Basics: Sour Dough Starter

Several years ago, I made a few attempts at making a sour dough starter.  Each attempt failed miserably.  Mold would grow on the starter and that was the end of that.  After reading several articles on the health benefits of natural yeast and sour dough bread, I grew more determined to master this very basic bread baking skill.  I say that it’s basic because it was not until the turn of the 20th century that baker’s yeast–yeast that you could buy ready (yet dormant) in a packet or foil package–was available.  This means that for thousands of years, bakers used something else to make their bread rise.  And that was natural yeast.

After successfully producing my first sour dough bread, I have to say that my stomach appreciated the change.  Even though the bread itself wasn’t pretty–I couldn’t even bring myself to take a picture–the fermentation that goes on from the natural yeast made the bread easier for my digestive system to tolerate.  In time, when I got a better handle on this type of bread baking, I noticed that baking bread with a sour dough starter was much, much easier than with commercial baker’s yeast.

Sour dough starter is not just used for bread, but can be used in sweet baked goods, such as muffins.  Early American cakes also used a similar type of starter, which I hope to explore in future posts.  Here is my first try at an Early American cake, called a “Loaf Cake,” which tastes like a spiced quick bread with raisins.  It was dense yet delicious, but not yet ready for prime time!

To make the starter, the ingredients are very simple–flour and water.  Rye flour is the easiest to start a starter with.  Just mix a half cup of rye flour with 1/3 to 1/2 a cup of water in a large canning jar with a wide mouth, cover with plastic wrap and let it sit.  It doesn’t even have to sit in a warm corner.  After 12 hours, scoop out approximately half of the mixture and throw it out.  It broke my heart to do that, but it’s a necessary step.  Then add back in the same amount of water and rye flour as you used before.  Wait 12 hours, discard, and refresh with some more water and flour.  You are feeding the yeast!  You need to see bubbles in the mixture to know whether the yeast is in there doing its thing.  You need to do 2 cycles of feedings for several days.  Then change up the flour to whole wheat flour for a couple of days, then white flour, and then back to rye or a mix of the flours.  You want to hone in on the best yeast, so that is why you mix up the flours, but it’s not totally necessary to do.  Be forewarned:  in the beginning, your mixture will not smell so good, but your nose will sense a transformation the closer you are to your goal of a starter that is ready for use.  It should end up smelling kind of flowery.

Here is a top view; it doesn’t look very appetizing!  This starter is about to be used for breadmaking.

Here is a side view.  The bubbles mean that it’s active and ready to go.

When you finally can use the starter, so that you don’t have to start from the beginning each time you want to bake a loaf of bread, leave about half of the starter in the jar, feed it and put it in the fridge if you do not anticipate baking another loaf of bread for a few days and up to a week.  Weekly maintenance (refreshing/feeding) takes just a few minutes, but this way, I always have starter ready for use.  I have been able to maintain my starter for upwards of three years by now and it’s still going strong.

 

Print Recipe
Sour Dough Starter
Copyright © 2017 HollyTrail.com
Course Basics
Servings
cup
Ingredients
  • rye flour (approximately two 5 pound bags)
  • wheat flour (approximately one 5 pound bag)
  • all-purpose flour (approximately 4 cups)
  • water (preferably bottled, filtered, or chlorine-free)
Course Basics
Servings
cup
Ingredients
  • rye flour (approximately two 5 pound bags)
  • wheat flour (approximately one 5 pound bag)
  • all-purpose flour (approximately 4 cups)
  • water (preferably bottled, filtered, or chlorine-free)
Instructions
Step 1
  1. Ingredients ½ cup rye flour slightly less than 1/3 cup water Directions In a 24 oz. wide-mouthed canning jar (3 cups), pour in flour and then thoroughly mix in water. Mixture will look like thick mush. If it is too difficult to stir, add a little bit of water. Cover with plastic wrap. Let stand at room temperature for 12 hours.
Step 2
  1. Uncover jar and mix briefly. Discard half of the mixture. Refresh the remaining mixture by mixing in slightly less than ½ cup water and ½ cup rye flour. Cover jar with plastic wrap. Let stand at room temperature for 12 hours. [During the 12 hour interval, the mixture will start to bubble on top and air bubbles will appear throughout. This means that the yeast cultures are present in the mixture.]
  2. Repeat Step 2 for 5 days, discarding and refreshing mixture every 12 hours.
Step 3
  1. By this time, the mixture should have risen when it is time to refresh and should smell better. Uncover jar and mix briefly. Discard half of the mixture. Add to the remaining mixture ½ cup whole wheat flour and slightly less than ½ cup water. Mix thoroughly. Cover with plastic wrap. Let stand at room temperature for 12 hours.
  2. Repeat Step 3 for 2 days, discarding and refreshing mixture every 12 hours.
Step 4
  1. Uncover jar and mix briefly. Discard half of the mixture. Add to the remaining mixture ½ cup all-purpose flour and slightly less than ½ cup water. Mix thoroughly. Cover with plastic wrap. Let stand at room temperature for 12 hours.
  2. Repeat Step 4 for 2 days, discarding and refreshing mixture every 12 hours. Mixture will not rise as well during this period.
Step 5
  1. Uncover jar and mix briefly. Discard half of the mixture. Mixture should smell fruity. Add to the remaining mixture, ½ cup of the flour of your choice (rye, whole wheat, or all-purpose) and slightly less than ½ cup water. Mix thoroughly. Let stand at room temperature for 10-12 hours. Cover with plastic wrap. Let the mixture sit at room temperature for 10-12 hours. (Best to do this in the morning.)
Step 6
  1. To prepare starter for breadmaking and to store remainder: Uncover jar and mix briefly. Transfer half of the mixture (about one cup) to a 4 cup glass measuring cup or glass bowl. Refresh the mixture remaining in the jar by mixing in ½ cup flour (rye or whole wheat recommended, or all-purpose flour) with slightly less than ½ cup filtered water. Cover with plastic wrap. If using within 2 days, let stand at room temperature. Otherwise, place in the refrigerator for future use.
  2. For the mixture in the 4 cup glass container, this will be the starter for making bread. Mix in ½ cup flour of your choice (rye, whole wheat, or all-purpose) with ½ cup water. This mixture should be slightly thinner than the previous mixtures and should amount to about 1 cup. If too thick, mix in a small amount of water.
  3. Let stand at room temperature overnight for 10-12 hours to double in bulk. Starter is ready to incorporate into dough.
  4. This starter is sufficient to make one large loaf.
Recipe Notes

It takes about 8-14 days to develop a good starter.  You’ll know when it’s ready when the starter doubles in size and has lots of air bubbles in it over a 12 hour period and smells fruity.

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