Take advantage of wild yeast and a few simple ingredients, and you can make fresh baked goods about anytime you want
Getting stuck at home has encouraged many Americans to get back to a more self-reliant lifestyle, and for a lot of us, that includes baking. If you’re one of those folks, you might have noticed a shortage of yeast at your local grocery. Luckily, you can take advantage of wild yeast, which occurs naturally in the air, and still bake delicious breads and pastries.
Sourdough bread has been around for a long time now. We know the ancient Egyptians made leavened loaves, while ancient Greeks made several varieties of bread and pastries. Romans learned the process from the Greeks, which then spread across their empire. French bakers perfected the sourdough process in the 17th century by creating recipes that look similar to how we make sourdough now. These call for feeding and rising a sourdough multiple times before baking with it.
Sourdough continued to be a staple among early explorers and frontier homesteads even after commercially-produced brewer’s yeast became widely available. Starters were traded from family to family, and passed down from one generation to the next.
Today, most of us can run down to the local grocery to pick up a pack of yeast when the mood to bake strikes (during non-pandemic times, anyway), but the flavor and texture of a good sourdough loaf makes keeping your own starter worth it long after yeast returns to the shelves.
All sourdough begins with a starter. So, what is a starter? It’s a living, breathing mixture of flour, water, naturally-occurring bacteria, and wild yeast. The bacteria (lactobacilli) and yeast (which is a fungus) feed on the flour to thrive in a symbiotic relationship. Each breaks down a particular carbohydrate from the grains. The yeast turns these carbs into ethanol and carbon dioxide. The bacteria, in turn, converts the ethanol into lactic acid, which gives sourdough its characteristic tangy flavor.
Since a starter is alive, think of it as a pet. It needs to be fed – more often if you use it often, less often if you don’t – and divided so that it doesn’t eventually take over your kitchen. Keep your starter in a glass, hard plastic, or stoneware vessel. Do not use metal, since it can affect the chemistry of your starter. Same goes for utensils. Plastic, glass and wooden bowls and spoons are your friends.
Before you can start caring for a starter, however, you first need to get your hands on one. You have three options for this step. The easiest way to is to get one from a friend who already has a starter. Since anyone making sourdough will need to divide and discard part of their starter during standard maintenance, they’re usually happy to spread the wealth.
If you don’t know anyone with a starter, you can purchase fresh, frozen and dried starters. I used a dried starter packet from Breadtopia recently, because I wanted to compare it with my old starter. Activation is simple: You just add warm water and a bit of flour according to the package instructions. In just a few days, it creates an active starter.
The third option is to build your own starter from the wild yeast in your area. While this method takes the most time, it’s useful if you don’t have yeast or want to try it the old-fashioned way. If you use this method, your finished starter will be specific to your area since the airborne yeast where you live will be a different strain from what might be floating around another part of the country. Think of it like local honey: this variety will result in a slightly unique flavor for your finished product.
As far as homemade starters go, the King Arthur Flour method is the best I’ve found: Combine 113 grams (1 cup) whole rye flour (pumpernickel) or whole wheat flour with 1/2 cup of cool, non-chlorinated water in a non-reactive container (i.e. non-metal). Note that you use whole grain flour at the beginning of the process. This is because whole grains contain more nutrients and sourdough-friendly microorganisms than all-purpose flour.
Stir everything together thoroughly; make sure there's no dry flour anywhere. Cover the container loosely and let the mixture sit at room temperature (about 70°F) for 24 hours.
You may see no activity at all in the first 24 hours, or you may see a bit of growth or bubbling.
On the second day, discard half the starter (about 1/2 cup), and add to the remaining starter 1 cup of King Arthur Unbleached All-Purpose Flour and 1/2 cup cool water (if your house is warm); or lukewarm water (if it's cold). Mix well, cover, and let the mixture rest at room temperature for 24 hours.
By the third day, you’ll likely see some activity: a fresh or fruity aroma, bubbling and some evidence of expansion. The somewhat darker hue your starter has from the whole wheat will fade as you continue to feed it with all-purpose flour. It’s now time to begin two feedings daily, as evenly spaced as your schedule allows.
For each feeding, stir your starter and weigh out 4 ounces of it. This will be a generous 1/2 cup, once it’s thoroughly stirred. Discard any remaining starter. Add 1 cup of King Arthur Unbleached All-Purpose Flour, and 1/2 cup water to the starter. Mix the starter, flour and water. Cover, and let the mixture rest at room temperature for approximately 12 hours before repeating.
Repeat two-a-day feedings on Days 4 and 5, and as many additional days as it takes for your starter to become very active. You’ll know it’s ready when it appears almost foamy.
When it’s foamy and doubling in size every 4 to 6 hours, give it one last feeding. Discard all but 113 grams (a generous 1/2 cup). Feed as usual. Let the starter rest at room temperature for 4 to 8 hours. It should be active, with bubbles breaking the surface.
Remove however much starter you need for your recipe (no more than 227 grams, or about 1 cup); and transfer the remaining starter (4 ounces) to its permanent home: a crock, jar, etc. Feed it with a cup of flour and 1/2 cup of water.
Keeping Your Starter Healthy
If you bake often, say three to five times a week, keep your starter on the counter at room temperature and feed it daily, or even twice daily if you’re using a lot of it. If you bake less frequently, keep your starter in the refrigerator to slow its growth and feed it only once per week. If your tap water is highly chlorinated, use spring or distilled water since chlorine can slow the starter’s growth.
For countertop storage, stir the starter well, discard all but 1/2 cup and feed. Mix until smooth, and cover. Repeat every 12 hours. Remove 1 cup of starter to bake with when it's expanded and bubbly, then feed the remaining starter immediately; revert to your normal 12-hour schedule for subsequent feedings.
For refrigerator storage, take the starter out of the fridge. Drain off or stir in any light amber or clear liquid on top. Discard all but 1/2 cup of the starter, feed, mix until smooth and cover. Allow the starter to rest at room temperature (about 70°F) for at least 2 hours; this gives the yeast a chance to warm up and start feeding. After about 2 hours, refrigerate again.
What do you do with the discarded or leftover starter from each feeding? Share it with friends and family, bake with it, or store it by freezing or dehydrating in case you ever lose your original batch.
Once your sourdough starter is ready to use, it’s time for all your hard work to pay off. Start with this simple sourdough loaf.
1 cup "fed" sourdough starter
1 1/2 cups lukewarm water
5 cups all-purpose flour, divided
1 tablespoon sugar
2 1/4 teaspoons kosher salt
In a large bowl, combine the starter, water and 3 cups of the flour. Beat vigorously for 1 minute.
Cover, and let rest at room temperature for 4 hours.
Refrigerate overnight, for about 12 hours.
Add the remaining 2 cups flour, sugar and kosher salt.
Knead to form a smooth dough.
Allow the dough to rise in a covered bowl until it's light and airy, with visible gas bubbles. This may take up to 5 hours (or longer), depending on how active your starter is.
Gently shape the dough into an oval loaf and place it on a lightly greased or parchment-lined baking sheet or in a Dutch oven. Cover and let rise until very puffy, or about 2 to 4 hours. This step could take longer – just give it enough time to become fluffy.
Preheat the oven to 425°F.
Spray the loaf with lukewarm water.
Slash the loaf with a sharp knife. Try one slash across the center, and a curved slash on each side; or slash your pattern of choice. For oval loaves, two diagonal slashes are fine. Make the slashes fairly deep. A serrated bread knife works well here.
Bake the bread until it's a deep golden brown, usually 25 to 30 minutes.
Once you have mastered the basic sourdough loaf, experiment with your starter. Try pretzels, pancakes (a favorite around my house) baguettes, biscuits, tortillas, pie crusts and more. Having a sourdough starter and a bag of flour on hand means your family can always enjoy delicious, freshly baked goods – no matter what’s happening at the store.