{fermentation} Make your own sourdough starter

Editors note: We’ve had a lot of talk about bread baking and sourdough lately, so I reached out to Otis Maxwell of “Burnt My Fingers” to solicit his expertise on making a sourdough starter from scratch.  Having sampled Otis’s bread at many a From Scratch Club Swap, I was very excited when he agreed to guest post for us!

A fully developed starter at 100%, ripe and ready to go to work.
A fully developed starter at 100%, ripe and ready to go to work.

The great Jeffrey Hamelman, head baker at King Arthur Flour in Vermont and winner of countless international awards, says you only need two sourdough starters: a wheat variety made from good white flour, and a rye. He made this pronouncement in one of his classes, after overhearing one of his foolish students brag that he had five of them. That foolish student was me, and my behavior shows how attached you can get to a favorite sourdough starter, also known as a “chef”.

It isn’t difficult to make your own starter. All you need is good, unprocessed flour (like King Arthur All Purpose), some chemical-free water (if you aren’t sure about your tap water, use non-carbonated from a bottle), your fingers and patience. Put about a cup of flour into a small glass mixing bowl, add water slowly and stir with a spoon or your hands until all the water is (barely) absorbed. Cover with a plate or plastic wrap for a couple of days. At the end of this time it will probably look the same as when you began. Do not lose hope. Throw away about ¾ of the mixture and add flour and water to the remainder, mixing to the original consistency. Keep doing this every two or three days for a while. Eventually (it will probably take a week) the starter will come to life. You’ll see bubbles in the mixture through the glass. (This is why you want to use a glass bowl). The mixture will become more liquid on its own. It may rise, and even froth. At this point you’re ready to start making bread with it, though the flavor and rising ability will continue to develop over time. Just remember to always hold back a few tablespoons full for the next batch.

Mix in a glass bowl so you can see the bubbles forming on the sides of the dough.
Mix in a glass bowl so you can see the bubbles forming on the sides of the dough.

I hope the above doesn’t sound intimidating. After all, we’re talking about a few cents worth of flour and couple minutes of your time every now and then. But there are shortcuts if you’re interested:

Beg and borrow a starter. As you can see from the above directions, the refreshing process causes a lot of pretty good starter to be discarded. If you know someone who bakes with sourdough, ask if you can have some of the discard next time they do a refresh.

Steal a starter. Is there a bakery near you that sells uncooked, bake-at-home sourdough bread dough or pizza dough? That’s basically sourdough starter with the addition of other ingredients—hopefully just salt. Take it home, make a mixture of 1/3 bakery dough, 1/3 flour, 1/3 water, let it cure until bubbly. Throw away 2/3 of the mixture, and repeat with the flour and water. Do this every couple of days for a week or two. Eventually the side ingredients will be minimized and you’ll have some nice starter. (If the dough contains eggs or dairy, which is unlikely, this method won’t work.)

Buy a starter. King Arthur sells a liquefied starter mail order, and Sourdoughs International has more than a dozen of them dried. There is some debate among bread heads about how different the different varieties are. Many say that, even if it began as a “Russian” style or “San Francisco” style containing beasties unique to that environment, eventually it will take on the characteristic of the environment where you bake. I’m on the fence. My different starters, from different sources, do behave differently. But the result is generally the same taste-wise.

My starters, back row left to right: Jeffrey Hamelman’s white at 100%, Tartine style whole wheat mix, Jeffrey Hamelman’s rye; front row: hybrid starter, Cheeseboard, Jeffrey Hamelman’s white at 60%.
My starters, back row left to right: Jeffrey Hamelman’s white at 100%, Tartine style whole wheat mix, Jeffrey Hamelman’s rye; front row: hybrid starter, Cheeseboard, Jeffrey Hamelman’s white at 60%.

Like a parent with an iPhone, I can’t end this conversation without showing off my own starters and telling of their cute exploits. I know I have too many but I can’t bear the thought of pouring any one down the drain.

Jeffrey Hamelman’s 60% white sourdough. Poached from the master himself, with his permission (I think). 60% means it’s refreshed in a ratio of 100 grams of King Arthur All Purpose Flour or equivalent to 60 grams of water. It’s a genteel starter that appears inert when it’s resting but springs to life like a reliable workhorse when you feed it.

Hybrid starter. The only one I built myself, from scratch. When I moved to Saratoga I resolved to make a “local” starter from Saratoga Water (the non-fizzy kind) and King Arthur Flour. It took off reluctantly, but smelled like old socks. I had another starter I had made in San Francisco with a pineapple juice base and never really loved, so I mixed the two. This is now my go-to starter.

Cheeseboard starter. Cheeseboard is a legendary baking cooperative in the San Francisco Bay Area that also does business as Arizmendi. When I asked if I could buy their starter I was told, absolutely not! Do you have uncooked pizza dough for sale? Of course. What’s in it? Water, flour, starter and salt. Voila. I bought half a pound and refreshed it many times till the salt was minimalized. It’s my liveliest starter.

Jeffrey Hamelman’s rye starter. Made from rye flour, not wheat, and at 100% hydration vs. 60% because of the extra thirstiness of the rye flour. This also was pilfered from the master, with his permission. I occasionally use it for non-rye breads as well. Hamelman says that during his early hippie itinerant baker days, the rye was his only starter and he used it for everything.

Tartine starter. The great Tartine breads use a starter of 50% whole wheat and 50% all purpose flour, at 100% hydration. I could mix it up on the spot, but seems like it gives the rising an edge if the two flours have spent some time getting comfortable with each other. I originally built it from my hybrid starter combined with King Arthur Whole Wheat Flour.

Jeffrey Hamelman 100% starter. I’m a little embarrassed by this one and wouldn’t include it except it’s in my picture. For some of his recipes Hamelman uses a starter at 100% hydration. It is second grade math to make the conversion but once I had it I just kept it going.

Once you have a good working sourdough starter, take care of it. Put it in a tight fitting glass jar in the back of the refrigerator and label it so your spouse doesn’t throw it out like mine once did. Each time you use the starter you will spoon out the contents of the jar, then replace with a replenished starter made as part of your recipe. You do NOT need to wash the glass jar every time; once in a blue moon is sufficient. Do, however, keep the rim of the jar clean so the lid will easily open and close.

Otis Maxwell is an avid amateur baker, broiler and IPA drinker based in Saratoga Springs, NY. He blogs about food and eating and shares recipes and experiences on the Burnt My Fingers  blog.

© Otis Maxwell 2014. Permission to quote in part is automatically granted so long as you credit the source and link back to http://www.burntmyfingers.com . For longer excerpts and reprints/reproduction of entire article please email chef@burntmyfingers.com.


12 Comments Add yours

  1. Dianna says:

    Excellent instructions. I got my sourdough starter from you at the Saratoga food swap and two months later I have still not killed it so don’t need this yet, but will keep this post in mind. Thanks so much, I am having fun with my starter.

  2. Kelly says:

    If you can handle eating waffles, pancakes and biscuits for a while, you can make some out of “discarded” starter.

  3. ahappyfoodie says:

    Awesome instructions and advice! Thank you for sharing – I’m heading to my local bakery to beg, borrow & possibly steal!!

  4. cheffixit says:

    Reblogged this on cheffixit and commented:
    Make your own sourdough starter!

  5. Its curious you are using 100% starter – What I’ve done is a 166% (1 cup of each of flour and water by volume) but then I’ve used that to make a preferment which comes in at about 117%. This I use up till its gone & I make more at that point (200g 166% starter, 200g hard organic ww flour, 200g RO-filtered water.)
    I’ve also found that the rare time I need a new starter that doing it in a covered jar gets it bubbling within a day, but I am told it needs to bubble for a few more days and then be refreshed due to some of the initial chemical reactions taking place.

  6. amalkar says:

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  7. Robin says:

    I stumbled onto your website while looking at Walt Jeffrie’s site. Very nice! I hope you’ll be back to blogging and such as I’ve enjoyed it a lot.

    My sourdough starters are organic whole wheat and organic There’s nothing like oatmeal sourdough pancakes with fresh maple syrup on a cold morning. Thanks for sharing your sourdough info!

  8. This is fantastic! Definitely something I will be trying out. Sourdough bread with fried egg, anyone?

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  10. Cucina Chef says:

    Really enjoyed the article, I am in the mood for sourdough bread already!!!

  11. Good to know, might be starting something in my kitchen reall soon! Cheers

  12. Thanks for posting this on the new site, Chris. My Burnt My Fingers website has a ton of recipes–just do a search for “sourdough”. My current favorite is this one http://wp.me/p1S3Ig-16h which is probably the best olive bread ever, and made with rye starter.

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