Thursday, April 12, 2012

A Sourdough Starter Recipe That Works

At first I didn't even know what sourdough was, except that slices of sourdough were usually thick and white and--somehow--San Francisco was involved. I didn't even realize that it was named sourdough because it was, well, sour.

I had eaten sourdough, I guess. You know in restaurants when you order from the breakfast menu, and the server wants to know what kind of bread your toast should be made from, and you ask what the choices are and s/he says, white, whole wheat, and sourdough, and you say you'd like sourdough, and the bread comes, and it's just a thicker than normal slice of white bread? That's the type of sourdough I had tried. That's not sourdough really--its flavor is no different than normal white bread.

The Other Adult said she wanted me to make sourdough. So I started researching it, and found out that sourdough is this whole process, and people get really into it.

It turns out that I am really vulnerable to adopting new hobbies. Case in point: I recently started researching bonsai trees, and even though I had no previous interest in bonsai trees and I found them to be really dull, as I started to do the research, I started to realize that bonsai trees are like, really cool.

I got this picture of the Dwarf Schleffera Bonsai Tree from Bonsai Beginnings blog:
And um, isn't that little guy amazing? Like, don't you just look at that and think of the swamp where Yoda lives? And what if you could make that in your house? Do you know how hard it is to get this thing to grow those aerial roots?? You have to put it in a humid environment and mist it every day and prune back the little roots to get the bigger ones to get bigger, and you have to fertilize it and I mean, it's just this really long process and it takes years. And people do this for fun.

Actually, if I had time, I think I would do that for fun.

Now, I'm a little too aware of my own limitations to pick up a bonsai hobby. I'm kind of busy. Between beer, bread, the Kid, cooking, writing and needing like at least 6 hours of sleep a night, I'm just booked for the rest of my life. Plus I've started this vegetable garden in the back yard and that's completely consuming me. So it's unlikely that I'll be doing anything with a bonsai tree--but I'll admit, a big part of me wants to find a Dwarf Schefflera Bonsai and go to town.

Back to my story, the Other Adult said that I should try sourdough. And I started researching sourdough, and like the bonsai tree, even though I really had no interest in sourdough bread as a food, the more I read about sourdough, the more I wanted to be able to make it for myself.

I found out that you can buy sourdough yeasts from a store, but that seemed a little too easy, and sounded a little too much like buying the boxed potatoes, which I am basically against doing even though I think that some of the boxed potatoes (like betty crocker's julien dehydrated potatoes) are just really delicious (because I have a really unsophisticated palate). And anyway, I thought, people make these starters in their own house, so I can too.

It turns out that finding a starter recipe that works can be really hard. For one thing, breadies measure things in percentages and weights, and so a lot of the recipes I found were measured in pounds and ounces and percentages and I can't devote that kind of time to bread. Not now anyway.

And then, the first couple recipes I tried didn't even seem to work. And it would take me weeks or months to figure out that the starter was really weak or wasn't doing anything. It was a big waste of time and flour.

The recipe that finally worked for me came straight out of the River Cottage Bread Handbook, a book I highly recommend. This book has sturdy pages, sensible recipes, attractive illustrations, and it gives all its measurements in cups, pounds and ounces, so everyone can use it and be happy.

Whole Wheat Sourdough Starter

This is what you need:
1 cup stone-ground whole wheat four
1 cup warm water (I would say about 95-100 degrees Fahrenheit)
a plastic or ceramic container

  1. Mix the cup of flour with the cup of warm water in the container of your choice. Whisk vigorously and cover with plastic wrap or a loose fitting top.
  2. Leave the batter somewhere warm.
  3. Check the batter every 12 hours or so. Eventually, you'll start to see bubbles forming near the top of the batter. This is what the bubbles will look like:

    When you see the bubbles, it's ready to be fed.

  4. Feed the starter by adding one cup of the same flour, one cup of warm water. Whisk vigorously and replace the lid.
  5. Wait 24 hours, then discard half the batter. I usually discard it into a plastic shopping bag, which I then throw away.
  6. Feed the starter with 1 cup of the same flour and 1 cup cold water. Whisk vigorously and replace the lid.
  7. Feed daily at the same time every day, repeating steps 5 and 6.
That's it. That's how I made my starter. For the first couple of weeks while your starter is becoming established, feed it every day. After your starter is healthy and established, you can move it to your fridge and feed it only once a week, until such time as you need it. Take your starter out of the fridge a day or two before you plan to use it. Feed it immediately after removing it from the fridge, then feed it every 24 hours after that. Feed it around 5-7 hours before you plan to use it in a recipe.

I recommend that you become familiar with the behavior of your starter. A few hours after you feed it, it will start to rise and expand in the container. Mine is usually doubled in size about 5 hours after feeding, and that's when I use it for cooking. Once it peaks, it goes back down. Sometimes a layer of liquid forms at the top of the starter. This is called hooch. Stir it back in or dump it out, it's up to you.

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