Ever since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, sourdough has been having a moment. As folks hunkered down at home, this classic bread quickly became the darling of the home baking trend.
If you didn’t hop on the sourdough train during lockdown (but still want to take a crack at the tangy yeast bread), it’s not too late. Starting out all comes down to, well, a starter.
You can use store-bought yeast to get your sourdough on, but making a sourdough starter is more exciting. It utilizes the wild yeasts in its environment (i.e. your kitchen) and ferments like magic. Your starter becomes a living thing with a totally unique identity — almost like a pet!
These sourdough starter tips will help you get the hang of its care and feeding.
How to make sourdough starter
To start your sourdough engines, you can begin with a pre-made starter (also called a “ferment”) or create your own using flour and water. DIY starters are typically a simple mixture of the two ingredients — 1 cup flour and 1/2 cup water will usually do the trick.
In a non-reactive container (like glass or stainless steel), combine flour and water thoroughly. Cover your container loosely with a cloth or dish towel and let it sit 24 hours at room temp. Starter activated!
Feeding your starter
Once you’ve purchased, created, or been gifted your starter, it’s up to you to keep it healthy by “feeding” it.
Sourdough starter is fed with a ratio of the original ferment to water and flour. There are several schools of thought regarding how and what to feed your starter. The truth is that there’s no “wrong” answer, and it’s purely a matter of preference.
1:2:3 starter ratio
I maintain what’s considered a thick starter. It’s a forgiving and sturdy ferment (her name is Rose) with a medium-to-strong sourness. The ratio for mine is 1:2:3, which translates to 1 part starter, 2 parts water, and 3 parts flour, by volume. I use room-temperature starter, slightly warm filtered tap water, and unbleached, all-purpose flour.
For a typical feeding, I mix 100 grams of starter, 200 grams of water, and 300 grams of flour. I let the ferment sit at room temperature for 4-6 hours (or until tripled in volume) before I put it to work.
If I’m not going to bake until the next day or after that, I let her sit out for 3-4 hours and then refrigerate. When I’m ready to rock, I bring her out and let her come to room temperature again (about an hour) before baking.
Another popular ratio is 1:1:1, which means if you start with 100 grams of starter, you add 100 grams of water and 100 grams of flour. This creates a ferment that’s thinner (more like pancake batter), but is also quite versatile and easy to convert to other types of flour if you want.
If your starter is healthy, you should notice that it’s bubbly and fragrant. It should double or triple in volume after a few hours.
Can you feed sourdough starter with other types of flour?
As mentioned, I use unbleached all-purpose flour, but you can use whatever you prefer. Whole-wheat, barley, einkorn, spelt, rye, and even rice flour all work well, creating distinct flavor profiles that will transfer into your bread or other baked goods.
One caveat: Avoid buckwheat. It’s actually not a grain, but rather a seed related to rhubarb. (I know, weird, right?) There are methods to making a gluten-free buckwheat starter that involve a more complicated fermentation process, but adding it raw won’t work for your starter.
A special note about rye
Rye flour is a not-so-secret weapon for sourdough bakers! If your starter is taking a long time to double, it may be lacking some of the microbial strength it needs to do its job. Try substituting about 10 percent rye flour for AP flour when feeding. You may find it supercharges your starter and adds a slightly sweet, nutty flavor.
What happens if you forget to feed your starter?
The general rule is not to let your starter go longer than 2 weeks without being fed, but as we all know… life happens.
Even if you’ve forgotten to feed your lil’ pet starter for a bit too long, you may not be out of luck. Check it carefully — if there’s any mold or fuzz growing on it, throw it out.
If it’s sat unfed for a while, you’ll probably see some grayish liquid on the top. This is called the “hooch,” a naturally occurring alcohol that’s part of the sourdough fermentation process. Pour it off and discard the liquid.
Feed the desired quantity of the remaining starter, then feed it more often than usual over the next few days (every 6-12 hours) to revive your old friend. Keep in mind that the volume will triple each time, so you don’t have to start with a very large quantity of ferment.
Take a 1:1:1 ratio, for example. If, for your feeding, you feed 20 grams of starter, you’ll have 60 grams after the first feeding, 180 after the second, 360 after the third, etc. So don’t despair if you’re starting with a small quantity. With a few feeds, your starter will be back in action — bubbly, happy, and ready for your next baking adventure.
How to use sourdough starter
There are near-infinite variations on sourdough bread, but your sourdough starter is also great for lots of other baking projects! Here are just a handful of sourdough-based recipes to get you started.
Eat your heart out, Cinnabon. These gooey cinnamon rolls start with tangy sourdough, then get filled with a caramel-pecan sauce you’ll be licking off the plate.
Sourdough cubes soak up the savory goodness of eggs, milk, sausage, and cheese in this easy breakfast. Make this one at the holidays or when you need to feed a crowd. It’s super simple to prep the night before for next-day baking.
This thick and crunchy pizza crust calls for using sourdough starter in a pre-ferment, which adds volume and a distinctive flavor. Baking it in a skillet ups its uniqueness factor.
Put that sourdough discard to decadent use in these flaky, yeasty biscuits. Keep the butter (or gravy) handy — baked to golden brown perfection, these are crying out for a tasty topping.
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