Fermenting Fun! Sourdough Bread Starter

Bread gets a bad rap these days especially with so many people having sensitivities and allergic responses to gluten.  I think part of the reason is that in our over-processed and hurried society, we don't take the time to make bread the way our ancestors used to and we've rushed most of the beneficial components of bread right out of the loaf.  Even when buying a loaf of 'traditional' sourdough from a bakery you'll find that it usually isn't made with a traditional wild yeast starter, but instead adds prepared activated yeast.  I've been reading a fantastic book called Nourishing Traditions: The Cookbook that Challenges Politically Correct Nutrition and the Diet Dictocrats, which has in it a wealth of information on more traditional foods and their health benefits, along with the increasingly more processed foods prevalent in the typical American diet and their detrimental impacts to our health.  I highly recommend the book, lots of great information as well as recipes for 'back to basics' foods, beverages, tonics, etc.

There are numerous health benefits to cultivating a wild yeast starter for use in bread-making, some of the more notable are:

  • The longer preparation time and soaking of the grain in the process of making the starter help to facilitate breakdown of the proteins in the grain into amino acids, making the grain more easily digestible and often causing less digestive distress for those with sensitivity to gluten.
  • Sourdough basically makes it's own natural preservatives in the form of acetic acid, which inhibits the grow of mold, giving the loaf a longer shelf-life naturally without requiring the addition of any other preservatives. 
  • Sourdough has a lower glycemic index than most other breads, which means it has less impact on blood sugar and will not likely cause huge spikes in blood sugar levels immediately after consumption.  This makes it a better choice for individuals needing to regulate blood sugar levels such as those with diabetes. 
  • The lactobacillus bacteria produced as part of the fermentation process not only help to provide a happier digestive system by increasing beneficial gut flora, but they naturally produce lactic acid which helps to break down the phytic acid that is present in the grain.  Phytic acid prevents absorption of certain minerals, so by reducing its presence, the lactobacillus are effectively making for a more nutritious loaf of bread.  
As with most things in the kitchen, making a sourdough starter involves a little science, some artistic license and quite possibly a little witchcraft, lol.  I don't tend to get too strict with regard to measurement but here are the approximations I used for my starter:

You want to use equal parts flour and water and if you're using measuring cups and not measuring by weight, which most people will probably do, you'll need more flour than water.  Dry ingredients measure out differently by the cup than liquids.  A cup of water is approximately 8oz whereas a cup of flour is approximately 4.5 oz.  Given this, if you use 1/2 cup of water you'll probably need a little more than 3/4 cup of flour.  So where I used flour, I just had the cup slightly heaping as opposed to measured flat in the cup.  Not exactly scientific, but it worked.

Day One:

A slightly heaping 3/4 cup of flour (use a good quality flour, unbleached - I used wheat but you could use rye, barley, etc.)
1/2 cup filtered water (preferably un-chlorinated)

Add the flour and water to a large glass bowl and mix vigorously until it's completely combined.
My starter was pretty vigorous after only a day.
Scrape down the sides and make sure it's a uniform mixture.  Should be pretty sticky.  Cover with a towel and secure with a rubber band or loosely cover with plastic wrap.  You want some air and wild yeast to get in but you don't want critters, dust or debris in there.  Place in a warm, stable-temp location in your kitchen.  Preferably 70-75 degrees F.  The warmer your kitchen, the faster it'll ferment but you don't want to cook it so if it's too hot in there you might want to find another place to put it. 

Days 2-5:

For the next 4 days you'll want to continue to feed the starter with the same ratios you used on day 1.  Follow the same directions, each time stirring in the flour and water vigorously and covering with a towel or loosely with plastic wrap/a lid.

Day 3, my starter had larger bubbles.

I consulted myriad sources for starting and maintaining sourdough starter and they all seemed to recommend different intervals at which to feed the starter, some saying you needed to do it as often as every 4 hours.  I don't know about you, but that sounded reminiscent of the days when my children were infants and I was up every few hours to feed them! I'm not that excited about bread that I'm going to care for my starter that often, so I only fed mine once a day.  If you're noticing that yours isn't bubbling and frothing like it should be, then maybe you might want to try feeding it 2-3 times a day until it gets going.  My kitchen is about 76 degrees and my starter was bubbling after the first day -
results will vary here depending on the flour used, your water source, your kitchen temp, etc.

What to expect along the way:

On day 2 you should start seeing a few bubbles in your mixture, although don't freak out if you don't.  The bubbles are an indicator that the wild yeast on the flour and from the air have started consuming the sugars in the flour and are releasing carbon dioxide, which is what's making the bubbles.  Your starter might just be slow for any number of reasons so be patient if you don't see bubbles right away.  The mix should smell a little sweet and yeasty.

On day 3 you may or may not have bubbles, but most likely will unless your starter is slow.  If you're not seeing any yet you may want to check your kitchen temp and considering a warmer, less drafty location.   In my starter I had quite a few bubbles at this point and the mixture was starting to smell sour and not entirely pleasant - a little like sweaty socks.  This is actually normal! Yum! Sweaty sock bread!  The mixture should also look like a sticky, thick batter and larger in volume than the previous day.  You will probably hear bubbles popping as you stir it.

On day 4 the starter will continue to get looser and larger in volume with more bubbles.  It will also start to smell even more vinegary and sour and if you taste it, that will be reflected in the taste.  This is normal.

On day 5 your starter should be ready to go - it should have doubled in volume, be nice and loose and airy with bubbles - almost frothy -  and it will have a pungent odor.  If your starter is not ready to go at this point, continue to feed it for a few more days using half the amounts you'd been using for days 1-5.

If your starter is ready but you're not, then you'll want to put a tight lid on the mixture, pop it into your fridge and store it until you're ready to use it, continuing to feed it once a week.  During the feedings, you will probably see better results  If you're starting to get 'too much' volume in the container, you can discard or use some of it and then continue to feed.  You can keep your starter going indefinitely in this manner.


Once it's ready to be used, you can pop the starter into your favorite recipe per the guidelines.  I'm going to try tinkering around with the recipe on the King Arthur flour website to see how it comes out, since it seems pretty basic.

If you're fermenting anything else on your kitchen counters - like the Ginger Bug for Ginger Ale I've currently got brewing (recipe to be posted later) - you'll want to make sure you have several feet in between the concoctions so there's no cross-contamination with the yeast.