Purposefully growing bacteria on the counter in your kitchen? Getting excited when something starts to smell a bit sour? It sounds crazy, but a sourdough starter filled with beneficial probiotics is a brilliant addition the healthy natural lifestyle that anyone who is interested in herbs is probably trying to develop!
What is a Sourdough Starter?
A sourdough starter is simply a mixture of flour and pure water. It attracts lactic acid producing bacteria from the air in your house that causes it to ferment. After about 5-7 days of fermenting, your mixture of flour and water will be a bubbly, fluffy, pleasantly sour smelling, and ready to use!
Serious sourdough baking can become an obsession/religion once you start researching it, which is what kept me from jumping in and trying it for so long. It felt like I was trying to decipher another language when I was just trying to find a recipe to bake a loaf of bread! In my experience, sourdough baking has been a lot more flexible and forgiving than I was afraid of, so I would strongly suggest giving it a shot!
I know there is already a multitude of articles and blogs about sourdough starter and bread but I wanted to add my take for a few reasons.
- My recipes are completely dairy free. I was getting annoyed by the blogs advertising their starters or bread as dairy free then mentioning it includes whey or yogurt. Really? I’m very allergic to dairy, so you can trust that mine is actually dairy free!
- My recipes are super simple. My sourdough starter uses 2 ingredients and my bread uses 3 ingredients. Can’t get much easier than that!
- I’m guessing people who are interested in herbs are also interested in maintaining their health naturally & cost effectively. Making sourdough bread is a great healthy addition to a natural lifestyle.
- I have written out sourdough instructions for a few different friends by now, and want one central place where everyone (including me!) can reference some useful information when they need it!
The Benefits of Growing Sourdough Starter
Why bother keeping a sourdough starter alive and putting effort into making your own sourdough bread? I’m working on a post on the many benefits of sourdough bread vs. using regular store-bought yeast, or just buying bread, but here a few benefits to encourage you to make your starter;
- Sourdough bread tastes AMAZING. I love love love the tangy, sour flavor of homemade sourdough bread. It adds such an amazing kick to everything from sandwiches to french toast to bread crumbs.
- Sourdough bread is easier to digest, unlike yeasted bread, which “diminishes, even destroys much of the grain’s nutritional value.” (Jacques Delangre)
- Making Sourdough bread is convenient, if you do it right. Check out my sourdough recipe (posting tomorrow) to see how I keep my family in delicious, fresh sourdough bread with maybe 10 minutes of work every other day.
- Baking with natural leaven is in harmony with nature and maintains the integrity and nutrition of the cereal grains used . . . The process helps to increase and reinforce our body’s absorption of the cereal’s nutrients.” (Jacques Delangre)
- Being able to maintain your own supply of yeast for baking and make your own amazing healthy bread with only flour & salt, which can be bought in bulk & stored, is a great step towards being more self sufficient.
How to Make a Sourdough Starter
- The first step in making a sourdough starter is finding a suitable container to store it in. Find something large enough to allow you to feed your starter every day and still leave room for the starter itself to grow, if not double. A container that is at least 2 quarts should do the trick. Something with a wide mouth is also most convenient for dumping ingredients in (especially with a toddler helping.) Also, if you are planning on leaving your starter in the fridge, don’t forget to make sure that it will fit on a shelf. Glass is most highly recommended, but I am using a large plastic mayonnaise container that is working just fine. Eventually I want to get a pretty glass canister or crock to put on my counter, but first I need to prove to myself that I will stick with baking my own sourdough bread for more than a few months.
- After you have a container, it is a simple matter of adding equal amounts of flour and water. Add 2 cups of flour and 2 cups of water to your container and stir together. Some people passionately suggest spelt or rye, but really any flour will do. I use organic white flour, and it has worked wonderfully. Chlorinated water can cause an issue with allowing the sourdough starter to ferment though, so I would suggest using bottled water or filtered water to feed your starter if chlorinated water is an issue. (Our well water works great.) Your starter should be about the consistency of a pancake or cake batter. A note about adding honey as some recipes suggest; Nourishing Traditions says that, “Honey encourages the proliferation of yeasts at the expense of lactic-acid producing bacteria and may give you an alcoholic fermentation.” Don’t do it.
- Once your starter is mixed you will need to cover the top with a few layers of cheese cloth or a coffee filter so it still allows air to pass through, but keeps the bugs out! I leave a plastic mixing spoon in my starter since I use it every day and just poked a hole in my coffee filter to allow the handle to stick out.
- Place your starter in a warm environment (room temperature is fine) and wait until you begin to see bubbles forming; this means that it is starting to ferment! After it begins to ferment, feed it each day with 1/4 to 1/2 cup of flour and an equal amount of water. Remembering to feed it is very important. If you do not provide fresh flour for the good bacteria to eat, bad bacteria and mold will take over. You should see your starter growing, but don’t worry about it actually doubling; mine hasn’t and it has produced some awesome bread.
After 5-7 days of feeding, you should have a bubbly, fluffy, pleasantly sour smelling starter that is ready to be used for baking!
Are you sure it’s safe to use?
If you are worried about being able to tell if your starter is good or bad, don’t be! I have neglected other sourdough starters in the past & you can clearly see black mold growing on the sides of the container and scum forming on top of the starter. It also develops a nasty smell. It is very obviously not safe to use and needs to be thrown away. A good, safe sourdough starter will have a yummy sourdough-smell to it, bubbles, and a fluffy texture similar to when you add baking powder to a pancake recipe and leave it a few minutes.
Storing & Using your Sourdough Starter
If you plan to bake frequently, leave your sourdough starter out on the counter and remember to feed it every day! This is what I do since I bake a loaf of bread very 2-3 days. I put mine near the sink so I see it and remember to feed it when I am doing dishes.
If you do not plan to bake as frequently, you can store your starter in the fridge and pull it out to feed it once a week. When you are planning to bake, bring your starter out, let it rise to room temperature, and feed it the day before you bake so it is awake & ready to go. Honestly I find the idea of having to plan ahead to remember to pull the starter out of the fridge irritating. I have been much more successful just leaving the starter out so it is ready to use whenever I randomly decide to bake something or realize at 9:30 at night that we are almost out of bread and I need to bake. (Check out my sourdough recipe tomorrow to see how this works so well for me!)
And that’s it; the first step in providing healthy, delicious, cheap bread for your family!