Sourdough bread simply tastes great. In Austria there are numerous (mostly small) bakeries, which are selling real sourdough bread. My parents would always buy such bread, believing that there is not only a difference in taste compared to conventional bread, but also in moisture and increased shelf-life. So when David and I moved to Boston last summer, something was missing. Li’l Vienna, you got it! No, but seriously, we missed dark bread. If you are used to eating it every single day this feeling doesn’t disappear within a week. That’s why I started baking bread (see recipe for the one and only Li’l Vienna Rye Sourdough Bread).
The first attempts
Once into it, the next step after basic yeast bread was the sourdough challenge. Making a fresh batch of sourdough starter is as easy as stirring together some flour and water and letting it sit. So I tried it and started my own sourdough – in all, I started it 3 times. One time I kept it simply too hot – well, it was a hot summer and I had placed it on our small balcony table outside, resulting in an unbearable smell. At that time I didn’t know if that smell was normal. Since I read before, that sourdough can really get smelly, I kept on feeding it for a while, but the disgusting odor wouldn’t go away, so I finally discarded it.
The next time I used too little flour and water because I didn’t want to end up with 2 lbs of sourdough when finished. Didn’t work out either. But all good things come in threes. I started another starter in September 2014, since then my rye sourdough starter is alive. And so is my all-purpose starter, which I made a couple of days later at the height of my sourdough-fever.
For the first months, I wouldn’t dare to use the sourdough as the only leavening, having read that it may be weak in the beginning, so I added some yeast to my recipes. But after a month or so, the starter should be strong enough to be the only leavening. If you do so, the only thing you have to pay attention to, is the sourdough-flour-ratio. A certain amount of flour needs a certain amount of sourdough to manage the leavening.
But for now, let’s get started with your rye starter.
Making your sourdough starter
First of all: You have to start 5 days before you want to bake sourdough bread. For example, if you want to bake on a Saturday morning, you will have to start by Monday evening. This recipe is for a rye starter. If you want to make an all purpose starter, you will need less water (50 g flour/50 g water from day 1 to 5).
The following instructions call for 50 g flour and 100 g water. If you are more familiar with measuring in cups, use 1/2 cup flour, respectively 1/2 cup water instead.
Day 1: Place 50 g of rye flour (I’m using organic rye flour from Arrowhead mills) into a medium sized mixing bowl or jar and add 100 g of warm water. A transparent plastic or glass jar (not metal) with at least 1 quart is best, since you can watch your starter growing bubbles. Beat to a creamy batter and cover with a lid to keep the moisture in. Leave it for 24 hours without disturbance. Don’t put it on a place too hot – like onto a radiator. I left mine in the cool kitchen (it will be happiest between 65 and 75 °F or 20 °C).
Day 2: Add another 50 g of rye flour and 100 g warm water, mix until well combined and set aside for 24 hours.
Day 3: Add 50 g rye flour and 100 g warm water and mix well. Set aside for 24 hours.
Day 4: Add 50 g rye flour and 100 g warm water and mix well. Set aside for 24 hours.
Day 5: Add 50 g rye flour but NO water. Stir well. You can use the starter 6 hours after the feeding (up to 24 hours later). Now you have 650 g rye starter (250 g flour and 400 g water).
You can use your sourdough on day 5 (6 hours after feeding, or up to 24 hours). For my rye-sourdough bread, which I developed over the last months (recipe here), you will need 200 g (about 1 cup) sourdough. And what to do with the rest? Either bake another bread or discard it, but keep 1-2 tablespoons for maintaining your starter. You can also freeze any left over. Just bring the frozen dough back to room temperature and give it one good feed, let it rest at room temperature for at least 12 hours, then it will be ready to bake with.
Maintaining your sourdough starter
Once ready, your starter will improve and get stronger with age. Since I want to keep a rye starter, I only feed my starter with rye flour.
After day 5 you have a lot of sourdough. Set 1 tablespoon aside in a glass or plastic jar and put it in the fridge. You can use the rest for baking bread. In the first 1-2 weeks you will have to feed your starter more often in order for it to gain strength. I did so every other day. Put it out of the fridge, let it get to room temperature and feed it with 30 g rye flour and 50 g warm water. Let it ripen for about 10-15 hours (I usually do overnight), until doubled or even tripled in volume. Put it back into the fridge. 2 days later take it out of the fridge, discard all but 1 tablespoon, feed it with 30 g rye flour and 50 g warm water. Let it ripen, then put it back into the fridge. If you plan on baking something, you can use the ripe sourdough instead of discarding it. The best moment to use it for baking, is the moment when it starts to collapse again (after 10-15 hours at room temperature). That said, I always got good results, even when used before collapsing. With 50 g flour and 83 g water you will get 100 g sourdough to bake and about 30 g (2 tablespoons) to keep as starter.
Put the starter in the fridge again and use the rest for baking. If you need more sourdough you have to feed your starter with the amount flour and water needed. But keep in mind that it will take longer to ripen or you have to put it in a slightly warmer place. The speed of the ripening depends on three factors: The temperature, the amount of starter you are using and the amount of flour and water you add. If you are using 1 tablespoon starter and only add 2 tablespoons of flour and some water, you will have a ready-to-bake sourdough (even though a very small amount) in a couple of hours. If you let it ripen at warm room temperature, this process will even be faster. If you add a lot of flour and water, let’s say 1 cup of flour and accordingly water, the ripening process will take longer. As a rule of thumb you will need 10 % starter, which means: If your recipe calls for 1/2 cup (100 g) sourdough, you should feed 1 tablespoon of starter (10-15 g) with 1/3 cup (45 g) rye flour and 1/4 cup +1 tbsp (75 g) water. Use up all but 1-2 tablespoons of the sourdough to keep as starter in the fridge.
Which type of flour for a sourdough starter?
Wild yeast is the key ingredient to activate your starter. Wild yeast is present in all types of flour. However, I would not suggest using bleached ones. In this recipe, I am using rye flour, but below you will also find the instructions for a starter using unbleached all-purpose flour. The easiest way to make a starter is simply by combining flour and water and letting it sit for several days. You don’t need any additional ingredients to get the wild yeast going.
Why discarding sourdough?
Sourdough needs something to eat, namely flour. If you have 1 tablespoon of starter (ripe sourdough) and feed it with 1/3 cup flour and 1/3 cup water, let it ripen and you will end up with a lot more ripe sourdough (= starter), let’s assume 3/4 cup. This amount of starter will soon be hungry and will need accordingly more flour to eat. You would have to feed it with 4 cups of flour, conditions being equal, to satisfy its needs. That means, if you are not discarding (or baking with) some of your starter, you will end up with huge amounts of sourdough.
I reduced the amount of starter to the minimum and only added 50 g flour (a good 1/3 cup) and 100 g water (1/3 cup and 1 tablespoon) a day. This is the absolute minimum. A lot of recipes add 1 cup of flour per day, but this would mean discarding a lot of dough.
With the following recipe you will get a very hydrated sourdough of 167 %, meaning the sourdough consists of 60 g flour and 100 g water (ratio of water to flour in percent). This is a very thin mixture, but I like it this way, since it is easier to handle when mixing it with the other bread ingredients. A lot of recipes are using a 100 % hydration (100 g water/100 g flour). It’s up to you. You can follow my instructions to get your first sourdough, and if you think that the sourdough is too thin for your needs, you can change the level of hydration with every feeding. Different recipes call for different ratios of flour and water in your sourdough. To use this starter in any recipe, take a look at the ratio of flour and water the recipe is calling for in their starter, and feed yours accordingly.
Hooch: The waterline in sourdough
Have you seen the watery line in the pictures of day 3 and 4? This “watery line”, called hooch, is formed when a starter is fed too little (amount of flour) or too infrequently. It’s more common in thin starters, because there isn’t much food (flour) in the starter compared to a thicker starter. The starter eats all the food and if it has finished, it throws off hooch. When you are in the process of creating a starter, this doesn’t matter. Just stir it in with the next feeding. If you want to keep your (small amount) of starter in the fridge for a longer time, it’s a good idea to mix in a little extra flour, so it needs longer to eat it.
I sometimes find a small layer of hooch on top of my starter, when I haven’t fed it in a while – 2 weeks or so. I always handle it in the following way: If it’s a lot of hooch, I pour it off and feed the starter. If its just a tiny bit, I stir it in when feeding.
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