Recipe: Sourdough starter recipe

In Taste Magazine this week, writer Cale Weissman tackles "The Mythos of the Sourdough Starter" in a piece where he describes his journey to sourdough baking. He successfully made a live starter and "named her Fran and have told close friends they are in charge of her if I go on vacation or die."

He describes some hair raising strategies for creating sourdough starter including adding dead insects or just using water that a bunch of kale sat in for a while:

Sullivan Street Bakery’s Jim Lahey has had his sourdough starter going since 1992. It all started in Italy, he tells me, when he noticed a beautiful crop of dinosaur kale blooming in the countryside. So he did what anyone else would do: pick it and plunk it in some water. Then, some days later, he removed the kale and added flour to it. From there, he had his starter, which he still uses to this day. It has a “distinctive sort of sulfuric rotten cabbage” aroma, he says. He adds that though the starter is only 25 years old, the microbes that it’s pulled in from the air date back billions of years.

Here at Roost Books, publisher Sara Bercholz got her starter going from following the instructions in our James Beard Award-Winning book Sourdough by Sarah Owens. She gave jars of starter to people on staff from that original mother, and while some of us had some trial and error with our first batches of bread before the we got the hang of it, we're still keeping our starters alive and well. So no need for dead bugs, here's the instructions from Sarah Owens (also included in the Taste piece with some pretty photos by Ngoc Minh Ngo from Sarah's new book out this August, Toast & Jam. Enjoy!

A Simple Sourdough Starter by Sarah Owens

In my book Sourdough I detailed how to begin a sourdough starter culture using a yeast water method whose vigor I find encouraging to many beginning bakers. However, all you really need to get a culture bubbling is some quality flour and pure water to farm the microbes responsible for fermentation. Set it in a warm spot (70 to 75°F is ideal), and in about 1 week, you will have a responsive culture that is ready to leaven bread.

420 grams

Ingredients:

210 grams freshly milled stone ground all-purpose flour
210 grams plus 4 tablespoons filtered water

 Directions:

In a small bowl, stir together 60 g / ½ cup flour and 60 g / 6 tablespoons water to form a thick and sticky mixture with no dry lumps remaining. Cover loosely with cheesecloth or a clean towel and set in a warm location for 2 to 3 days or until you detect a light, boozy scent and see bubbles breaking the surface. Discard half and add another 60 g / ½ cup flour and 60 g / 6 tablespoons water and stir to combine. Replace the cheesecloth and allow to ferment at room temperature for 8 to 12 hours. The mixture should be bubbly and active after this time.

Discard half of the mixture and add another 90 g / ¾ cup flour and 90 g / ½ cup plus 1 tablespoon of water. Allow to ferment again for 8 to 12 hours. Once it is fragrant with a creamy, yeasted scent, perform the float test by dropping a dollop of the starter into a cup of water. If it floats, the wild yeast is active enough to produce carbon dioxide gases as a by-product of fermentation. If it sinks, perform one or two more feedings or extend the feeding time before trying again.

Once your new culture passes the test, feed it daily with equal parts flour and water to the weight of the starter. (For example 90 g starter + 90 g water + 90 g flour = a 1:1:1 ratio.) This will produce a starter that is 100% hydration for the recipes in this book. Feed it daily if kept at room temperature, or store it in the refrigerator and feed it weekly, always discarding (or using!) some, but not all, of the original starter before each feeding. I like to keep at least 2 heaping tablespoons of starter (about 50 to 60 g) on hand at all times.

Store your starter in a jar with a loose-fitting lid to prevent it from drying out. Mason jars with a flip top lid are excellent, as the rubber gasket can be removed, allowing the lid to be fully closed but still loose.

Kitchen Notes: Getting a sourdough culture started is a slower process in the winter than in the warmer months. If after a week you do not see (or smell) bubbling fermentation activity, place a heating pad turned to the lowest setting underneath your jar, or place the jar in the oven with the light on (just don’t forget about it!), or in any other spot in your house that is warmer than the ambient temperature of your kitchen.