Coronavirus Patience Project: Make a Sourdough Starter
As we all wait to see what will happen, many of us will want to turn to something comforting, like bread, the staff of life. One of the best bread projects I can think of for adults and children is making a sourdough starter. That starter will be the foundation for a variety of breads. Making the starter also is a lesson in patience, as the starter takes days to mature into something that can cause bread to rise. While you wait on your starter, you can use the time to learn about yeasts and bacteria and basic sourdough breadmaking. When your starter is ready, you can make breads that are far superior to the stuff you find on supermarket shelves, much, much better than any "Wonder Bread."
No, making a starter isn't hard or complicated. You need only flour and water and time. When I first made starters (two of them), I consulted multiple cookbooks, blogs, and the America's Test Kitchen, Williams Sonoma, and King Arthur Flour sites. Although the process seemed a bit like alchemy, more of an art than a science, I learned that it isn't. The process is quite simple. It would have to be, as people have been developing starters and making sourdough bread for thousands of years. You don't need hundreds of pages of instructions or fancy equipment, either. You will need to feed your starters, kind of like feeding children.
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've searched out and developed multiple recipes to use the discard, and 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 first 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 now smells yeasty, fruity, and slightly boozy and has enough power to make my breads rise. Each also seems to have become stronger over time. Here's one of the starter versions that worked for me:
Simple Sourdough Starter Recipe
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--see the recipes on this website for sourdough biscuits, pancakes, etc.). 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 should smell sour, kind of like beer, 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 long since run out of rye flour (and haven't been able to find it at the local market), and I've been feeding the starter with whole-wheat and white whole-wheat flour. The starter doesn't seem to mind.
See my blog/website for lots of sourdough bread recipes. You'll find plenty. You'll also find scone and other recipes, like the one for Sourdough Goji Berry Scones in the picture below.