Sourdough – How to make starter

On my recipe of “pain de campagne” I promised to give you the secret on how to start and how to feed the sourdough.

But first thing first, what’s sourdough? Maybe you call it “levain”, “starter”, “mother” or sometimes improperly “poolish”. We are talking about the same combination of fermented water + flour, a fermented dough with a milky-soft, sour taste: sour-dough. For thousands of years, humanity used sourdough to make bread… until industrial yeast arrives on the market simplifying bakers’ job.

For decades, yeast was so popular that majority of bakers forgot the art of sourdough. Only recently, the sourdough have been rediscovered and now it is the most common type of yeast on your favorite miche at wholefoods market, and this recipe will be one of the 13.7 million hits on Google (hopefully one of the best). Yeast is made with only one strain of fungi, while Sourdough contains a plethora of different wild organisms (about 1500 species identified), from the ones available in the flour, to the ones on your kitchen counter.

That’s the reason why sourdough bread has a much more complex taste. That’s also the reason why you should not listen to the people talking about the 50-years old levain started by their grandfather. Sourdough is live and regenerates every few days. The one started 50 years ago is completely different from the one you got today, and it will be completely different once you feed some days with different flour, in a different environment or on a different time of the year.

Once you start a levain, the path is fascinating. I present here “a” method, but once you’re comfortable you can try by yourself different starters, different feeding methods, and so on. As usual, baking is just matter of trying, failing, retrying until perfection.

Water and Flour.

I use rye flour (organic!) to start the sourdough. It has a greater content of sugar than white flour and by consequence it fosters the reproduction of bacteria. Also it has more amylase enzymes to break down starch, and again increase the quantity of sugar to feed our little friends.

To start I use bottled, spring water. Preferably naturally sparkling. You don’t want to kill everything with the chlorine of your tap water, right? To feed, you can use filtered tap water, just be sure that it does not taste chlorine.

You can speed-up the process by adding some extra ingredients. Most commons are honey, beer cider. I use fresh apple juice.

Starter Ingredients

Sourdough starter ingredients

Ingredients for the starter
  • 1 organic green apple
  • 100g naturally sparkling spring water
  • 100g organic rye flour

To extract the juice from the apple, you can use a juicer or do as follows: peel the apple; grate the apple, including the torch on a cheesecloth over a cup. Squeeze the cloth to extract all the juice. You will get about 3/4 cup of juice.

Mix 100g of juice with the flour and the water (you have some good tolerance on the numbers). Put this liquid, sticky dough it in a glass container or a plastic one.

ATTENTION: I really hate plastic containers, however for this scope are much more safer. If you do use glass, you must ensure to keep the lid a little bit open. The gases produced by the fermentation can make the container to explode.

Ideally keep it in the dark, at about 24ºC (75ºF), that’s why it is better to start it in summer. During winter just double the fermentation time.

After 1 day (2 in winter) you need to feed the sourdough. Take 100g of the starter and mix it with 100g of water and 100g of rye flour, trash out the rest of the starter mix.

You need to repeat the feeding exercise every day.

After 7 days (it can be more, depending on the room temperature) the mix should start bubbling. At this point you can store the mix in the fridge after feeding. Continue to feed it everyday for another week.

After 15 days from start, the sourdough should be ready to be used on bread and you can keep it in the fridge without feeding up to 7 days. If you need to leave home more than one week you can store the sourdough on the freezer.

I use about 300g of sourdough to replace 10g of dry yeast. Remember though, the sourdough is 50% flour, 50% water so you need to reduce the quantity of water in your bread to compensate the extra liquid content.

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