Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Catch Em’ While They're Hot or A Beginner’s Guide to the World of Sourdough

by Wesley Hatch Co-op Produce Clerk

Sourdough: in my mind the word conjures fragrant loaves, spongy insides and crusty outsides, belly filling, mouth chewing, a pungent sour taste pervading my senses, stirring me back to the days before commercial yeast; before unWonderbread and its kind; before factories polluted the air and concrete lined the streets; when nights meant candles burning or light but by the moon. Imagine – we humans can still share with our ancestors the same experience of waiting patiently for dough to rise, for the heat of our ovens to bake the forms, of breaking open a loaf of fresh sourdough bread to be shared with friends and family. This experience has been common for thousands of years. We can connect with the past, carry on the traditions of old, and pass on our own experiences to the next generation to help keep the bond between ourselves and the living world strong.
What follows is a brief history of yeast cultivation, an example of my own experiences with sourdough, as well as a researched plan, call it an amalgamation of thoughts and ideas from many sources, that will, with a little luck and some of that good old-fashioned patience, help you begin your own journey in sourdough baking.
A sourdough starter, or leaven, is a simple mixture of flour and water. That’s it. No commercial yeast, no sugar, no apples or grape scrappings, no milk: just flour and water. According to Ed Wood in his excellent World Sourdoughs From Antiquity, the art of leavened bread, or bread that rises due to the gaseous byproduct of yeast devouring the gluten in the flour, thus lifting the dough, has been practiced for some five thousand years.
A baker leaves her uncooked flatbread dough out in the sun, forgetting to return for quite a few hours; wild yeast from the air is attracted and gathers; the once flat bread rises; the baker returns and is amazes at the magic of… the gods? spirits in the air? ancient aliens?
Whatever they may have believed or known, and however many times similar accidents like this it took, eventually humans figured out that, first, leaving out a mixture of flour and water will create a rise in bread, and second, that keeping some of the original flour and water mixture – what we call leaven or starter – speeds up the process. In other words, instead of creating a new leaven each time one wants to bake, humans figured out that the leaven could be fed flour and water to keep it alive. Because yeast is alive, just as the symbiotic bacteria that lives within the leaven is alive. That, I believe, is the first step in understanding sourdough: sourdough is alive.
I first came into conscious contact with sourdough bread at the Chaz, a community living space in my college town a friend of a friend was living in on Charles Street (thus, the Chaz). It was at the Chaz I learned the importance of composting waste to reduce dependence on landfills, learned to conserve energy use (the Chaz was kept at a cool 55 degrees F in the winter) and learned to be more self-sufficient. Eventually moving there for about a year, I learned everything I know about sourdough from my friends Chris and Alem, both aspiring bakers and inspiring humans. Check out their blog here: http://yeastcoastbakery.blogspot.com
With my friends at the Chaz, I learned one of the most important lessons related to sourdough: patience. Without patience, there can be no sourdough bread. It takes time to start a leaven. It takes time to proof a culture (more on proofing next week). It takes time for the dough to rise. It takes time for dough to bake. If one is impatient during any of the steps, the final bread will be compromised. It is of the upmost importance to be patience and caring with your sourdough. After all, sourdough is a living organism, so, like all living creatures, should be treated with respect.
Now, there are two ways to start a sourdough starter. The first is to buy a sourdough starter kit from a store or online, follow the carefully laid out directions, and, after activating the dormant culture, begin baking. I started a gluten free, brown rice starter with a kit. This is a great way for a first time sourdough baker to become acquainted with the taste, smell, and texture of sourdough leavens.
But for those of you more daring, who want an authentic sourdough leaven unique to your location, starting your own leaven from scratch is the only way. The culture inside the sourdough starter kits is a specific culture cultivated in a specific area with its own specific yeast and bacteria combination that, when reactivated and properly maintained, is a stable environment. As far as my understanding goes, yeast from the air cannot populate the leaven because the environment inside the leaven is perfectly suited to the yeast and bacteria already living inside. They keep others out in their cozy home of flour and water.
What this means is if you want a sourdough leaven that is related to your environment, that is unique to the place you live, you must start your own leaven.
Here’s a simple way of accomplishing this goal.

The ingredients you’ll need are as follows:
-- 1 bag of flour, preferably unbleached, unbromated flour like King Arthur’s All Purpose Flour. You can certainly use whole-wheat flour, but I find that it tends to be too heavy its own. If you want, try a mix of 25% whole wheat to 75% all-purpose.
-- Water: tap water will work perfectly fine, unless of course your tap water is smelly and/or overly chlorinated. If so, use room temperature bottled water (Poland Springs sells a two or three gallon container with a tap, for example).
-- 1 Container: glass works best as it’s see through which will be important for determining the readiness of the leaven. I use an old washed out peanut butter jar. Preferably, use a container with a wide mouth for ease of stir.
-- A clean working area. This whole process, especially in the early stages, is made much simpler if you can designate a working area free from clutter and other materials. I tend to clutter up the kitchen with my sourdough projects, to the chagrin of my partner, but I find it easier to give the love and care the leaven needs in the early stages when we have an area to call our own.
--A kitchen scale. If possible, use a kitchen scale to measure out the flour and water for exactness. The mixture of flour and water is based on what bakers call humidity level, with a recommended humidity level of 100%. This means equal parts flour and water by weight. If you do not have a kitchen scale, we’ll use the measurement of a quarter cup of water to a half a cup of flour. This is not exactly 100% humidity, but it is close enough.
-- A cloth and a hair tie. The cloth will fit over the jar with the hair tie or rubber band keeping it secure.
- Patience. As I said before, patience is key. Without patience, this project will fail.
To begin: Add 50 grams of water to the container (or a ¼ cup if not using a scale). Add 50 grams of flour (or ½ a cup of flour if not using a scale) and stir vigorously. Don’t worry if lumps remain. For now, leave the mixture uncovered. Keep the container in a warm place for 12 to 24 hours; the top of the fridge seems to be a popular spot.

At this point, you are waiting for bubbles to form, the first signs of yeast accumulating. Sometimes this only takes 8 hours, sometimes it takes up to 24 hours. [If after 48 hours, no bubbles have formed on the surface of the mixture, compost the mixture and start over, moving it to another spot. If another 48 hours goes by, you may want to try switching to a different flour.]
When the first bubbles form, feed the starter. This consists of adding another 50 grams of water, mixing, then adding 50 grams of flour (or, ¼ cup of water and a ½ cup of flour). Leave the mixture for another 8 to 12 hours. After the second feeding, start covering the mixture with the cloth secured by the hair tie or rubber band to keep out unwanted dust.
From now on, each feeding will consist of taking out half the starter and replacing it with fresh equal parts flour and water by weight. If you don’t take out half the starter, you’ll quickly end up with too much starter for your container.
At this stage, the starter is too immature to begin using in any recipes. Therefore, I suggest composting the starter you remove until the starter is at least 1 week old. After 1 week or so, the leftover starter can be used in pancakes or waffles, or any other recipe that calls for flour and water. It will add a nice sour flavor, especially as the starter matures and fully develops its flavor profile as the weeks go by. After about 2 weeks, you can begin keeping the starter in the fridge, which slows down the yeast, meaning you will only have to feed it every few days, or even just once a week.
For the first week, it is important to feed the leaven every 8 to 12 hours. Like a wee baby, the leaven must be looked after, coddled, and fed constantly. As the days pass, you should see more and more bubbles forming. I started my leaven on a Monday with half all purpose flour and half rye flour. By Saturday, I realized the rye was weighing the leaven down and eliminated it from the subsequent feedings. By the following Monday, the leaven showed signs of maturation, including a multitude of bubbles 2 hours after feeding and an increasingly sour, but pleasant, smell.
By keeping up this process of feeding every 8 to 12 hours, in about 1 week you should have mature enough starter to begin using to create tasty dough. The flavor will continue to improve and deepen as time goes on. Keep in mind, it may take up to 2 weeks before the starter is mature enough to use.

Remember, although this process may seem like a lot of work, the flavors and smells soon wafting from your kitchen will make it all worth it. My specialty is pizza, and the sourdough I use as a base forms a perfect crust with a complex flavor, chewy insides, and a nice crusty outside. Biting into it is like a little slice of heaven.
Tune in next week for tips and tricks on using your newly formed starter to begin experimenting with forming dough and baking basic breads.
Thanks for reading and happy eating.
Click here to read Part 2.


  1. I have also done a faster version by also adding some yeast in the beginning, but I'm sure you will cringe at that comment. Great info here!

  2. Thanks for the comment. I wouldn't cringe, but I would just caution adding yeast as it may overpower the wild yeast you are attempting to capture. Keep baking.