Over the past year or so, sourdough has become a rising star in our family’s household. Actually, about three-quarters of the grains that we eat have be “soured.” Pizza crusts, pot-pies, crackers, burger buns, pancakes, dinner rolls, and even cake–all made using a sourdough starter culture! Yes, sourdough really is that versatile.
I’ve been dying to share my favorite recipes for all of the above, but in order to do so, I first need to explain how to make a sourdough starter culture. But even before I can do that, I need to discuss some of the science behind sourdough.
Why don’t I just get to the point and give you to recipes already?!
Because sourdough contains living microorganisms (food-science at it’s finest), and in order to grow a healthy starter culture (or anything fermented), it’s important to know what’s going on behind-the-scenes, so to speak.
You may even find it helpful to read my “Fermentation 101: the Very Basics on Fermenting Food” post before reading on.
What is Sourdough?
Sourdough is simply “soured” dough, or dough that has been fermented. Unlike regular, non-soured bread, like french bread, traditional sourdough does not rely on added sugar or yeast for it to rise, instead, sourdough bread rises from the carbon dioxide that is released during the fermentation process.
Sourdough bread’s mild, sour taste is created by the lactic acid that is produced by beneficial microorganisms (lactobacilli) during fermentation.
Keep in mind, most commercial sourdough breads are not made in this way. Instead they contain added sugar, yeast, and a “sourdough flavoring mix.” To be sure that you’re buying the real-deal, ask your local bakery if they make theirs using a starter culture. Or, better yet, make your own!
4 Reasons to Eat Sourdough Bread
Many of the beneficial microorganisms that are created during the fermentation process are killed once the bread is baked. But don’t let this discourage you from eating sourdough bread! There are still many benefits to eating it.
1. Grains contain phytic acid, an anti-nutrient, which among other things, inhibits mineral absorption in your body. Souring the dough creates lactic acid which neutralizes phytic acid, thus increasing mineral absorption and aiding in digestion in your body.
2. The fermentation process breaks down glutens in the bread, keeping it low on the glycemic index. This is why many gluten-intolerant people and diabetics are able to eat sourdough bread.
3. Acetic acid, one of the beneficial acids created during the fermentation process, acts as a natural preservative and prevents the bread from going stale or molding too quickly.
4. Finally, sourdough bread contains many vitamins and minerals such as B1-B6, B12, folate, thiamin, niacin, riboflavin, vitamin E, selenium, iron, manganese, calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, zinc and potassium. Commercial breads either contain a fraction of these nutrients, or they are synthetically added to the bread.
How to Make a Sourdough Starter Culture
It’s helpful to think of a sourdough starter as the living organism that it is. Living things need food, water, warmth, and a clean environment. So that is what we shall provide it with.
Food – You can use any type of grain-based flour for your sourdough starter. I prefer to use, and have the best results with, a mixture of half organic, un-bleached, all-purpose, white flour, and organic, whole wheat flour (which I have pre-mixed in a large jar on my counter.) Your starter needs to be fed about 1/4 – 1/2 cup of flour, plus the equivalent amount of water, for every 1 – 2 cups of starter.
Water – Not just any water will do. Most of our tap water is tainted with chlorine, which can kill the beneficial microorganisms needed to keep your starter alive. If you don’t have a filter attached to your tap, it’s best to use bottled spring water. I have been successful using the tap water where I live, however, in the summer when it starts to smell chlorine-y, I switch to filtered water (room temperature.)
1. In a clean, glass jar, ceramic bowl or crock, combine 1/4 cup flour with slightly less than a 1/4 cup of room temperature, filtered water. Give it a good stir with a wooden of plastic spoon, scrape down the sides and cover. Leave it to rest at room temperature for 12 hours.
2. If you see a couple bubbles after 12 hours, add the same amount of flour and water, stir, scrape, cover, and let sit for 12 more hours.
3. Add 1/2 cup of flour with slightly less than a 1/2 water. Give it a good stir, scrape down the sides, cover, and let sit for 12 hours.
4. You should definitely see bubbles at this point. If you don’t, discard and start again. If you do, that’s great–it’s working, and your starter should begin to have a pleasant, sour smell.
5. Continue to feed the starter in this way (repeating step 3) for 7 days. After 7 days, your active and bubbly starter will be ready to use!
Caring for you Sourdough Starter
* The larger your starter gets, the more you have to feed it. Like I mentioned before, your starter needs to be fed about 1/4 – 1/2 cup of flour, plus the equivalent amount in water (or slightly less), for every 1 to 2 cups of starter.
* Depending of the temperature of your home, you’ll need to feed it every 4 – 12 hours. In cooler months I can even get away with feeding it once a day if it’s left on the counter.
* Keep your starter in the refrigerator to slow down it’s growth. You’ll only need to feed it once per week or before you use it, which ever’s sooner.
* Many tutorials suggest discarding some of the starter between feedings to prevent it from growing too big. I’ve never done this because I always find a use for it, and to me, it seems like a waste (too much starter usually means it’s pizza night), but it’s an option.
* The darker layer of liquid that forms on top, called hooch or alcohol, is normal, but it usually means that your starter has run out of food and needs to be fed asap. You can pour it off, or just stir it in with your next feeding, which is what I do.
* With continuos feeding and the right care and conditions, you’ll be passing it on to your grandkids (seriously, it can last forever.)
Using Your Starter
Before using your starter, ensure that it’s been fed within the last 12 hours and is active and bubbly.
If you do keep your starter in the fridge, return it to room temperature, and feed it, and esure that it’s active before using.
Don’t forget to leave some behind, at least 1 cup, which you will continue to grow for the future.
Signs That Something’s Gone Wrong
There are a couple of obvious signs that your starter has gone off.
1. A pink film or mold is forming on the top. If this happens, you can either try skimming it off or dumping out the whole thing and starting again.
2. It smells really bad. Keep in mind, there’s a difference between the pleasant, sour smell of fermented food, and decomposition–just trust me, you’ll know it when you smell it. It’s happened to me once, and there was no question.
My Favorite Recipes
To get you started, here are a couple of my favorite sourdough bread recipes.
The first sourdough recipe I’d ever tried was this one from The Kitchn. It’s called “Beginner Sourdough Bread” and was a great place to start. It calls for yeast, which I mentioned before isn’t necessary in true, traditional sourdough, but it does make a beautiful, fluffy loaf, perfect for sandwiches.
Check back regularly, or SUBSCRIBE to my email list, as I’ll be sharing my own, favorite sourdough recipes this fall!