for several days of refreshing before you plan on baking. I’ve left mine for up to two months in the back of the fridge at 40 degrees and had it come back to life easily. A thin layer of alcohol will form on the top of the culture. This does not mean it has expired. Stir in the alcohol, or pour it off if you prefer, and begin refreshing.