Catching a Wild Sourdough Starter

I have been baking bread since I was a child. No one in my family baked bread, but I was fascinated by the science of breadmaking. I took my mother’s cookbooks and taught myself to bake breads, croissants, and homemade pizza dough, sometimes with help from my aunt, who enjoyed participating in my kitchen chaos. One day, many years ago, I decided I wanted to try making sourdough bread, and I ordered a starter from King Arthur Flour. I made two loaves of sourdough bread every week, gradually graduating to more complex recipes from Breads from the La Brea Bakery. At some point, life got in the way of sourdough maintenance, and my starter died.

Over the years, I have tried different methods of catching a starter, and I have found this one is almost foolproof (I had problems last time due to an overly cold kitchen). The technique comes from The Bread Baker’s Apprentice: Mastering the Art of Extraordinary Bread. I use all rye flour for the seed, and then when you feed your starter for the recipe, you can change flours as needed.

Day 1: Mix 1 cup of organic, dark rye flour and 3/4 cup of water in a glass or ceramic container. Cover with plastic wrap. (If you mark the top of the dough with a piece of tape, you can see how it progresses. Move the tape from day to day to keep track of the height). Keep at warm room temperature (you don’t want it too hot, but if it’s too cold, the process will be slowed down so much that you may have problems. My kitchen is very cold, so in winter I keep it in the room with the wood stove).

Day 2: Add to your mixture 1 cup of rye flour and 1/2 cup water. Press down, mark again, and recover with plastic wrap.

Day 3: There may have been some rise and a little fermentation. Discard half of the starter, and add to your mixture 1 cup of rye flour and 1/2 cup water. Press down, mark again, and recover with plastic wrap.

Day 4: Your starter should have doubled; if not, wait until it does (12-24 hours; if more time goes by and it is still not doubled, your room may be too cold). Discard half of the starter, and add to your mixture 1 cup of rye flour and 1/2 cup water. Press down, mark again, and recover with plastic wrap. Wait until it doubles in size again (from 4-24 hours). Now you are ready to turn it into the “mother starter” (Peter Reinhart calls this the “barm”). You can use it the next day, but it will gain character over time.

Mother Starter
Take 1 cup of your seed starter and discard or give away the rest (I compost it). Add 3 1/2 cups rye flour and 2 cups water. Mix well, and make sure it is in a container at least twice as big as it is, with a plastic lid or plastic wrap over the top. Gases should build up inside, making the lid or wrap swell in about 6 hours. At that point, open the lid to release the gas, and then close it again. Refrigerate it overnight. It is now ready to use and can be used over the next three days without feeding. After that, you will need to feed it.

Creating starter to use in recipes
1/2 cup mother starter
1 cup flour of choice (if making spelt bread, use spelt, etc.)
1/4 cup water

Mix together, adding a little more water if needed; it should be firm. Place in a lightly oiled bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and let ferment for about 4 hours and then refrigerate overnight.

For example, if you want to make Wardeh’s Basic Sourdough Bread, you would mix 1 cup of the mother starter, 2 cups of spelt flour, and 1/2 cup of water.

Maintaining Your Starter
When you feed the mother starter, you want to double it at least. If you didn’t use a lot to make bread, then discard some so that you are doubling it when you feed it (1 cup starter, 3 1/2 cups flour, 2 cups water). If you don’t make bread every three days or so, you can refrigerate it for at least 2 months in an airtight container, discard all but 1 cup of starter and feed it from there (if you use it regularly, you don’t need to discard any). You can also freeze it for up to 6 months. When ready to use, defrost 3 days in advance. When thawed enough to use, throw out all but 1/2 cup and feed until you have 4-6 cups of starter.

What to do with your starter
Now that you have a good sourdough starter, what next? Here are some great recipes to use it in:
Basic Sourdough Bread
Cinnamon Raisin Swirl Bread
Spelt Sourdough Cinnamon Rolls
Spelt Sourdough Burger Buns
Sourdough Chocolate Cake
Sourdough Pancakes
Sourdough Pizza Crust

This post is part of Real Food Wednesday hosted by Cheeseslave and Kelly the Kitchen Kop.

If you missed my post on the book giveaway, go take a look and enter now!

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5 Responses to “Catching a Wild Sourdough Starter”

  1. Wardeh @ GNOWFGLINS Says:

    Very interesting, Rebecca! This is a great summary of getting started with sourdough. I wish I had known more of this when I started. Though I have not successfully started my own starter. I enjoyed hearing about you as a child, becoming a bread expert all on your own! πŸ™‚

    I notice you are feeding with less water than starter. With spelt, I was feeding equal amounts of flour and water, but then I ended up feeding less water because otherwise it gets runnier and runnier over time. But with whole wheat flour, it usually stays thick and consistent using equal amounts of flour and water. Have you noticed this?

    • Rebecca Says:

      I never really thought much about it. The starter stays thick and consistent the way I do it. I think that the rule of thumb that I have read is to feed it equal amounts BY WEIGHT (although I don’t actually weigh my flour and water to see if I am feeding it the right amounts), so maybe wheat flour is heavier than spelt? Or just more tolerant of more water? Spelt does absorb more water than wheat, so maybe that is why it gets runnier over time.

  2. Millie@Real Food for Less Money Says:

    Why is part of the starter discarded? Does it make the mother stronger? My starter is/was just whole wheat and water (1 cup each) for 7 days and then I made bread on day 8. The first few weeks of bread making left alot to be desired (can you say brick loaves). Eventually, I stopped making bricks and now have wonderful light sandwich loaves. I’m wondering if the discard method helps the starter develop quicker and skip the brick stage. Interesting post.

    • Rebecca Says:

      To get the starter really going, you want to at least double it every time you feed it. If you keep feeding it that way and don’t discard any, pretty soon it will take over your house! πŸ˜‰ (If you are going to bake a lot of bread, you don’t need to discard any, you can just use it all, but then you would need to use twice as much flour and water).

      • Millie@Real Food for Less Money Says:

        Okay, that makes sense. When I was getting my starter going it grew out of its container (and all over my cupboard) so I’m totally with you on that πŸ™‚
        I’m finding lately I don’t have enough starter (thanks in huge part to Wardeh and her suggestions). I’m thinking of dividing my starter into two containers so I can make enough.

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