Dean is cursing me under his breath as the raindrops start to unload on our little dinghy. “We’re going to get soaked in this squall so that you can get sourdough starter?!” It makes perfect sense to me, but perhaps I didn’t fully explain the sourdough imperative to him.
Before leaving George Town, Bahamas, I put out a request for sourdough starter over the morning cruiser’s radio net. I had attempted to grow a dehydrated version of my Colorado starter, but I couldn’t revive it aboard our boat. Fortunately, the family on the boat C’est La Sea offered up some of their starter, but we’d have to jump in the dinghy and get it before the incoming squall.
There are so many reasons why I love baking with sourdough. First, the tangy, complex flavor of sourdough makes the best tasting bread and pancakes. Second, the acidic nature of sourdough discourages mold growth and makes for a longer shelf life. Third, sourdough adds natural leavening to baked products, very handy when I don’t have yeast (or the yeast in my pantry is too old).
Where to Find Starter
- The best way to get started with a sourdough starter is to be lucky enough to receive a cup of established starter from someone else. With just a few feedings of flour and water, you’ll soon be ready to start baking. Ask around and you might be surprised who has starter that they are willing to share.
- Another way to establish your starter is to buy a dehydrated sourdough starter online from King Arthur Flour, Cultures for Health, or some other vendor. They will give you detailed instructions for establishing your starter.
- If you’re totally into DIY, you can establish your own starter with a little flour, water and patience. As the mixture sits at room temperature, wild yeasts and lactic acid-producing bacteria from the flour and surrounding environment begin to grow, producing carbon dioxide. The whole process will take 7-10 days of your time and attention, but then you’ll have starter that will last for decades.
Every Starter has a Story
I’ve been missing the sourdough starter tucked in the rear of my refrigerator back in Steamboat. It was gifted to me in 2005 by Butch aboard the sailboat Wild Card while we were cruising in Guanaja, Honduras. As you can imagine, this starter has been both a souvenir and culinary necessity. Now I have a new starter with a story of its own. Both starters occupy a special place on my kitchen counter whether I’m in Steamboat or aboard our boat.
Once your sourdough starter is established, print out my instructions for Sourdough Care and Feeding.
Intrigued with sourdough? If possible, I’d love to share my starter with you – just ask!
- 1 cup all-purpose flour or ½ cup all-purpose flour & ½ cup whole wheat flour
- 1 cup non-chlorinated water
- 1 leaf organic red cabbage or 5 organic red grapes (optional)
In a glass, plastic or ceramic bowl stir together flour and water. Cover loosely and leave at room temperature. If you want to give a boost to the fermentation process, add a leaf of cabbage or grapes. Their naturally occurring microbes can speed up starter development.
Every day for a week, feed the starter by stirring into the mixture ¼ cup flour and 1/8-¼ cup water. After a couple of days, you should notice bubbles forming on the surface of the batter. In warmer climates, you might need to feed the starter in the morning and evenings to keep the bubbles developing.
Every few days, reserve 1 cup of starter and discard the rest before feeding. This will keep the wild yeasts and bacteria happily growing.
After 7- 10 days the mixture will thicken and take on a yeasty aroma. At this point the starter should double in volume after a feeding, which is the sign of happy yeasts and bacteria!
To test if the starter is ready to use, drop a spoon full of starter in a bowl of water…if it floats, it’s ready to use.
- Bowls and utensils: As your sourdough starter ferments it becomes increasingly acidic. When working with sourdough, select utensils and bowls that will not react with the acid, such as ceramic or glass bowls and wooden spoons.
- Flour types: All-purpose wheat flour is the primary ingredient for making traditional sourdough starter. Substituting whole wheat flour for some of the all-purpose flour will provide added nutrients for the starter, but it is not required for fermentation. I have read that gluten free flours can be used to make a GF starter, but my past two attempts (sorghum & teff) haven’t worked so I’ll keep trying.
- Water: Use non-chlorinated water for your starter. Any chlorine will kill the friendly bacteria that we are hoping to establish in the starter. To remove chlorine from your municipal water, pour tap water into a jar and allow it to sit for several hours while the chlorine dissipates. I keep a jar of water next to my starter for easy feeding.
- Food Safety: I know that encouraging the growth of bacteria and yeast feels odd, but this symbiotic mixture has been a source of leavening for thousands of years. Rarely have I seen a sourdough starter go bad, but if your starter smells putrid, shows signs of mold or takes on an orange or pink coloring, throw it out.