Sourdough starter is a mixture of flour, water, wild yeast and healthy bacteria that is used as a natural levain to make delicious sourdough bread and other sourdough goodies. If you learn how to feed sourdough starter and maintain it, it will last years and can even be passed down through generations! It’s an amazing thing to have on hand in the kitchen.
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People typically associate sourdough with sourdough bread, and that’s the extent of their knowledge (at least it was for me before I made my own sourdough starter)! But why would anyone want to make sourdough bread or have a sourdough starter, and what exactly does it all mean? Let’s break it all down!
WHAT IS SOURDOUGH STARTER?
Sourdough starter, at a high level, is simply flour and water, but it’s really so much more than that. When you create your sourdough starter, you’re harvesting wild yeast that is in your surroundings. Yeah, that sounds really weird to think about, but it’s true. You’re also harvesting natural bacteria, including lactic acid, that is actually good bacteria for your body.
How sourdough starter works is all about the wild yeast. To reproduce, the yeast inside your starter needs sugars, which they can find in the flour that you feed it. They then break down and convert these sugars, during a process called alcoholic fermentation, into ethanol and carbon dioxide. At this point when the yeast have had time to work, you’ll see air bubbles in the starter, and this is what’s called an active starter. Those bubbles are what helps dough rise as well.
When you add active sourdough starter to bread dough, or another recipe, and allow it to ferment for a long period of time (usually 12-24 hours), what happens during that fermentation process is the yeast and lactic acid break down the phytic acid that is present in the grains (or flour) that you’ve added into your recipe. Phytic acid is known as an anti-nutrient that can hinder the absorption of some minerals in the body. It also makes gluten difficult for the body to digest. It is said that some people with a gluten sensitivity (not Celiac disease) are able to eat sourdough because of that breakdown in phytic acid.
Sourdough starter can replace modern yeast in bread, and although it does take longer for the dough to rise, it ends up being a much more nutritious loaf. Inactive starter, also known as sourdough discard, is great to add to recipes to add a depth of flavor and again, those beneficial bacteria. If you have a sourdough starter already, you can start making sourdough goodies like these sourdough pretzel buns and sourdough sweet potato muffins!
HOW TO MAKE SOURDOUGH STARTER
Here are a few links to easy ways to create your very own sourdough starter:
- Little Spoon Farm: How to Make Sourdough Starter
- Farmhouse on Boone: How to Make a Sourdough Starter From Scratch
- Mary’s Nest: Complete Sourdough Starter Guide
- Sourdough for Beginners
HOW TO MAINTAIN SOURDOUGH STARTER
Once you’ve established your sourdough starter, now you have to maintain it. If maintained correctly, it’s something you can share with others and pass down to your kids or you can continue to share with others as well. Sourdough starters keep for generations!
There are two ways you can store your sourdough starter.
- Store at Room Temperature
- Keep your sourdough starter in a glass container on the counter.
- Feed the starter every 12 hours
- Keep a clean tea towel over top the container in between feedings
- This method is best if you’ll be using your starter daily
- Store in the Refrigerator
- Feed starter then cover with a clean tea towel
- Allow starter to sit for 8-12 hours at room temperature
- Once nice and bubbly, cover with an airtight lid and store in the refrigerator
- Feed once every 7-10 days or up to every 2 weeks
- Best for occasional use
HOW TO FEED SOURDOUGH STARTER
- Remove your sourdough starter from the refrigerator and take off the lid.
- Drain off the gray liquid on top or stir it in. This liquid is called hooch and it is the alcohol that is produced when the wild yeast ferments. It’s not a bad thing, but it does let you know that your starter is hungry and is ready to be fed!
- Stir your starter thoroughly
- Cover your starter with a clean tea towel and allow to come to room temperature (about 3-4 hours)
- Once your starter is at room temperature, you can choose to remove a portion of the starter and discard it or keep everything in the bowl and feed it.
- For a 100% hydration in your starter, you want to feed it approximately equal amounts of flour and filtered water.
- Feed it at least as much as there is starter. For example, if you have a cup of starter, you want to feed it at least ½ cup flour, ½ cup water, if not more.
- I typically feed it 1 cup flour, one cup water. Sometimes I’ll add a little more flour to have it be a thicker consistency because it does thin out as it starts to ferment.
- Stir the flour and water in, cover with a tea towel and allow to sit 8-12 hours before use. It should be nice and bubbly now.
- Stir it once more before use.
- Once you’re done using your starter, cover with an airtight lid and place it back into the refrigerator!
- Feed again in 7-10 days.
SOURDOUGH STARTER DO’S AND DON’TS
- Don’t cover the container you keep your sourdough in with anything that is airtight unless it’s in storage in the refrigerator.
- Do place a tea towel or something that is porous on the container to allow that collection of yeast and bacteria and for airflow.
- Don’t use tap water that contains chlorine to feed your starter because it can kill the starter.
- Do use filtered water or bottled water to feed your starter.
- Don’t wait too long in between feedings.
- Do feed your starter every 7-10 days or even up to two weeks (but try not to go that long)
I hope this was helpful for you in starting your sourdough journey and I wish you years and years of sourdough recipes!