You don’t need to be in San Francisco to have great sourdough. Plenty of New York bakeries carry the famed tangy loaf with a crisp outer layer and soft, gummy interior. But you also don’t need to frequent a patisserie for a great loaf of sourdough bread. Courtesy of the friendly bacteria lactobacillus in symbiotic combination with wild yeasts living all around us, sourdough is made possible by fermentation.
Don’t be afraid, in this case fermentation simply means:
mixing flour with water
letting it sit
adding more flour and water
for more on fermentation, see my post about sauerkraut
This process details the gateway to all things sourdough, making a starter. Folks say that a well-maintained sourdough starter can last a lifetime, and you can share it with friends for years to come. The flavors will change as your starter matures, so patience, persistence and a desire for the unknown are all important factors here. So far I’ve used my sourdough starter for all sorts of treats, from crackers and pancakes to pie crusts. More on that later.
As more of a cook than a baker (I like to improvise), I was a little hesitant to begin adventures with fermented flour. But as it turns out, making a sourdough starter is a fairly forgiving process. The elements at play are water, flour, temperature and time. I have found that because of the cooler winter temperatures present in my New York apartment, things tend to happen a bit more slowly than they might over in San Francisco, which is nice for a change. Wild yeasts develop more complex flavors when they are allowed do it slowly and at cooler temperatures.
Basic Sourdough Starter Recipe
1/4-1/3 cup flour
1-2 tablespoons water
glass jar or plastic container
something for stirring
cloth that covers top of container
A note about flours; I prefer to use an unbleached bread flour (unbleached flour retains its protein, and bleached flour tends to be treated with chemicals), but have also experimented with whole wheat, rye, and even buckwheat!
A note about water; some folks say that wild yeasts can only flourish in filtered water. Luckily in New York, we have access to some great tap water- so you won’t need to tinker much here. I have experimented with leaving water out for 24-hours, enabling the chlorine to evaporate. I found that my sourdough has been more bubbly and productive when fed with less-chlorinated water. There are some additional basic filtration systems that you can use to remove chlorine from water, I have used activated charcoal to much success (and I think the water tastes better!).
Add flour to your container
Add water to flour
Stir gently, then vigorously
Cover with cloth and rubber-band
Set in a warmish spot
Make it a habit to check on your starter each day. Come back tomorrow and the day after to give your starter a stir. Notice the changes! After 1-3 days, you should start to see bubbles, which means all is going well. The wild yeasts are consuming sugars in your flour, and releasing carbon dioxide to create an acidic environment and defeat any bad bacteria. It should smell a little bit sugary, tangy and sweet like a loaf of sourdough bread. Once the bubbles appear, it’s time to feed your starter.
Feeding your starter
Add a bit of flour and some fresh water, making sure to not to over fill your container. You’ll want to check on your starter each day to give it a stir and keep the oxygen flowing. Feed it each day with a little bit of flour, and a dash of water. After about 5 days (depending on temperature, water, etc.) you should have a frothy, bubbly container and your starter will start to puff up. This is how you’ll know it’s prime and ready for baking! You can use your starter at any point in this process – try a tablespoon in your pancake batter to test out the flavors as you go. Once your starter has reached this bubbly frothy point, you can transfer it to the fridge, and feed it about once a week. I like to keep my starter pretty thick at this point, so that it stays more active for when I’m ready to use it again. I’ll be back with some sourdough recipes next week!