There are a lot of folks making bread right now. I know this because both flour and yeast have been in short supply at our markets!
Making a loaf of bread from packaged yeast is a lovely way to spend the afternoon, and what tastes better than a slice of homemade bread? I grew up with my mom’s homemade bread and often make her simple white loaf which used the familiar little golden Fleishman’s yeast packets.
But what if yeast is not available?
Mom and I also made bread with a sourdough starter my Aunt Jeanette created from scratch, and it was a lot of fun. We experimented, fell in love with it, and used it for many years because it made such delightful bread.
Link to the past
For thousands of years, bakers leavened bread from fermenting the natural yeast that floats around us in the air and lives on plants! A little of the dough was saved from each batch to “start” the new batch the next day. Over time, this starter grew richer and more active, and the dough more flavorful. Of course, once commercial yeast became available, this shortened the time for the dough fermentation, but the best sourdoughs breads are still made from the original process. A simple combination of flour, water, starter, and salt and you have all you need for a fabulous loaf.
Getting to know your natural yeast
A sourdough starter is a fermentation of just water and flour. Rather than using a package or spoonful of dried commercial yeast, you use a bit of the starter instead. It is much slower to ferment, but has more flavor with a distinctive sour edge. Every starter becomes particular to where it is raised, in both flavor and activity, because of the differences in yeast from one area to the next. You could call it the terroir of natural yeast.
With a little patience and a very little actual time, you can create your own simple combination of flour and water, making use of the natural yeast that surrounds us; there is yeast in the flour as well as the air. This can open up a whole new word of baking. The actual time making a sourdough starter from scratch is minimal, it’s just spread out over a week or more.
In essence, you can begin your starter today and in one week enjoy your first loaf of sourdough bread. You’ve got the time!
Once you create an active starter, you will need to feed it once a week or so to keep it active, My starter, “Ginny Junior,” is over a decade old and has been a staple in my kitchen. I created this starter using grapes from my friend Virginia’s vineyard using a technique I saw in a Julia Child program with Nancy Silverton. The link to this program is here. Nancy Silverman’s Sourdough Starter.
If you don’t have a friend with a vineyard, this is a much easier process, and doesn’t use the grapes at all! I fact, it couldn’t be simpler and all you need is flour and water.
How to make a Sourdough Starter
In a large glass or plastic bowl, combine 4 ounces unbleached all-purpose flour and 4 ounces water. If you don’t have a scale, this is a scant cup of flour and a half cup of water. You can use any type of flour you like, but white, spelt, rye, or whole wheat work best. For those who are gluten sensitive, there is no gluten-free alternative, but many people find they can digest spelt flour much easier because of the nature of the gluten in this ancient grain.
Mix this well, cover loosely, and let sit at room temperature for 24 hours. It likes a warm spot when it is coming to life, so if your kitchen is on the cold side, find the warmest spot you can. Later, when you use the starter in actual baking, a cold ferment will give the best flavor, but for now and when you feed your starter, you want active growth and warmth.
The second day:
The next day, you might already start seeing a few little bubbles appear on the surface of the starter. This is the wild yeast acting, burping actually! Remove 4 ounces of the mixture and discard, add another 4 ounces of flour and water, mix well, and cover for 24 hours. The consistency will be a thick batter.
Days three, four, and five:
Repeat this on days three, four, and five. Usually by day three, you are starting to see a lot of bubbles, certainly by day five. But if not, give it another day or two, especially if your kitchen is cool. If you see a liquid form, that is also part of the process. Just stir it in, or if a lot accumulates, gently pour it off, but it is not necessary.
Days five or six:
At day five or six when the starter is ready to use it will be filled with bubbles and will be thinner in consistency. It will also smell more like sour yeast!
When your starter is ready, you can begin to bake! Oh, one important step, you get to name your starter if you like!
Feeding your starter:
Once a week or so you have to feed your starter, whether you are baking or not. Generally, most recipes call for a cup of fed starter. That means you feed the starter in the morning or night before, leave it at room temperature to work, and then use the fed starter after it has had time to digest its little meal, usually five to 12 hours, and get all bubbly again. I usually feed the starter the night before because it is easier, and it think it is more flavorful.
If baking, the night before, take the starter out, feed it four ounces each of water and flour and let it sit on the counter, covered, overnight. The next day, remove what is needed for the recipe and refrigerate the newly fed starter.
If not baking, discard or give away all but four ounces of the starter, feed it the same diet, and leave it out overnight to work. Refrigerate the next day. If you don’t discard, or give away, you will eventually end up with gallons of starter. It doesn’t take long.
If you bake a lot, like every day, you can keep the starter out on the counter. If not, refrigerate it and bring it out to feed.
For both quick- and long-rise sourdough bread recipes, please go to my pages here:
Making Sourdough Bread
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Love homemade sourdough bread! What a treat!!
It always feels a little like magic to me!
Your Mom taught you a lot of secrets and you’ve kept them well!
Well, now I’m blabbing them all!
You are a wealth of information. I’ve heard people talk about sourdough starter but had no idea how you would do it. Thanks for sharing this.
You’re welcome! It’s surprisingly simple, and incredibly rewarding!
Dorothy, the sixty four thousand dollar question: I divide my week between 2 homes. Are starters portable? 🤭
Yes they are! How long will they have to travel? I would suggest putting the starter in a large jar, feeding it, and it will be ready in 12 hours since it wants to be at room temperature. It will probably like the trip.
I didn’t realize it was just flour and water, wow!! I have made it before from a kit I purchased at King Arthur Flour…I do love sour dough bread, not sure I have the patience for this, but I am tempted to try, thanks Dorothy!
Ah, you can do it Jenna! Just five minutes a day for a week!
Just made my own sourdough starter as well at the beginning of quarantine! I’ve maked twice with it now!
Isn’t it wonderful! It is so simple on one level, but on another it is like a connection with all the people who have baked bread from what was left over from the last.
Feeding your starter
The loaves look a-mazing! Slather with butter. Yum! 🥖
It’s such fun working with sourdough! Isn’t it great how unexpected situations can lead us back in time to how things used to be done, and help us appreciate anew the wisdom of our forefathers and -mothers?
It is good stuff!! I just use the pre-packaged yeast these days, though. I’m too lazy to feed the starter…
I have never tried it! Need to be patient but I guess in the end is all worth it!
It really is! I’ve made tons of starter in the last month and handed it out to folks who could not find yeast, one of the first things to disappear from our markets. I guess the good news is that people are baking bread!
Also here the yeast disappeared but I think only to do a stock definitely not for baking 🤪
I tried my own starter, quite some time ago now, that went a bit wild. It raised up and over the container and had a mind of it’s own (a bit like a sci-fi character). I had to toss it. I should give it a try again. Your success has inspired me to try it again. 🙂
The hard part of starter is discarding or using part of it so you don’t end up with a thousand growing, living, wiggling gallons of it!
Yes, based on what happened with my starter I totally get that!
What a great article. You gave a wonderful explanation of the process. Thanks so much for this.
Hope you give it a try!
I certainly will. 😊👍
I haven’t made sourdough bread in years, but it seems like a good time to “start” again. Great explanation, Dorothy…thanks.
You’re welcome! Happy fermenting, and stay well!
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