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!
Sourdough Starter - Wild Fermentation Method
- 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 ⅛-¼ 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.
Does anyone have a bread machine recipe for Sourdough,Onion Rye bread using sourdough starter??
Sorry Cynthia, I'm not away of any bread machine recipes using sourdough. I find that my sourdough requires a lot more time to rise that the predictable yeast methods that bread machines rely on. Good luck!
Do you have sourdough cupcake recipes?
Geri- Recipes for sourdough are usually using the natural yeasts in the sourdough as a replacement for commercial yeasts. Most quick breads and cakes use baking soda and baking powder for levening, so I've never seen a sourdough muffin recipe. You should be able to use sourdough starter in any recipe that uses flour and water. I'd try substituting 1 cup of starter for a proportional amount of flour and water (1/2 cup flour and 1/2 cup water) and see what happens. Good luck!
Donna Mae Hoots
HI Karen, Mariah and I have created a starter (only 3 days in). We did not use the cabbage leaf or grapes, do you think we could add it now?
How's it looking - any bubbles? It will absolutely not hurt to introduce a piece of cabbage or grapes if you have them. When we first bought our boat I tried to start some sourdough and the galley was too clean, no wild yeast hanging around. Probably the most important ingredient with sourdough is patience (but a cabbage leave would be good too)! Please comment back here and let us know how it turned out. Hugs to Mariah!
I'm going to try your starter recipe. After it gets going in a couple days, do I leave the cabbage leaves in it or should i discard those?
Definitely remove the cabbage once your sourdough gets going. I hope that it's up and running!
I printed out the Sourdough Care and Feeding sheet that you linked to in the Every Starter Has A Section above. I found this to be quite helpful to know what to expect. When storing in the refrigerator, can it be totally sealed in a jar, or do I still have to allow for open air for it to breathe?
Jim- I’m glad that you found the Care and Feeding link for sourdough starter in my post. I have always put “breathing holes” in my sourdough lids, but most of the sourdough people I’ve met use a tight lid. Let me know if you detect a difference.
Mary, SV Pisces
Hi Karen, it’s Mary. We met in Palm Cay Marina.
I’ve been trying to figure out sourdough baking myself. I made my own starter but it doesn’t seem to have enough oomph to get enough rise on its own. The only successful breads I’ve made so far had yeast added. I’m hoping as it matures I’m the fridge it’ll get there.
Hello Mary - great to hear from you! In my mind the most important ingredient for sourdough is patience. Keep with it and perhaps make some of your “feedings” whole wheat to give the sourdough bacteria and yeasts added nutrients. It’s a little like having a pet goldfish aboard, needing a little attention every day. Check back in and let me know how it’s going.
Red cabbage leaf? Interesting! Any ideas on how to get the tanginess of San Francisco Sour Dough? I've heard its impossible to replicate in Colorado since it has to do with the humidity and salt in the air in SF. A friend said she uses "sour salt" in her sour dough baking. Have you heard of this?
Thanks for your question Lyn! It is generally understood that sourdough starters change over time. A starter purchased in San Francisco and brought home to Colorado will eventually adopt the bacteria and yeasts native to its new environment. But you can still have the sour flavor of SF sourdough with your emerging starter.
The tangy, sour flavor of a good loaf of sourdough bread comes from a combination of lactic and acetic acids (think vinegar). A slow rise in a cooler temperature encourages the tangier acidic acids to grow more than lactic acids. So I recommend making your dough the day before you want to use it and refrigerating it overnight to encourage acidic acid development. Keep watching the blog for my sourdough bread recipe which uses this method.
As for sour salts (crystallized citric acid) – yes, I understand that you can use it as a shortcut to make your sourdough products more sour. (I also use citric acid to prevent discoloration when canning.) I have never tried it.
Has anyone tried adding citric acid to sourdough recipes to make them tangy?
Karen, you are so inspiring!
I’ve been wanting to write this post ever since my talk last year at the Tread of Pioneers Museum (that you arranged - thank you Nancy). Several people in the audience had heritage starters that had been in their families for decades. Did you see my Sourdough Pancake Recipe? Many people in the audience make pancakes every weekend to keep their starters refreshed. Did I hear that you have starter that your willing to share for anyone in Steamboat?
Yes, I shared some yesterday and have one more request to fill. I love the heritage starters. Mine is from the Brannan family and is over 100 years strong!!!
I love it! Thanks Nancy.