Simple Sourdough Bread Starter: A Lesson in Patience
For some strange, peculiar reason, I decided I needed to make sourdough bread--the beautiful, crusty type that tastes far better than any "Wonder Bread." I think it was because I saw an episode on America's Test Kitchen about an "Almost No-Knead Sourdough Bread." Yeah, you don't have to knead it much, but you do need to make a "starter" first, which can take a few days to a couple of weeks. How hard can that be, though? It worked perfectly for the Test Kitchen people.
So, I gathered my ingredients and consulted multiple cookbooks, blogs, and the Test Kitchen, Williams Sonoma, and King Arthur Flour sites. Because this sourdough thing was something of a science as well as cooking project, I decided to make a couple of starters. After all, I figured, one might not work. My house is chilly. I wasn't sure what I was doing. The whole process seemed a bit like alchemy. I'd read that making sourdough is more of an art than a science, but I'm into scientific experimentation. So I did. I experimented by making a couple of batches of starter different ways--with different compositions, feeding sequences, and timing.
My husband has been quite amused by my efforts, including my exhortations to the starters of "bubble, bubble." Although, he was a little off in likening my efforts to those of the witches in Macbeth (they, after all, said "Double, double toil and trouble/Fire burn, and cauldron bubble"), he was right about my incantation to the starters. I felt compelled to encourage them. I feared they were not growing well and would expire before giving me decent bread. I even checked out the possibilities on Amazon for buying starters. Then my starters took off. They bubbled, bubbled, and bubbled some more.
Not only did both batches live, but both batches multiplied--extensively. I've never been comfortable throwing away good food, so I wasn't comfortable with tossing the "discards" from feeding the starters. So I didn't. I kept them. And of course, the discards, if I didn't use them soon, needed to be feed, which I did. I did search out and develop multiple recipes to use the discard, but I've had plenty of starter for breads. And more breads. And still more breads...And I continue to feed my starters, which are quite healthy and appear likely to provide me plenty of bread in the future.
So, after all this, how did I make my starters? Well, I used modified versions of the King Arthur Flour and America's Test Kitchen instructions for one. For the other starter, I began with directions from Williams-Sonoma but also had to alter them (they didn't work well, and my starter was hungry!). Both versions, even with my tinkering and without a kitchen scale or other fancy equipment, produced fine starters. Each smells yeasty, fruity, and slightly boozy and has enough power to make my breads rise. I discovered that making starters and keeping them happy is, indeed, as much art as science. It's also more fun and interesting than I thought. Here's one of the starter versions that worked for me:
2 cups of unbleached all purpose flour
2 cups of water (leave it out for a day before using it in case it has chlorine in it)
In a glass or ceramic bowl, whisk together the flour and water. Cover the bowl loosely with plastic wrap and let it sit at room temperature for 3-4 days, stirring the mixture once or twice a day. The mixture should start to smell a bit sour. It also may form a liquid on the top that smells alcoholic--that's hooch. It means your starter is hungry. Stir down the mixture (incorporating the hooch) and pour off all but about 1/2 a cup of the mixture into another container (save the "discard" for another use--more about that another day). Feed the remaining half cup of mixture with 1/2 a cup of water and a scant cup of flour, stirring everything well. Cover the starter loosely and let it do its thing, feeding it once a day (repeating the process of discarding all but 1/2 a cup of the original and feeding the original with 1/2 a cup of water and a scant cup of flour). You may have to feed the starter for a week or more (maybe two weeks, but don't worry) until it begins to create prolific bubbles and about doubles in size over the course of a day. When that happens you should have a starter that's "ready." If, at any point, the starter turns moldy, pink, or starts to smell bad (it will smell sour, and that's okay), throw it out and try again.
I should add here that I didn't stick strictly to the measurements I've provided you. I aimed for a starter that was the consistency of thick pancake batter. If the starter seemed too thick, I added a bit more water. If it was thin, I added a bit more flour. I also used rye flour for some additions. I've since run out of rye flour, and I've been feeding the starter with whole-wheat and white whole-wheat flour. The starter doesn't seem to mind.